New New Media

01.25.14

Why the Washington Post Switched Bloggers

Look past Jeff Bezos’s politics. Wonkblogger Ezra Klein’s departure—and his successor—should be celebrated by the most serious news junkies.

Here in the media bubble, there’s a lot of inside-baseball speculation about why, pretty much as soon as Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, the venerable paper chose to do without marquee Wonkblogger Ezra Klein—and scooped up the group blog of veteran lawblogger Eugene Volokh. In partisan terms, Occam’s Razor would lead us to believe that Team Klein is out and Team Volokh is in because Bezos, some kind of libertarian, prefers libertarian-ish bloggers to neoliberal-ish ones.

Of the three players in this microdrama, it’s Bezos I don’t know, so I can’t say for sure that His Entrepreneurness hasn’t made a strictly ideological decision. But the bigger picture is so significant that I really don’t care—and neither should you.

What’s so important that we should actually just bracket the question of partisan preferences at the paper of record in our nation’s capital? Nothing less than… the fate of old-school blogging.

No, seriously. Volokh’s partnership with the Post raises urgent questions about why “serious” blogging started to happen in the first place; why “serious” bloggers got hired, almost en masse, to “establishment” media outlets in the latter half of the last decade; and why we still have a decisive choice to make about the way we think about, talk about, and publish strong commentaries about the news—the stuff that gives people intelligent access to critical reasoning about what’s happening in the world.

It’s been remarkable to watch Klein single-mindedly transform his personal blog into a well-oiled city-state of news analysis. Heaven knows I never had that kind of discipline. On the other hand, there never was much of a market for the industrialization of my own personal blog, which started picking up steam not that long after Klein’s did. My meandering expeditions into the alleged news relevance of arcane social and political theory did culminate in a group blog with a home at a nationally recognized publication. But they were virtually the opposite product from the valuable one Klein’s Wonkblog offered—the quant’s guide to policy, digital nerdery that anyone with a good attention span could use.

Bezos’s choice of bloggers allows us to think seriously once again about the independent media value of politics and policy commentary that’s rooted in concept-driven reasoning.

That’s got to be a fun thing to do if it really chimes with your talents and ambition. It became a successful thing to do, however, because it chimed with the tenor of the times. In the Obama era, a critical mass of elites and their fans shared an active desire for news analysis delivered by smarter-than-average, younger-than-average journalists—reporters with fact-ninja skills that confirmed America’s leading cultural biases in favor of big data, perpetual number crunching, content-rich visuals, and rapid information turnover.

There are lots of reasons why that stuff captures powerful imaginations today. And there are strong reasons why a person who could make a reputation and a profit off supplying that stuff should do so. Yet the function of blogging in a big-media context is not a zero-sum game. Ezra Klein hasn’t been killed off and replaced by Eugene Volokh. Entrepreneurial churn at a large newspaper keeps institutions fresher and individual talents nimbler. The Wonkblog species of big-media blogging isn’t going away. But—and here’s the key—the Volokh species of big-media blogging is now just beginning to come into its own.

If you’re curious just what that might be, give Will Wilkinson a read. He’s one of the aforementioned first-generation “serious” bloggers, and he’s still at it—if a bit mournfully. “We all lost something when the first-gen blogs and bloggers got bought up,” he’s recently blogged. “Or, at any rate, those bloggers lost something. I’m proud of us all, but there’s also something ruinous about our success, such as it is. We left the garden behind. A guy’s got to eat. I mostly stopped blogging for myself because I thought I couldn’t afford to give it away. But I miss the personal gift economy of the original blogosphere, I miss the self it helped me make, and I want at least a little of it back.”

Consider, in that light, what could happen with Volokh at the Post. The motto atop the new Volokh Conspiracy blog is pretty arresting: “Mostly law professors, blogging about whatever we want since 2002.” This isn’t a news-crunching operation. Even more important, however, is what’s at work behind the seemingly arbitrary approach to the blog’s news coverage: the how.

Unlike Team Klein, Team Volokh didn’t build its brand on quant. Instead, more like my own blog, the Volokh Conspiracy gained an audience and achieved relevance thanks to its sustained level of qualitative analysis. Only, unlike my blog, Volokh’s focused on issues of patently immediate concern to regular Americans and elites alike—major Supreme Court decisions and the like. Team Volokh is that rare body of new-media stars who can analyze major policy developments without deploying a single charticle.

In today’s media climate, that’s a big deal. As it happens, that kind of “endurance qualitative analysis” is much of what America’s best and brightest old-school bloggers lost when their personal blogs went corporate. Rather than keeping readers enriched at a brisk but measured pace of long-distance commentary sustained regularly over time, freshly recruited big-media bloggers had to adjust to an infotainment environment in which content, clicks, coverage, and courtship of thinkfluentials all had to move at increasing speeds.

But wait—Volokh’s debut at the Post isn’t just about giving qualitative news analysis its rightful seat at the cool kids’ table of intellectation. Volokh’s brand helps widen the field for the specific kind of “qual” that old-school blogging brought to the mainstream: not the “longreads” of today, sold to popular audiences as useful and entertaining because of their narratives and reportage. Bezos’s choice of bloggers allows us to think seriously once again about the independent media value of politics and policy commentary that’s rooted in concept-driven reasoning—the kind of work done by “public intellectuals,” and America’s first wave of “serious” bloggers, at their best. 

Jeff Bezos may not single-handedly renovate the old-school blog economy of personal gifts that Wilkinson mourns. But he might just give America the excuse it needs to rediscover the kind of “opinion journalism” that can.