An Army of Me and a Couple of My Friends

Monday, January 01, 2007
I came across blogs some years ago by following Andrew Sullivan, whom I had previously read in The New Republic. From him I was led to Instapundit, who seemed a refreshing new voice in the wilderness of punditry. Someone who has a national following, is not crazy, and believes intelligently in the Second Amendment? This was indeed something new. But though Professor Reynolds possesses a supple and broad mind, it is in the end but one mind, and after a while his incessant harping on the same five or so topics began to bore. One of those five being how great this new thing, blogs, was going to be, and how it was going to unseat the monolith formerly known as The Media. Such a prolific writer naturally wrote a book on the topic, An Army of Davids, extolling the power of millions of little people battling valiantly against the media giant. As with the earlier wave of internet overhype, the dot-bomb era, there were various reasons adduced by Glenn to bolster his case that this time things would be different.

Mind you, I'm as opposed to the Media Monolith as the next guy, for the simple reason that all of these media companies which purport to be channeling different viewpoints in point of fact are all colocated in the same small space within the Northeast Megalopolis known as BosWash, most of them actually a short walk from one another in Manhattan. What might appear to the uninitiated as separate sources of information turns out for the most part to be the product of the same tiny group of people who all attended the same schools, work in the same jobs, have the same history together, and attend the same parties. It's not that they are lying to us, but rather that they merely all agree with each other and, like Pauline Kael's infamous exclamation of skepticism over Nixon, simply cannot believe that intelligent people could possibly disagree with the thoughts of the bright minds contained within their peer group. It's not malicious, but it is a blindness, one which does the country no good, because the vaunted free flow of information it ain't. A country of over 300 million consciousnesses needs more than the thoughts of seven original people as a basis for reasonable policy choices.

So it was with great joy that I first encountered the blogs, hopeful that we were indeed on the cusp of a new better era for information. Yet I soon discovered another serious problem with them. While even the liveliest writers like Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan become boring with time, I can live with that given enough inputs. No, exactly like the traditional media they criticized, these bloggers had produced a model which consisted of them writing and me and all the other Davids reading. In other words, exactly as before, I was relegated to the role of passive consumer of someone else's product. Far from an army, there were only a couple of designated generals, and far from allowing any Davids to join, no visible means of participation or feedback existed. Believing for a while that these writers were sincere in their stated aim of being a new medium for the masses, a couple of emails to each of them quickly shocked me back to reality: meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Far from wanting a new model, these writers simply wanted to be the ones in charge of filling the endless maw that is the anonymous "public". People like me in other words.

But then Instapundit led me to Roger Simon's blog, where there were comments, and the comments weren't garbage; some of the liveliest most intelligent discussion to be found anywhere was found within his comment section. I entered this discussion with trepidation after some months of lurking and participating in that discussion quickly became my chief passion for a few months. Hope again reared its enticing head and with the advent of Pajamas Media, it appeared that a new day was about to dawn for the whole concept of an internet-based amateur-based media service after all. True, PJM got off to a rocky start, with some rather nasty birthing pains (cf. Dennis the Peasant's blog for more information), but the whole concept seemed to be larger than petty squabbles, grander than any particular pair of erstwhile blogging partners whose relationship had come to an ignominious and inharmonious end.

Now, some years on, PJM has had the chance to prove itself. It's a fair time to see what progress has been made. To what degree have they solved the two cardinal problems of blogging, 1) that having only a few writers is boring, and 2) that there is no interactivity?

A quick perusal of PJM shows that problem 1) is somewhat solved. There are a number of writers listed on their blogroll, thirty or so, surely enough to keep a jaundiced reader entertained for at least a while. Poking through the list is rather disappointing though because these writers tend to have mostly the same opinions and to be interested on a daily basis in mostly the same subjects. And thirty or forty is hardly an "army". Up toward the top of the page the real story starts to emerge. When we find the editors and major contributors, it's Gerard van der Leun, it's Roger Simon, it's Glenn Reynolds, it's Victor Davis Hanson—all very fine writers 'tis true, all people who can write rings around me with their laptops closed. Still, bottom line, it's the same tiny set of people that Glenn Reynolds and Roger Simon were linking to years ago, the same tiny circle of friends linking to each other, with the little people (the "Davids") in flyover country allowed to read of the shoulders of the self-appointed greats. Is this so much better than the well-known incestuousness of the traditional media? One hardly is persuaded.

And where is the much-ballyhooed interactivity, the mechanism by which the new medium of the internet would transform the world of media to a boiling kettle of innovation, the garage band of the information economy? PJM does possess a comment section, but there don't appear to be (m)any comments. No one is participating, no one is interacting. Beyond the chance to be a distant echo to one of the Army of Good Blogging Friends, there doesn't seem to be any option to create one's own content. YouTube seems to offer superior prospects to me and thee.

I'm afraid the cold light of reality is shining on PJM at this juncture rather harshly. Far from having produced something new and interesting and involving, it seems to consist mostly of half-stale links back to the blogs of the Army of Good Blogging Friends, simply a warmed-over and more expensive version of what Instapundit was already producing in the first place. Where's the gain? Where's the value-added? There aren't many minds involved. There doesn't seem to be much news being disseminated, only opinion, and it's very very incestuous. I remain hopeful that the advent of the internet will indeed lead to a new level of community discussion and debate, a new era of community-based media, but I am sad to conclude that PJM is nothing but an empty shell of its original promise.

22 comments:

reliapundit said...

u make some excellent points.

pjm needs to be more corner-like as far as the dialog goes.

and instead of a scroll for whatever, maybe they need "spheres of interest" sections. (i don't know exactly what i mean by this yet. but when i do i'll email rog'!)

i think a network of smaller group blogs might be better.

i just made my blog a group blog and i think it's working well.

8 righties from around the world with a variety of interests. not just ww4.

check it out.

love your feedback.

terrye said...

MHA:


I agree with you here, 100%. In fact I said something like this over at Roger's before I ever saw your post.Only I did not say it so well or so completely.

BTW, you are never boring. And reliapundit mentioned this post of yours over at Roger's.

Fresh Air said...

Very good points about the Eastern Ideologues running today's Big Media (into the ground).

I think PJM has to crawl before it can sprint. I am less concerned about comments over there, which would be a magnet for trolls interested in dumping on the parade.

Instead, what they should focus on is the distributed news-gathering function. I wrote this to Roger offline a couple of years ago. He said that's what would happen, but it hasn't.

What PJM should be, IMHO, is a paid (yes, for $$, though not much) online newsmagazine with local reports--not blog posts--from around the world. Just the facts, please. We can do the analysis (or Glenn can). Whatever. We simply need the unvarnished information.

There is a vast difference between opinion writing and reporting, and PJM has yet to span that. I'm sure Roger can ask Cathy Seipp if he doesn't understand.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Reliapundit,

I think you raise a good point which, upon reflection, I did not emphasize sufficiently, to wit: blogs will never be anything but a pale shadow of the MSM unless and until they start producing compelling original content of their own. Somebody's opinion about somebody's opinion about somebody's opinion about a news article in the NYT just isn't that compelling. That they aren't doing this already is easily attributalbe to the difference between being paid to do something (MSM) and doing something voluntarily (blogs). In the latter case, people are seldom going to do anything that isn't fun, so no grunt work, no dirty work.

Skookumchuk said...

MHA:

We will eventually have to pay for exactly that - salaries, travel budgets, the whole thing. And I have no problem with that, so long as the system doesn't further stratify itself in to one of writers and passive readers a la the MSM. In other words, all contributors to a group blog should be paying subscribers and potential reporters on the blog. Now, deciding who gets to go to Afghanistan with a portion of the travel budget and then write about their experiences is an interesting issue. There would have to be some mechanism as to how that is determined. We - in the blogosphere sense of "we" - had best get working on that one.

Seneca the Younger said...

Folks --- Roger wrote me to say he wasn't able to post a comment (google isn't letting him log in for some reason) so he asked me to post this for him:
Thanks for the feedback. It may interest you to know that we are working on a Pajamas Media forum set up for later in Jan.

Sorry you missed our original reporting. Lucky for us Drudge didn't and linked us six times in the last few weeks. It's been a while coming, but original reporting is where we're headed now.

Roger Simon

Seneca the Younger said...

On the travel budget aspect, I think Roggio, Ardolino, Totten, and Yon are already showing us how that will happen: it'll be by subscription, much as Mark Twain did some of his later books. PJM and other sites, like Powerline, may be able to make big subscription, once they are (if they ever are) bringing in big cash flows.

But --- with the Long Tail effect again --- it may not require that much. If everyone who reads Instapundit were to send $5, Glenn could damn near buy tickets to Mars.

loner said...

On this day of mourning for President Ford, while people here and elsewhere are once again discussing journalism as if it mattered and heroes as if they matter, I thought I'd reproduce an excerpt from the published screenplay of one of the great movies released during the period of time when Gerald R. Ford was President of the United States of America. Only some of this dialogue survived the final edit. It is the first words spoken in an Academy-Award-winning performance and is delivered under narration.

Good evening. It is Monday, September the Twenty-Second, Nineteen Seventy-Five, and, today, a shot was fired at President Ford's motorcade in San Francisco. The President was unharmed. The incident happened late this afternoon, and we still do not have a filmed report. The shot was fired as Mr. Ford was leaving the St. Francis Hotel on his way to the San Francisco Airport. The President was shaking hands with people in front of the hotel when the shooting occurred. Secret Service agents rushed Mr. Ford into his car, and the motorcade went immediately to the airport. Police arrested a man with a six-shot revolver in his possession, although there is some confusion about this. Our last reports indicate the attempted assassination may have been made by a woman. In any event, this is the second attempt on the President's life in eighteen days, and we will have a comment to make about that later in the program. Right now, though, we have a telephone report from Halsted Mayberry in San Francisco. Halsted, are you there?

—Paddy Chayefsky, Network

Paddy Chayefsky was one of my journalism-trained, skeptic of a father's heroes. Rod Serling was another.

The direction immediately preceeding the dialogue transcribed above reads:

CAMERA MOVES IN to isolate. Howard Beale, who is everything an anchorman should be—fifty-eight years old, silver-haired, magisterial, dignified to the point of divinity.

I'm reminded of another fictional journalist of the time:

It all started in a five thousand watt radio station in Fresno, California...

Journalism still mattered then, but its importance was fading and Network identified why that was so—it doesn't pay. I've written before that my father only offered me two pieces of career advise which both amounted to: Don't do what I did. He found military service mostly tedious and annoying and when it wasn't he often wished it were. He thought there wasn't much of a living to be made in journalism if you did it right unless you were an extremely gifted writer. On military service I only doubted him until I was out of his house. On journalism I doubted (and not because I ever thought I was much of a writer) for a good long while before concluding sometime in the '80s that few, if any, really, day in and day out, cared enough about having it done right to pay what that would cost.

That being written, I wish those who are trying to do it right (and make it pay) whatever success they may someday achieve. Wretchard posted The Blogosphere At War last Thursday. It's an interesting read. An absent (lurking?) contributor here asked a good question based, in large part, on the last three sentences of the monograph in the comments.

WRETCHARD:

The blogosphere does not contain any preordained political or cultural bias. Structurally, however, it is extremely hostile to cant and disinformation. The political side which tells the most lies and falsehoods is likely to suffer more at its hands than one which hews more closely to the observable truth.

JAMIE IRONS:

To me the most interesting hypothesis (it still seems to have the epistemological status of an hypothesis) is that the blogosphere tends to favor those parties with more "truth" on its side.

You would think that would tend to extinguish the readership of the hard left blogs, like Kos and Huffpo.

But don't the statistics assert that these still get the most traffic?


WRETCHARD:

Discounting the obvious head cases and filtering out the noise, the blogosphere has been putting out a remarkably faithful signal. That's not to say it is perfect, but only relatively better than the old agenda and access journalism with which we have lived so long.

Perhaps, on good days, but even then that's not saying much. It is, however, what most people focus on and focus on and focus on. I focused on the first two sentences in the monograph.

There is considerable interest in the idea that "blogs" are somehow able to offset the mainstream media's (MSM) ability to sell a given narrative to the public, a power which is of considerable interest in peace and even more so in war. It is widely recognized that molding public perceptions through narratives is nearly as important in war as the outcomes on the actual battlefield.

Whether journalism matters again will, in my opinion, depend on whether this or that medium and message plays and, thus far, the biggest shortcoming of the new media is in its inability to consistantly create and deliver a narrative which engages that huge segment of "the public" which is normally indifferent to or antagonistic towards the interests and views of its creators.

To almost close, two journalists:

Historian: An unsuccessful novelist —H.L. Mencken

History: An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools. —Ambrose Bierce

To, in all ways, better narratives in 2007.

P.S.: I was eighteen in 1976. Gerald Ford, survivor of two assassination attempts, is the first person for whom I voted to be my President on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. May he rest in peace.

terrye said...

Loner:

Yes, Ford was a decent man who did his best and I think that is all we can ask of anyone.

I read something years ago in the Washington Post that it is still pertinent today. It was written by thier ombudsman. He made mention of the fact that some time after WW2 the reporter lost contact with the public. He said that one of the great movements of the time, the Civil Right movement took most of the media by surprise, because they did not know anyone who was involved in the civil rights movement. The same he said was true with other social changes...reporters had become journalists and instead of hanging out in bars with working people they were hanging out at dinner parties with the important people, the folks who run things. As a result they began to report on average Americans from afar, not as a member of the general public.

I think that the media has in a way become a victim of their own success.

chuck said...

On the travel budget aspect, I think Roggio, Ardolino, Totten, and Yon are already showing us how that will happen...

They risk the NPR fundraiser syndrome. There is also the problem that folks after money are likely to manufacture what sells.

I like reading Totten, Roggio, and Yon, but I expect their pay and employment is an uncertain thing, with no medical insurance, unemployment or disability benefits, or retirement. It is hard to see how they can continue such a precarious existence for long. Except for Yon: he seems happily singular and addicted to extreme situations.

Newspapers don't make their money from subscribers, they make it from advertizing. The newspaper format is also the result of long term evolution and adaptation. I just wish that the reporting was more honest and that folks like Roggio could find positions. And why can't such folks find positions? In the 1930's folks like JFC Fuller and Liddell Hart were writing on military matters for such publications as the London Times. It seems to me there has been a marked decrease in the expertise of the people writing for the papers, and this is part of a larger problem brought on by journalistic credentialing, newspaper consolidation, and a shrinking market. One thing the new media can offer is an opportunity for thinkers and analysts shut out of the mainstream media to have a public forum. There aren't many such people yet, but there are enough to make hanging out on the internet worthwhile.

I think the larger lesson to be learned is that gathering and selling news is hard. I don't know the answers, nor do I think anyone else can make that claim. We are in new territory and what works is still something to be discovered through experimentation. At least Roger is willing to take risks and devote a lot of work to the attempt. Whether it will all pay off someday, no one knows. But someone has to make the effort in order to find out.

And of course, we need better technology. Sitting before a LCD monitor with a computer humming in the background is no way to read, IMHO. It is the same problem I have with electronic books. Maybe I am just old fashioned, but printed paper is a hell of a good technology and hard to beat.

Seneca the Younger said...


I like reading Totten, Roggio, and Yon, but I expect their pay and employment is an uncertain thing, with no medical insurance, unemployment or disability benefits, or retirement. It is hard to see how they can continue such a precarious existence for long.


Chuck, you just described every free-lance writer on Earth.

There are even free-lance photojournalists out there; what's-his-name Cooper on CNN started out that way. (I'll grant that, being as he's a Vanderbilt trust-fund baby, he had a leg up.)

Seneca the Younger said...

You're right about the tendency to report what pays, but the point of the "long tail" in this context is that there will be more groups willing to pay; as long as there's competition, there will be a tendency to get more and better information.

Seneca the Younger said...

I can not for the life of me figure out how blogger made that into two posts.

Loner, your comment there would make a good post; why not move it up? Or I can.

truepeers said...

There are exceedingly few individual bloggers with the talent and/or drive to make it worthwhile reading them on a daily basis (and then if you don't go daily it is hard to find the good stuff when you want to read them...). There are some who manage to scrounge what I imagine to be rather few bucks from their readers; but only the true missionaries will keep going year after year unless people stop taking the internet and all the free stuff on it for granted; i see few signs that many will and suspect that a lot of people who spend a lot of time on the net are on relatively tight budgets to start.

So there must be a place for group blogs that can be great while demanding less of the indivudal writer. But I think the idea that there is greatness to be found in some non-traditional, intelligent amateur conversation has its limits. One's freedom is always limited by others' use of their freedom and the intelligent and concerted drawing of these limits is part of any successful enterprise in amateur or professional freedom.

Perhaps a "gentlemanly" code can develop that few will abuse, if honour grows again as a social value, a code that can serve many needs without more formal organization. But I think that historically, unwritten codes of conduct have always complemented more fomal means of amateur (and professional) or voluntary organization; conflicts are inevitable in any group and where they are not resolved by democratic and constitutional means, they fester or tear people apart.

If blogs are to have any hope of raising funds to send the occasional reporter on a trip, etc., group blogs should develop constitutions and codes that allow, democratically, for both democracy and some hierarchy in decision making and direction, to arbitrate conflicts, set goals and procedures, etc.

Indeed what is potentially of interest to readers and contributors is how a group with a general sense of a shared purpose is able to adapt and evolve a founding covenant or purpose to the various trials and debates of a shared public life and history. A periodic accounting, through democratic means open to the participation of writers and funders (and the more one gives, the more say one should have, up to a point where democracy is preserved), would create long-term interests, famous and ongoing "historical" conflicts, and loyalties in a way that an undisciplined blog cannot provide. (Take, for analogy, a school where competing camps and ideologies fight over the years, all the while keeping together as a whole from fear of hanging separately with few funds).

Blogs should provide their readers and writers with some kind of ownership stake (whose value can rise and fall with the blog's appeal wither to advertisers, or to readers wanting to have their voice or vote valued). There should be some way to reward the more popular writers with more space and attention. A blog that sees its space as a limitless resource abuses the reality that our readers have limited time, as it buries the good stuff in the not-so-good stuff.

I expect over time that winning formulae for blogs will develop through experimentation with penny stocks of various kinds for readers and corresponding rewards for writers Even when the financial stakes are very small, formal ownership creates interest. But, of course, it only works if bloggers really want to compete for readers and not live with vaguely utopian notions that this is not somehow necessary. Such competition can engender a creative tension, a productive paradox: when you address yourself to readers, and do not simply follow your own blogging heart, you must learn how better to perform for others, but at the risk of compromising your interest to readers who always want to know what really moves someone else for what he or she is. People still want authors and distinctive authorial voices and yet most poeple, i imagine, don't want to read blogs where people are just doing whatever.

Barry Dauphin said...

I'd suggest both loner's and truepeers' comments would be good posts on the main page (echoing Seneca and extending that a bit).

Skookumchuk said...

I agree with Barry.

Luther McLeod said...

Blog's, at least blog's for the masses, will not be mainstream, until far into the future.

By mainstream, I mean the 90 percent of folks who do not get their news from blog's.

I do not mean to say that blog's do not have impact or influence. They do.

Though for now the MSM (my local fish-wrap) ignores that which they wish to ignore. With no repercussions.

Sorry, but I do not see an immediate future when folks go to their computer for the day's news, other than us (proportionally) geeky nerds.

I have tried for years too entice others to participate, without success. People still think Cronkite was the cat's pajama's.

Skookumchuk said...

Well, what we can do now is draw attention to the shortcomings of the MSM in a way that some sympathetic members of the MSM can then broadcast to a much wider audience. By the same token, we can keep highlighting important stories that the MSM must in some way eventually cover.

The question is how to expand beyond that and truepeers and others have touched on what we need at this juncture.

loner said...

Seneca—

I put it here as a comment because of its length. Seeing that MHA and terrye had so recently posted rather long and interesting essays, I didn't feel comfortable pushing their work down the scroll so early in the day. I'm fine with it staying here, but if you and other readers think it would be better placed as a topic then, by all means, move it. Thanks.

Syl said...

Blogs are just a tiny part of the web and political/newsy opinion are only a subset of blogs.

TV is ubiquitous but even there most people get their news at 6 o'clock from the major networks (that track the print media closely). Only news and political junkies watch the cable news stations with more than passing interest.

IOW I don't think blogs influence public opinion all that much except through their impact on the print media (where blog opinion is sometimes noted).

One item of proof to me is that so much information on Iraq is available on the 'net, yet the majority of people form their opinion through network tv and print media rather than accessing the material directly. That's why 'civil war' in Iraq is believed to be true as is the belief that the sunni-shia divisions among the Iraqi people are so deep that unity is impossible.

I don't think the 'Army of Davids' will accomplish what we hope it will, but Pajamas Media could by simply becoming an alternate AP or Reuters--a news feeder to major media. If Pajamas is accepted as such, its income would come from subscriptions.

Though Pajamas would rely on bloggers and individuals out in the field as its 'employees', the blogosphere itself and its 'army' would have little to do with it.

IOW, though Pajamas was born from the ideals and aspirations of the blogosphere, it will only succeed in truly influencing the mainstream media by becoming a part of it.

terrye said...

loner:

I am stealing that comment and posting it.

If it is ok with truepeers I will do the same with his or he can. They are both very interesting.

Linda Morgan said...

It’s past my bedtime and I confess that I’ve only skimmed the foregoing comments and am posting this without going back over the original post. But, people, please. Can you not see the revolution you’re riding in on? The blogosphere, for all that it could use a new name, is alive! And wide open to anyone who wants to walk in at any time. And it kicks ass and takes names. Ask Rather, of course, and Raines, or even Glocer at Reuters. Remove bloggers from any of the recent travails of those and other big boys and you basically remove the travail and leave the lies and the liars running the show, just like they used to.

And looking beyond the MSM and into the world they’ve so long had the power to light up and depict however they like, would Nifong be dangling from his own petard were it not for blogs? Would anyone reading this have even heard of Cory Maye?

I know these are just a few of the most obvious instances where blogs have made a difference and are making a difference in the way stories are told and truth comes out. And maybe they’re boring to some of you and not at all what you’re thinking this new interactive news-telling thing should have achieved by now. But I’m amazed. And thrilled! I love it! It’s like watching the launch of the first manned mission to another galaxy, with the sense that the speed of light is going to be broached after all. No wait. It’s like being on the rocket myself. How can anyone be bored with the blogosphere or doubtful that it’s really gonna fly? It is flying and I can’t imagine how it could ever be stopped.

It won’t be stopped even when I don’t subscribe to my favorite blogs, as I can’t imagine I’ll ever do, not as long as the free content remains as outstanding and plentiful as it is. Look, friends, the freaking MSM is free, now, or included in any case in what I pay my ISP. The real pros that I’ve read for decades are a mouse click away, not that I spare them so much time anymore, what with all the competition I can’t even get around to. And, no offense to the PJM people, but I don’t need any one of them or all of them together any more than I need the next good but nearly unknown blogger I find. And I don’t have to so much as glance at the PJM blogroll to find her. Nobody’s Grand Central around here. Nobody’s a clearinghouse. It all comes in from everywhere. PJM people are good people and I’m glad to read what some of them write from time to time. But they’re not generals in my particular army.

And that’s the fun of the blogosphere from where I sit. It’s all mine. I put what I want on the front page and what I want in the comics. I fire the editors who disappoint and promote the stringers who tell me something I didn’t know. If I feel making a comment, I fire it off and it appears instantly so I can see whether I proofed it worth a flip. And then I go to bed. What’s not to love about this whole thing?