Signing Off

A year ago I started writing regularly in this space. For me it was a fairly radical experiment. I hadn't had a regular writing commitment more demanding than a weekly column since I worked for a daily newspaper in the 1980s. And I'd never had the liberating but slightly frightening authority to publish whatever I wanted without an editor reading it first.

It was exhilarating from the very beginning, and often rewarding in ways that my previous forms of journalistic expression couldn't be. But by the fall it had become clear that it wasn't sustainable, and in October I let The Atlantic know that I'd have to call it quits at the end of the year.

The main reason for this decision is that I'm supposed to be writing a book. (Translation of "supposed to be": I've signed the contract and cashed the check--though my motivation to get the book written goes well beyond that.) I had naively imagined that I could make the book project dovetail with writing here on a roughly daily basis, and reconcile both of these things with my other commitments, notably running Bloggingheads.tv. Wrong.

It isn't just a matter of squeezing in the time to do some book writing. The book is about the Buddhist view of the mind, so there just isn't much synergy between writing it and writing daily about politics and policy and culture. I need to get my own mind in a different place.

In a few weeks I'll be going to that place. Through a great stroke of fortune, I have the opportunity to teach a seminar on the Buddhist view of the mind (and related matters) at Princeton. I'm looking forward to everything about this--the intellectual stimulus of curious undergraduates, the freewheeling discussion of deep subjects, the distinctively benign atmosphere of a college campus.

And, to be honest, I'm looking forward to getting up in the morning without feeling I have to develop an opinion about something and then publicize it. (Not that you asked, but: I just counted up my posts, and I've averaged one per weekday. And most were basically full-fledged columns, more like "pieces" than "posts"--which just goes to show that old habits die hard.) However, I have no doubt that any sense of relief will be outweighed by pangs of withdrawal. "Unique" is an overused word, but over the past year I've had the benefit of a unique station. I've had complete editorial freedom and I've benefited both from the aura of The Atlantic's age-old and carefully preserved prestige and from the power of The Atlantic's current editorial operation.

I somehow managed to keep the words "brand" and "platform" out of the previous sentence, but, yes, the shorter version is that this web site is a great platform with a great brand that afforded me great freedom, and the uniqueness lies in the fact that there's nowhere else--literally nowhere else--I could have gotten all three of these things in such great measure.

I want to say a little more about the brand and the platform. I know it's not a news flash to say that the digital age has been unkind to magazines and newspapers. And it's only slightly less obvious that the digital age hasn't been kind to magazine-like websites or newspaper-like websites. But those of us who have seen these truths unfold up close--that is, journalists who have seen the business of journalism transformed and in some aspects demolished--have an especially keen appreciation of the power of the technological logic behind them. So it seems nearly miraculous to see an enterprise like The Atlantic not just survive but flourish, staying in the black yet staying classy.

I was in touch with The Atlantic's editor, James Bennet, back when he and the magazine's owner, David Bradley, were adapting to an earlier, different incarnation of the internet by assembling a group of blogs to serve as the web site's core. I take some pride in (if I recall correctly) suggesting to James that he talk to Matt Yglesias, who then came to The Atlantic and became one of its early internet stars. But I deserve no credit for two subsequent inspired hires--Bob Cohn, who came from Wired to oversee The Atlantic's web site, and John Gould, Bob's deputy. Having now watched Bob and John work under James's leadership, I have some understanding of The Atlantic's remarkable adaptive record--how, with perfect timing, it has moved beyond the early, blog-o-centric model (which crucially got it a foothold on the web) just as internet journalism moved into what some call the post-blog era. I owe all four of these people--David, James, Bob, and John--thanks for building the environment I've been allowed to inhabit.

I could at this point keep naming names, thanking, in particular, fellow Atlantic writers for letting me bask in their reflected glory, but if I did I wouldn't know where to stop. So I'll just thank them generically, and also thank the readers who enjoyed, tolerated, or endured my writing, as the case may be, as well as the gratifyingly large subset of readers who reacted to what I wrote with sincere and civil comments.

I guess it's natural that, as I bring this year to a close, I look back and wish I'd written some things I didn't write, or vice versa. But my main regret is that I didn't make more explicit some of the concerns that were implicit in much of what I wrote. I feel like a preacher who, after standing at the pulpit 52 Sundays in a row, dispensing sermons on how to live right, realizes that he forgot to mention the part about salvation. So, at the risk of setting a record for longest swan song in the history of journalism, I'd like to quickly articulate three beliefs of mine that I rarely articulated this year, but that informed much of what I wrote, especially in the realm of foreign policy.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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