Dispatch September 2009

The Rise of the Professional Blogger

The blogosphere was supposed to democratize publishing and empower the little guy. Turns out, the big blogs are all run by The Man.

In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing articulates a point made so often about the Web that it's nearly catechismal. Blogs, he says, have torn down the power structure of old media. "Decentralization and democratization" are the law of the land, offering “a podium to Americans of all ages and backgrounds to contribute.” This is a notion that bloggers and web gurus have been touting for years. In his 2006 book, An Army of Davids, for example, “Instapundit” blogger Glenn Reynolds argued that “markets and technology” empowered “ordinary people to beat big media.” And this June, internet sage Clay Shirky assured an audience at a TED event that the old model, where “professionals broadcast messages to amateurs,” is “slipping away.”

But is this really true? Among some of the biggest bloggers, this notion is increasingly seen as suspect. In early July, Laura McKenna, a widely respected and longtime blogger, argued on her site, 11D, that blogging has perceptibly changed over the six years she’s been at it. Many of blogging’s heavy hitters, she observed, have ended up “absorbed into some other professional enterprise.” Meanwhile, newer or lesser-known bloggers aren’t getting the kind of links and attention they used to, which means that “good stuff” is no longer “bubbling to the top.” Her post prompted a couple of the medium’s most legendary, best-established hands to react: Matthew Yglesias (formerly of The Atlantic, now of ThinkProgress), confirmed that blogging has indeed become “institutionalized,” and Ezra Klein (formerly of The American Prospect, now of The Washington Post) concurred, “The place has professionalized.” Almost everyone weighing in agreed that blogging has become more corporate, more ossified, and increasingly indistinguishable from the mainstream media. Even Glenn Reynolds had a slight change of heart, admitting in a June interview that the David-and-Goliath dynamic is eroding as blogs have become “more big-media-ish.” All this has led Matthew Hindman, author of The Myth of Digital Democracy, to declare that "The era when political comment on the Web is dominated by solo bloggers writing for free is gone."

He may be right. As the medium has become more popular, money has flowed in. And while no one would deny that blogging has lowered the barriers to self-publication by average citizens, the free-wheeling fraternal spirit of blogging has become increasingly subject to market disciplines. As a result, as Web critic Nicholas Carr told me, blogging has evolved to become “a lot more like a traditional mass medium.”

The data would seem to back this up. First, a clear, stable, class at the top has emerged. An examination of the Technorati rankings for recent years reveals that turnover among the top 50 blogs has become increasingly rare. Even as the total number of blogs has swelled to 133 million from 27 million in 2006, the top 50 have remained relatively static. On March 15, 2006, 30 blogs out of the top 50 were new to the list, never having appeared at the top in any previous year; last month, that number was down to 18. Even the new entrants are no mom-and-pop shops: National Review, Entertainment Weekly and Politico are among the owners, and one of the few independent upstarts, Seeking Alpha, is backed by venture capital. The bulk of the list consists of familiar names, many of whom were among the first to emerge on the Web—from Andrew Sullivan, now of the Atlantic, to the Daily Kos and Boing Boing.

Of the top 50 blogs, 21 are owned by such familiar names as CNN, the New York Times, ABC, and AOL. And many blogs that began as solo operations are developing into full-fledged publications. Josh Marshall's newsgathering war horse, the Talking Points Memo, has plans to expand its staff of 11 to a full 60. (If another quixotic Josh Marshall came along, Talking Points Memo would be among the media titans he would have to dethrone.) TechCrunch, founded by Michael Arrington in 2005, now has a staff of more than 20. There are only a handful of self-employed solo writers left among the top fifty, and these include standout talents such as Michelle Malkin, Perez Hilton, and Seth Godin.

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