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.
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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.

An immense proportion of the online readership—roughly 42% of all blog traffic—flows to the top 50 blogs. Their dominance of the market is reinforced by the dynamics of the Web itself: users hunting for blogs typically end up directed by search engines to the same group of highly-linked, already popular sites. What’s more, even deliberate attempts to go off the beaten path aren’t likely to lead out of the conglomerate world: the most lucrative niche categories have attracted dominant brands, too, with AOL alone owning 27 of the top 100 blogs, in categories ranging from automobiles, to free software, to independent film and pop culture. The big brands have become so powerful that it’s little wonder that 94 percent of the blogs counted in Technorati's 2008 State of the Blogosphere report have been shuttered and abandoned.

For the little guy, then, it’s clearly true that, in Hindman's words, "There is a difference between speaking and being heard." In their effort to be heard, smart new writers are trying to lash themselves to major online brands, as they would any traditional print publication. Even some of the bloggers we’ve come to admire as bootstrap-heroes are in truth products of the farm club. The Internet's favorite Cinderella figure, Nate Silver—the statistician-outsider turned political prodigy—cut his teeth not at some hinterland Word Press blog, but at the Daily Kos. Conversely, many brands have become strong enough to outlive the loss of their marquee talents. Gawker burned through such gifted early editors as Elizabeth Spiers and Choire Sicha, while traffic continued to multiply. Today, the romantic notion that solitary, untamed bloggers are running the Web is more fantasy than fact—nearly as apocryphal as old myths about stoic Western sheriffs killing 11 outlaws with six bullets.

Institutionalization may make for a more reliable, professional blogosphere. But it’s misguided to imagine, as Massing does, that blogs can also still be hailed for offering "a podium to Americans of all ages and backgrounds to contribute." Rather, far from leveling the playing field, blogs have simply built up challenging new pathways to success, ones that with their familiar requirements—impress the right gatekeepers, court a mentor, work one’s way up from the inside—mirror the old-media ways. Ezra Klein’s trajectory from lone blogger, to the American Prospect, to the Washington Post, is a classic illustration of the new path to internet stardom, which increasingly means working one’s way into affiliation with a prestigious, well-funded institution.

Blogging, then, seems to be an industry on the cusp of maturity. Nick Carr compares its evolution to that of ham radio in the early twentieth century. Out of the amateur hubbub emerged self-made stars, who were then hired by fledgling networks that eventually grew into CBS, NBC and ABC. In much the same way, blogging celebrities have been snatched up by old and new conglomerates, while a sudden heart attack in the old-media world has put commercial blogging enterprises into a startlingly advantageous position. To wit, in the midst of a major downturn in advertising profits across most media, revenue to Gawker's network of eight blogs jumped 45% in the first half of this year.

Clearly, a new establishment is taking shape. It seems ever more likely that the next media kingpins will come from the proverbial – and increasingly mythical – pajama-wearing classes.

Benjamin Carlson is a digital media fellow at The Atlantic.
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