By Request: Barriers to Entry

Freddie asks:

How does your own experience reflect on the fact that the supposedly democratizing aspects of blogs have been co-opted by the traditional media? Do you think that there is a kind of failure in now being under the imprimatur of the Atlantic? Doesn't the fact that every Atlantic blogger is Ivy-League educated and old media connected undercut the notion that the web has opened up avenues in media previously denied to "regular people"?

I think that's the wrong way of looking at it. The fact that The Atlantic's bloggers tend to have gone to fancy schools reflects the fact that, as has long been the case, it's really helpful to have gone to a fancy school if you want to get a job at a prestigious magazine. The democratizing power of the internet hasn't, in other words, democratized the hiring practices of The Atlantic.

What it has done, however, is democratized acquiring an audience. It used to be that to have a big audience for your writing, you needed to get hired by a periodical with an established audience. But these days, a very large portion of the most-read political blogs are upstart operations -- DailyKos, FireDogLake, Talking Points Memo, Atrios, etc. That's where the democracy comes in. Of course, being associated with a prominent brand can help you get readers. And so can being well-connected more generally. In particular, it's much easier to launch a new online product if it's associated with an existing, successful online product. The Internet has not, in other words, completely eliminated the barriers to entry. But it has reduced them.

It's difficult to start a new blog without institutional support and make it successful, but it's easier than starting a new magazine. And it's easier for institutions of all kinds to launch or acquire blogs that become successful (think of the Center for American Progress's wildly successful ThinkProgress) than it would be for those institutions to start new magazines. Consequently, the competition for eyeballs online is quite a bit fiercer than is the competition for print readers (Time competes with Newsweek, US News and World Report, and that's it -- no blog has such an empty niche -- and most newspapers don't have any competitors at all) and established position isn't nearly as useful as it is in old media.

Does that mean the internet is a level playing field? No. Does it make online communications a completely democratic medium? No. But is the field more level and more democratic than print? Absolutely.