Mark Tracy delivers a premature eulogy for the blog at the New Republic. He takes as his starting point the move by the New York Times to reevaluate all of the blogs they’ve hosted on their site and to shut some of them down (not Nate Silver’s 538, though; it reportedly gets a huge percentage of their hits).
How did we get here? The trajectory of any of the bloggers Smith mentions would work, but let’s take Andrew Sullivan. In the 1990s, he was fully ensconced in print institutions (among other things, he edited The New Republic). When he started a blog, it was on his own—other than a small handful of strange, Web-only creatures, in 2001, what magazine wanted a blog? By 2005, the answer to that question had changed, allowing Sullivan to ensconce his blog in larger institutions—Time, The Atlantic, and The Daily Beast, in chronological order. This was the golden age of the personal blog: The Internet had empowered a few strong writers to create their own brand (if you were idiosyncratic—say, if you were gay, English, Catholic, and heretically conservative—then all the better) and a few strong big brands to create their own small brands (Media Decoder was launched in 2009, and finds its roots in TV Decoder, a blog that was started when the Times poached writer Brian Stelter, who like Sullivan, Klein, et. al had built a following on the Internet as a personal brand). Meanwhile, readers interested in reading the best that had been thought and said on the Internet had no choice except to follow along—the best they could do was to use RSS to focus on the feeds they tended to find interesting.
But today, Google Reader is dying, Media Decoder is dead, and Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish is alive in new form. This year, Sullivan decided that he was a big enough brand, commanding enough attention and traffic, to strike out on his own. At the beginning of the last decade, the institutions didn’t need him. Today, he feels his best chance for survival is by becoming one of the institutions, complete with a staff and a variety of content. What wasn’t going to work was continuing to have, merely, a blog.
We will still have blogs, of course, if only because the word is flexible enough to encompass a very wide range of publishing platforms: Basically, anything that contains a scrollable stream of posts is a “blog.” What we are losing is the personal blog and the themed blog. Less and less do readers have the patience for a certain writer or even certain subject matter.
My own view is that one particular form of journalism is actually dying because of this technological shift – and it’s magazines, not blogs. When every page in a magazine can be detached from the others, when readers rarely absorb a coherent assemblage of writers in a bound paper publication, but pick and choose whom to read online where individual stories and posts overwhelm any single collective form of content, the magazine as we have long known it is effectively over.
Without paper and staples, it doesn’t fall apart so much as explodes into many pieces hurtling into the broader web. Where these pieces come from doesn’t matter much to the reader. So what’s taking the place of magazines are blog-hubs or group-blogs with more links, bigger and bigger ambitions and lower costs.
That seems to describe Freethought Blogs pretty well, doesn’t it? Of course, when I started the network I didn’t really give any thought to the future of blogging. I just wanted a place where I wouldn’t be censored by National Geographic, which took over Science Blogs, and where we could build a community of like-minded people working to further the goals of freethought, secularism and social justice.
The truth is, this whole blogging thing was a big accident for me. I only started my blog because my girlfriend at the time was, I think, tired of me ranting to her about the issues that get me fired up and suggested that I rant at other people instead. I chose the name because I had earlier written a monthly column in a small magazine published in Ann Arbor under that same name. And I never imagined — hell, I didn’t even think to imagine — that it would ever turn into this.