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Eulogy for the Blog

As the 'Times' moves to eliminate theirs, we should remember its golden age

In November 2011, Politico's most prominent blogger, Ben Smith, declared the advent of the "the post-blog blog." "The dusty old form of the personal political blog has required some updating. Twitter has replaced any individual blog as the place the political conversation plays out," he wrote. "Other successful bloggers—from Andrew Sullivan to Michelle Malkin, Chris Cillizza to Ezra Klein—have been edging in different ways toward institutionalizing what works, staffing up and formalizing their beats to better serve their audiences." Smith was announcing that his own blog, which dated back to Politico's beginnings nearly five years before, would undergo a similar sort of change. About a month later, though, he announced that he would become editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, a website where nearly every article is, in a sense, a blog post, but there are no actual blogs, and whose traffic model depends in no small part on discovery via social media. In other words, a post-blog blog.

This is the context in which the New York Times' decision, revealed this week, to review all of its blogs and shutter at least some of them (including the popular, at least among the sort of media wonks who are still reading this article, Media Decoder), ought to be understood. In a post published today, Media Decoder hinted at the reasons for the decision: Now that it is going away, the reader can "See All Media News In One Place" at the Media & Advertising online section.

It seems likely that business imperatives helped prompt the Times' move. The Grey Lady is coming off its worst quarter of digital subscription growth since its current paywall was introduced two years ago. A redesign is apparently on the way. Smaller brands within brands, be they rubrics like "Media Decoder" or personalities like "Ben Smith," make increasingly little sense in a landscape where writers can cultivate their own, highly discriminating followings via social media like Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter, while readers can curate their own, highly discriminating feeds. In this world, there is no place for the blog, because to do anything other than put "All Media News In One Place" is incredibly inefficient.

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—TimeThe 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. Instead, they use social media to efficiently pick exactly what they do and do not click on, rather than reading what a blogger or blog offers them. In part due to his melodramatic intellectual style, Sullivan's blog was almost like a soap opera pegged to the news cycle—which I mean as the highest compliment. Smith's blog, too, had its specific scoops (Jewish politics, labor politics). And Media Decoder frequently brought a Times-type sensibility to media stories not big enough to merit their own staid articles in the ink edition. A necessary byproduct was that even if you were a devotee, you were not interested in about half of their posts. You didn't complain, because you didn't have an alternative. Now, in the form of your Twitter feed, you do, and so these old-style blogs have no place anymore.

There is little sense in shouting against the wind, but the blog—the blog as a thematically or personally coherent space containing an individual's or a subject's specific interests, commitments, attitudes—was a great thing, and its decline is saddening. One never felt one knew talented writers or complicated subjects as well as the ones that maintained excellent blogs. Every day, even every hour, you could predict, argue with, be surprised by, get enraged at, and be persuaded by them. Unlike the pre-blog newspaper or magazine column (which still persists, of course, if anachronistically and often embarrassingly), the blog provided the unmediated space for the writer or theme to wrestle with itself in full view of the reader. And unlike the post-blog and its endless stream of isolated dollops of news, which seems to be the world we're heading towards, the blog offered a crucial context for understanding what it was reporting or opining on in each instance. The blog was the right form for the right time, but it was also just plain right, and remains so. Sometimes the pace of technology leads us to do something that is substantially superior, and sometimes the pace of technology leads us to do something that is substantially inferior. It would be nice if we could step in when the mutation selected is a good one, and identify it as something worth saving. But I'm guessing there isn't as much money in that.