I first really understood the secret power of the early 2000s political blogosphere in February 2005, when Josh Marshall was hot in pursuit of then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
I was a local politics reporter in New York, and I'd spent the 2004 campaign obsessed with its central, vital new media outlets — Josh's liberal Talking Points Memo; Andrew Sullivan's pro-Bush Daily Dish; Little Green Footballs and the other conservative sites that punctured Dan Rather's killer story on Bush's National Guard service. Matt Drudge was already the grandfather of that ecosystem; Sullivan had, legendarily, gone down to Miami to seek his advice before launching his blog in 2000. After that election was over, I started my own for the New York Observer, powered by Blogger, which my editor (who now runs Capital New York) christened The Politicker.
That was the beginning of the golden era of political blogs, a run from troublemaking to fatal respectability that stretched, in retrospect, from 2004 to 2008. (The tech blog golden era started earlier and ended later.) It was thrilling and immediate and fun, and I'm glad to have had a piece of it. And while the blogosphere has now been dying for as long as it was alive, Andrew Sullivan's decision to shut down today marks a kind of final punctuation to the era. In various abstract ways, the blogs won — contemporary media companies like BuzzFeed are building on their publishing tools and their core values of, above all, transparency. But today I'm feeling more nostalgia than triumph.
Back in New York in 2004, I quickly blew away my goal of 100 readers a day and soon found that there were a couple thousand regulars for New York political news. And that was it. As I stared at my SiteMeter, it became clear that the route to bigger traffic and more attention was links on the small handful of elite national blogs. One way to get those links was to write things that matched and amplified the blogger's worldview — and so every blog spawned an amen corner of lesser polemicists. The other, less popular one was to try and answer the questions they asked with reporting.
They were, in a sense, my editors, and the first thing I got good at as a small local blogger was recognizing when I could report something these bloggers cared about.
The first time I did this, Josh was encouraging his readers to do something specific: call their members of Congress and ask what their position was on a rule change — whether lawmakers could remain in congressional leadership if they'd been indicted. (The reason: Tom DeLay had been indicted.) New York City had only one Republican, and he'd voted for it, so I called and called him, and then finally cornered him after some forgotten breakfast at the Midtown Sheraton, emerging triumphant with a quote: "The fundamental morality in this country is you're innocent until proven guilty."
I buried it in an overbaked item that was mostly about my own trials in getting the story; I also got the link, and the traffic, the tacit appreciation of my new assignment editor, Josh Marshall.
Josh and Andrew were the bloggers I read most, and whose tacit assignments I most often took. I notice, rereading, that I wasn't above kissing a bit of ass: "This issue isn't going away: blogger Josh Marshall, a real player in the grassroots Social Security fight, is taking a look at Vito too," I wrote at one point.
While Josh really changed the politics of the mid-2000s with his intensely focused, crowdsourced, narrative-building single-minded crusades — the U.S. attorney scandal was the third — Andrew was more esoteric, building long, iterative cases over time for everything from the distant dream of marriage equality to the beauty of bearded men and the real nature of Catholicism. He was a wonderful assignment editor, and that question — what would interest Andrew? — was always a bit in my mind.
My favorite of his assignments (I should be clear — we had not in fact met, or talked; I remember thrilling the first time he replied to an email of mine; it was, my inbox suggests, at least two years after I'd started emailing him) was one of the marriage stories. He'd pushed me to see marriage as the normal politics it was becoming, and I was delighted to discover evidence for this thesis: The since-discredited Boss of Brooklyn, Vito Lopez, had cut a standard-issue deal for the vote of a district leader, securing the man's support with something cheaper than a patronage job, support for marriage. He was a transactional guy, and didn't much care one way or the other about the gays, as far as I can recall. The blog item from the Daily News, where I then worked, lives only on archive.org, and Andrew's link to it was perfect: dead on, and short enough that many hundreds of people clicked the link.
Those are my favorites, but there were many more, and as I came to understand the ecosystem better I had various small email lists to which I'd blast stories I thought might suit their views: left and right, gay bloggers and media bloggers. At one point I noticed that an obscure portal focused on the paranormal, Spirit Daily, could drive some clicks, and kept an eye out for ghost stories.
I moved over to Politico for the 2008 election, and covering national politics meant that I didn't need to think quite so hard about interesting the big guys in every post. I'd graduated to medium-sized blogger myself, with smaller bloggers who knew my hobbyhorses — Jewish politics, labor infighting, LGBT rights — sending on their scoops and scooplets. I continued to email out my own scoops and scooplets to the big blogs, even as they stopped getting any bigger. One time, I accidentally cc'd Matt Drudge and Markos Moulitsas on the same email.
By then, though, the blogosphere had started to fall apart. First, Josh Marshall made a rational decision that destroyed these silent assignments and ultimately undercut, in a way, the influence that he and the others wielded. He started building his own aggregation, and then reporting, operations, linking first to their own back page, capturing the audience, and sending a trickle rather than a flood of traffic to the aggregate. Huffington Post began, like Drudge, as a fantastic source of traffic for others; but it quickly drew the loathing of its rivals by doing the most aggressive aggregation imaginable, but with more effective search engine optimization. Then it started replacing aggregation with original reporting. But HuffPo and TPM had made an exchange: traffic, and building a media company of one's own, for influence over others and a certain kind of relevance. (HuffPost has clawed some of that influence back with a front page that, again, links out, and a brilliant homepage editor, Whitney Snyder; Drudge, of course, endures; and Digg has beat the odds, as maybe the last new entrant in that particular influence game.)
Andrew Sullivan was one of the few who rejected the choice between being an influential portal and a more contained media company, staffing up in a modest way, linking out, and participating meaningfully in the national conversation, if occasionally going totally around the bend, the blogger's privilege. It was totally clear, in 2008, that Barack Obama was a regular reader. I've always believed that Andrew had a role in inventing the Barack Obama who, for a moment, emerged as a truly unifying national figure. If you look hard at Obama's famous "race speech," you can see traces of a blog item Andrew had written days earlier. Andrew summed this up in an Atlantic cover story that had developed from dozens of blog items, and Obama continued to read him in the White House.
Sullivan's blog was a line to the commander in chief, a seductive prospect for any writer, and I wonder if it distracted him and his team as the ground fell away beneath them. If you were writing a blog in 2009 and 2010, you didn't necessarily see traffic — a function of habit, of the rising internet tide, and of homepage links — vanish immediately, but you could feel the conversation move from big portals and smaller blogs to Twitter.
On Election Day 2008, the biggest account on Twitter, @barackobama, tweeted just once, a banal reminder to vote. Over the next four years, that ecosystem of links and blogs decayed and, in many places, collapsed. Few blogs drive the traffic they once did, and reporters hope their stories will be widely tweeted, rather than linked — though that doesn't drive the same kind of traffic. When reporters and essayists want to break through, they often take assignments from eavesdropping on conversations between larger Twitter voices, rather than from the old blogs. Or simply join the Twitter arguments themselves.
It was easy, though, to miss Twitter and the broadening news space on the social web, where Facebook is now a huge player and messaging apps are on the rise — if you were still focused primarily on building a destination website. Some bloggers have suffered from the same nostalgic attachment to WordPress that newspaper editors did to their printing presses. I share a lot of that nostalgia, though I don't miss that sense that the beast you have to feed is the blog's front page, rather than the sophisticated, advancing social conversation.
Some old bloggers are declaring a moral victory in the end of the blogosphere. As Ezra Klein wrote when the American Prospect folded its dusty liberal blog Tapped, the policy blogosphere whose left flank it anchored created a new genre of fast, earnest, well-informed policy writing. It also laid the groundwork for a new media outlet, a kind of post-blog blog (a phrase I tried, with no success, to coin in 2011). "Without Tapped, there would certainly be no Vox," Klein wrote.
Jason Kottke crystallized this shift back in 2013, writing that "all media on the web and in mobile apps has blog DNA in it," and that "the blog format has evolved, had social grafted onto it, and mutated into Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest and those new species have now taken over." (If you want to worry about something dying, he warned presciently, worry about the open web.)
"The kind of blogging that @sullydish did is not dead. It's basically what we are all doing now on Twitter," ThinkProgress editor Judd Legum tweeted.
Here at BuzzFeed and at BuzzFeed News, we also try not to weep for the old blogosphere, and most (though by no means all) of our top editors have roots in it. Mat Honan and Summer Anne Burton were blogging in the 1990s. Doree Shafrir was at Gawker when I wrote the Daily News's first politics blog; Shani Hilton got her break on Tapped and on PostBourgie, which was also home to Joel Anderson and Tracy Clayton; Lisa Tozzi worked on some of the New York Times's first strides into blogging; Chris Geidner got his start as a law blogger; Adam Serwer and Katherine Miller and Ginny Hughes and Jace Lacob and Hayes Brown and Tom Gara and Matthew Perpetua are all old-time bloggers. Jack Shepherd and Peggy Wang were early to reimagining blogging on this strange new BuzzFeed in the late aughts.
Indeed, the strongest new news outlets and the most nimble elements of the old ones have also co-opted and professionalized the tools and ethos of bloggers — fast, direct publishing; an informal voice; a commitment to transparency. We've pulled in some of the adaptable stars of that era. And we believe those people, tools, and values can serve our unchanging commitments to immediate, well-told, fearless, compelling, and independent journalism.
Andrew spent parts of the last few years raging against advertising and pressing ahead with a subscription model that could only work with the most devoted audience on the web — and perhaps not even then. I felt an old loyalty to him — as a reader who started hitting refresh compulsively right after 9/11, when I was reporting in Kiev and he was a lifeline to the American conversation — that prevented me from ever really getting worked up about his attacks on us. And indeed, I'll still miss that feeling of seeing a stream of links to andrewsullivan.com pop up in my SiteMeter, and knowing that my polite, tentative email had won me coveted access to his loyal, thoughtful, old-school blog readers.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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