A Report to Readers

It’s been 18 months since Economic Principals rolled out as a source of independent commentary about economics and economic journalism, and I wanted to offer readers a report. It seems fair to say that EP is moderate success. The site is not famous, but it is read — 7500 monthly visitors, nearly 2000 free email subs, 125,000 hits a month, readers in 70 countries. Moreover, it is growing.

As it has grown, there have been subtle changes in intent.

The Principals Website was launched with relatively little forethought. I had been a newspaper columnist for nearly 20 years, one of a handful in the press who covered economics. The column was abruptly cancelled after The New York Times tightened its control of The Boston Globe in 2001. I was in the middle of a complicated book. I didn’t plan to stop covering economics. I needed a vehicle with which to remain in touch with at least some part of the community of interested readers while I searched for other modalities.

For a time I identified with Rafe Needleman, another independent Web columnist whose enterprise resembled mine. Needleman was a widely-followed West Coast technology writer. He had been let go by Red Herring magazine when that high-flyer started its final descent. Needleman was writing for himself when I cited him as a fellow traveler. Unfortunately, the next week he signed on with Business 2.0. Now they’ve dropped him, too. He promises a re-launch in the fall. Such is life on the Web.

Moreover, I decided not to create standing links to other online sites. This was the period of the rise of the blogs and it was not immediately clear whether or not I was one of them. It quickly turned out that I was not, for reasons of history and temperament. Most blogs are vehicles of self-expression; most bloggers’ day jobs involve them in doing other things. Journalism, on the other hand, is an end in itself, a discipline with relatively well-established rules. The formats are as different as drama series are from talk shows.

There are, of course, some places that I am exceedingly pleased to be linked, Arts and Letters Daily chief among them. And there have been no kinder words from a knowledgeable source than those from William Bernstein, whose quarterly newsletter at Efficient Frontier.com supports the books he writes. There are some very good economic bloggers out there, and I will write about them in due course. But my reference group remains print journalists, for, at heart, that is what I am.

About this time a year ago, Sabre Foundation entered the picture. Sabre has a long history of imaginative independence from prevailing intellectual fashion. I have known its guiding spirit, Lee Auspitz, for 25 years. He is, as the economist Duncan Foley calls him, something of a saint. Sabre’s largest project annually makes available millions of dollars’ worth of donated books to needy individuals in developing and transitional societies worldwide through non-governmental partner organizations — libraries, universities, schools, research organizations and the like. It was Sabre that recently put the Michael Oakeshott Association on its feet. It has overseen philanthropic donations to Economic Principals, and been a source of invaluable advice.

It is one thing to sponsor a venture. It is something else again to support it financially. Sabre is a “begging” foundation; it has no money to give. There were a good number of founding subscriptions at the beginning of Economic Principals and a steady trickle of smaller contributions ever since. Several grant-making foundations were approached. But nothing has yet turned up resembling a steady source of support for an independent newsgathering operation.

So paradoxically, Economic Principals, which had been uncharacteristically cautious in the beginning, grew more independent and peripatetic as time went on, becoming more like its old newspaper self — Dave’s Weekly, a friend calls it. The cardinal principle: to draw attention to developments not well covered elsewhere. Along the way, I became a regular commentator on the Nightly Business Report, that durable and intelligent television program for investors.

Yet slowly did it dawn that writing a column no longer described what it is I do, if for no more complicated reason than that I don’t get paid to do it. A newspaper or magazine column derives its identity from being a small part of a much larger collectivity. It is an accent touch, a personalized opinion that newspaper editors and publishers permit to be set out to emphasize or even to oppose (as long as it’s mildly) their own judgment about what is interesting and important. But I wasn’t a newspaperman any longer. I had become an independent journalist.

So if Economic Principals isn’t a column, or even a column-in-exile, what is it?

The answer is that it is still exactly what it says in site’s FAQs: it is an experiment in online economic journalism. EP reports on university economics, as it affects historical awareness and public policy. It follows newspaper and magazine coverage of these topics. And it seeks to put under-noticed economic journalism in touch with a wider audience. EP is not about the business cycle

Then what, if any, changes are in store?

No more than usual. Over the summer I decided to spend less time thinking about the coverage I would like to deliver if only I had more resources at my disposal, and more time writing books and giving talks. This is a subtle matter of how I spend my days. What was once my full-time job has become only one component of the way I now make my living. EconomicPrincipals.com has evolved into a weekly free sample of the work I do. It’s designed to whet appetites for more complicated (and more fully priced) forms of news.

It was about this time that there arrived an invitation from the American Academy in Berlin, an intellectual community established some years ago to foster contact between a reunified Germany and the United States. I will spend the first five months of next year there as recipient of the J.P. Morgan International Prize Fellowship in Finance Policy and Economics. Previous writers who enjoyed productive stays at the Academy include Ward Just and Nicholas Dawidoff. I am, to put it mildly, deeply honored to follow in such footsteps. Such visitor-ships will, I hope, become an important part of the way I spend my time and effort.

I emphatically don’t mean to discourage contributions to Economic Principals through Sabre Foundation. Indeed, these remain a highly effective way of furthering the purposes of the project, and a healthy level of small contributions is the best way of encouraging larger givers. It is always possible a publishing angel will turn up, somebody willing to make a grant so that fellow citizens should know more about where economic ideas come from, and what happens to them after they leave home. The search is on.

Meanwhile, readers may expect a good look at continental economics, as seen from the vantage point of Berlin. I hope EP will take readers many interesting places in the coming years.