Who Wants to Know? (Or, Why This Is Not a Blog)

A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled recently over the relationship between journalism and blogging. As a working journalist who is frequently mistaken for a blogger, I have some ideas.

The difference mainly has to do with who the audience is. A journalist is someone who gets paid to make calls and ask questions on behalf of a set of readers. Usually editors and publishers are involved as well, and very often advertisers who interested in the readers.

Even before the first question is asked, what the person on the other end of the line inevitably wants to know (whether they say it or not) is, “Oh yeah? Who wants to know?”

When I started out as a reporter in Chicago, using dimes to call desk sergeants at police stations around some sector of the city, I sometimes didn’t even bother to tell my name. I’d say, “City Press, sergeant. Anything going on there?”

It was a rare cop who didn’t have a joke or a beef in return. Kids like me had been covering routine crime and courts in Chicago for the City News Bureau, a wire service cooperatively owned by the city’s daily newspapers, since 1890. We reported to a small corps of seasoned editors.

Later, I learned the power that lay behind various brands. What a different reception I got, depending on whether I was asking the question on behalf of the readers of Pacific Stars and Stripes or Newsweek. If anything, the gap was even greater between The Wall Street Journal and Forbes.

And during the many years I wrote for The Boston Globe, to call a source was to risk a substantial discussion of the affairs of the rest of the paper, before we could get down to business. Reporting for a well-established organization invariably meant operating with an extensive and complicated penumbra.

When I started identifying myself as calling on behalf of Economic Principals, an awkward silence frequently ensued. If asked, I’d explain that I was working for myself. Professional economists almost without exception returned my emails and phone calls. The few who didn’t were policy types.

Those less acquainted with what I did often had problems. One Russia specialist, for example, slyly described this site as my “hobby.” Worse yet, people asked if I had retired.

Far from it. This weekly is the regular visible expression of a continuing career in economic journalism. It is, in fact, about to play a more conspicuous part.

Economic Principals migrated from a newspaper to the Web at a time when blogs were almost unknown. The circumstances were opaque. As a long-time columnist, I had been suddenly forbidden to write about politics by the editor who The New York Times Co. hired to head The Boston Globe. I tried, but found I couldn’t stop altogether. The editor, Martin Baron, killed the column and I quit the newspaper.

Five weeks later I started writing online. Before long, I joined up with Sabre Foundation and went looking other angels to foot the bill for what even then seemed like an unusual enterprise. The only two roughly similar undertakings known to me in those days were those by Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan, both of them well-established journalists.

Today there are an estimated jillion blogs. The community is said to be growing explosively. So powerful a force is the new medium that it acquired a name practically overnight — the blogosphere.

What’s a blog? Etymologically speaking, it’s a contraction of Web-log. Editorially, these personal vehicles range from intense explorations of particular angles of vision to a simple daily expression of opinion on everything that comes into the writer’s head.

The mechanism that makes blogs work is the ease with which they can call attention to one another through links — a single click and you can be redirected half way around the world; another click and you return, for free. There is no friction on the Web.

This constitutes a mechanism for what social scientist call collaborative filtering. Blogging and linking to other blogs, becomes an exercise in collective judgment similar to, say the pop music market, except that no money changes hands. A little like the market for scarce commercial radio airtime, linking has the effect of identifying a relative handful of favorites and then amplifying their influence until they become the favorites of a much larger group. The process also has something in common with the gradual construction of scientific consensus through the etiquette of citation.

But with most blogs, unlike science or, for that matter, newspapering, the prize is much more likely to be novelty than truth. Many of them take the form of intense conversation among a relatively small group of people interested in the same things — the written-down and permanently-preserved equivalent of talk radio, rather than a progressive narrowing of disagreement that is the essence of science, or news.

True, if your blog happens to contain material of immediate interest to a large audience — if you are a soldier in Iraq, say, or a particularly witty observer like Wonkette in the middle of an intense political campaign, you can get millions of hits. Just last week The Washington Post had a good story on the ups and downs of war blogs from Iraq. And the best-edited Websites featuring a portfolio of contributors (I have in mind Slate in particular) have managed to create the excitement of a good magazine.

Economic Principals has refrained from the practice of linking because it is a journalistic enterprise, not a blog. That is, it is directed mainly at readers who are not themselves bloggers, and competes for those readers’ attention with other journalists, chiefly newspaper reporters and columnists. What readers? Economists and intelligent laypersons interested in developments inside economics, of course.

The blogosphere is here to stay. On a truly big story, bloggers have shown that they can interpose themselves briefly but with great effect, as, for instance, when a tsunami swept the Indian Ocean, or in last year’s story of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. They are a new and welcome check on entrenched power. But from a global point of view, the blogosphere is a complement to other media, not a substitute.

Newspapers are likely to remain our most powerful engines of discovery for many years to come. For one thing, it is hard to envisage a better device for displaying the news than the familiar paper product — swiftly scanned, easily clipped, a very tangible form of budget constraint. Only so many stories can fit on a front page.

For another, only newspapers will be able to meet the enormous fixed cost of maintaining a staff of expert editors and reporters who work together to perform what they like to call “the daily miracle:” the hashing-out of a reasonably coherent answer to the question every morning: What’s going on out there?

You don’t have to have lot of paying customers to represent the public interest, however. A relative handful will do. So after three and a half years, Economic Principals is switching to a new, a two-tier business model. Early access to the email version for paying subscribers. The regular www.economicprincipals.com site for everyone else.

The first step in this evolution came last year when EP gave up foundation support. Now EP is looking for around five hundred citizens willing to pay $50 a year to support an independent voice in economic journalism. The idea is to put some force behind the questions asked. Something like $25,000 is enough to make the business work.

And what will subscribers get in return? They will continue to receive the email version, which moves Sunday at 0900 GMT, in time for breakfast in Europe, and about a day ahead of the weekly’s posting on the web. They’ll get regular behind-the-scenes reports as well, and a slightly enhanced level of access. Economic Principals welcomes tips, hints, opinions and complaints from all readers. But subscribers get what amounts to a vote.

Mostly, supporters will enjoy the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from furthering an enterprise that’s clearly needed, in a world that seems to be retreating from independent coverage of the economics profession. Economic Principals’ attention to Harvard University’s failed Russia Project (the Andrei Shleifer affair) is an obvious example. But a quick tour of the archives will disclose all kinds of stories that don’t get written elsewhere.

The new policy will take effect on October 16. It will be further described in a series of short letters to existing subscribers in coming weeks. And if it doesn’t work? The great advantage of having experimented with various alternatives forms of organization is clarity. This time, I am prepared to take no for an answer.