The Slow, Painful Coming Death Of The Independent, Liberal Blogosphere

Back in July of 2011, I wrote a piece that got a lot of attention called The Slow, Painful Coming Death Of The Independent, Conservative Blogosphere (Part 2 here).

Long story short, the point of the column was that the market is saturated and that the opportunities for a small blogger with talent but no money and name recognition have shrunk considerably since the early days of the blogosphere.

Just to give you an example of how much things have changed, when I got started back in 2001, I was doing 3-4 posts a day. When I started doing this for a living, I believe I was up to 5-6 short articles per day and had just begun to experiment with the idea of cross-posting content from other bloggers on RWN, which was a fresh new concept at the time. To give you an idea of how much things have changed since then, yesterday Right Wing News ran 21 columns/blog posts and we had links to another 14 columns and blog posts. If the same competitive standards had been the rule in 2001, Right Wing News would have never gotten off the ground in the first place.

The reason that is worth noting is that a column came out yesterday noting exactly the same phenomenon on the Left — and incidentally, this is something I’ve been predicting for a long time.

“My theory has long been that if a Democrat was elected in 2008, conservatives would be energized and liberals would lose steam. ….I still have to think that eventually, the netroots is going to stall out…” — John Hawkins, June 4, 2009

The dip did happen on the Left, although the energy on the Right that I thought would flow into the Rightroots seems to have mostly gone into social media and the Tea Party instead. In any case, the column in question is called Netroots Bloggers Mark 10th Birthday in Decline and Struggling for Survival. The title does miss the mark just a bit because the netroots aren’t struggling for survival. The big blogs are doing just fine. The smaller blogs and the newer up and coming bloggers are the ones suffering, just like they are on the Right.

Now, however, the Netroots, which were once thought to do to the political left what evangelical Christianity was supposed to do to the professional right, are 10 years old. In that time they vaulted Howard Dean to within a scream of the presidency, helped Democrats take both houses of Congress and several statehouses across the country, and gave the party what many in the movement believed to be some much-needed spine.

But with another critical election two weeks away, politicians, political operatives, and even the bloggers themselves say the Netroots are a whisper of what they were only four years ago, a dial-up modem in a high-speed world, and that the brigade of laptop-wielding revolutionaries who stormed the convention castle four years ago have all but disappeared as a force within the Democratic Party.

…Madrak’s example is typical. She blogs, she says, more than ever, up to 20 times per day. But traffic is a third of what it was at its peak, and instead of being able to make a living through ad dollars, she is forced to seek donations intermittently on her site.

“The days when people could be very influential in the blogosphere aren’t here anymore,” she said.

…When we started we were deeply anti-Bush, and there was a unanimity of purpose in the early days that we needed to modernize the left,” said Bill Scher, who founded the site Liberal Oasis. “We thought we understood the modern media a lot better than the old guard, and way better than the elites in Washington. We were tired of watching our guys get beat up on the talk shows, and tired of the purity tests of the ‘Old Left.’”

His site, which at its peak received 6,000 to 7,000 visitors a day, is now updated once a week with Scher’s podcast.

“Since Obama, the cohesion has splintered,” he says. “The Netroots are now just a random collection of bloggers.”

…Part of the Netroots decline had to do with the inevitable maturing of the movement and the simple evolution of the Internet. Ten years ago the blogs were one of the few places on the Internet where it was possible to find out what was happening in real time, as even many establishment news organizations hadn’t figured out how to move their offline print and broadcast products to the Web.

That has long since been sorted out, and in the meantime, dozens of online-only news outlets have been likewise competing for clicks and crowding out some of the proud amateurs. The political conversation, like the rest of the online conversation, has moved to Facebook and Twitter, and the bloggers steeped in an earlier Internet culture have not been able to keep up.

…A number of the major players in the early days of the movement have gone on to trade their skills into something more steady. Daou and Armstrong became political consultants specializing in digital outreach. Scher blogs for the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group. Others, like Greg Sargent and Glenn Greenwald, ended up getting hired by establishment media outlets. And a few of the savvier, more entrepreneurial bloggers turned their own sites into more robust media outlets.

…“The downside to the growth of Daily Kos and the professionalization of our medium is that the small-time blogger is on the verge of extinction,” writes Moulitsas. “That chaotic cacophony of amateur online voices was beautiful while it lasted, though.”

First of all, independent blogging is more important than most people realize because working for people in this business can come with A LOT of strings. Well, you can’t say this because those people might advertise with us. You can’t say that because they’re popular with our board. We cut that line out because we just don’t think you should be saying that. One of the main reasons there tends to be a certain “sameness” to what you read from either the Left or the Right is because there are so few independent outlets where people can actually say exactly what they think. That doesn’t mean they’re lying or faking; it just means certain things may be off limits.

Next, this comment really resonated, “‘Since Obama, the cohesion has splintered,’ he says. ‘The Netroots are now just a random collection of bloggers.'” That has happened on the Right as well. Five years ago, there was much more of a sense that we were all in this together, in a growing medium, with a bright future. You don’t hear a lot of people say otherwise, but as the flow of traffic into the smaller blogs has slowed and bigger, more successful blogs have hit the scene, that sense of community has in large part moved to Twitter and the blogger conferences. Instead of, “Oh you’re a blogger, too,” it’s “Oh, I’ve talked to you at Rightroots,” or “Oh, we talk on Twitter!” By the way, it’s worth noting that Twitter and Facebook have stolen a lot of thunder from the blogosphere. There are legions of conservatives who used to spend their time surfing the blogosphere who now spend their time chatting with their friends on social media instead.

It’s also worth noting that the Left has done a much better job of incorporating its talent into its existing media structure than the Right. Part of that is because there are so many liberal newspapers and deep pocketed foundations willing to bring in talented people. Additionally, a lot of the old media on the Right is extremely stale and stodgy. Many on the Right don’t want fresh new voices. They want the same old voices and if those aren’t available, they’d rather hire a college student or think tanker to churn out clunky, but safe pieces. It’s a mentality problem that stretches all the way from the Republican establishment in D.C. to most (but, not all) of the popular, old conservative mags and websites. Of course, over time, as the more successful “new media” websites become more prominent, that will probably be less of an issue, but by then, it’s likely that a lot of the independent voices that helped lift the Rightroots off the ground will have moved on to greener pastures.

Last but not least, I don’t want to discourage new bloggers because it’s not hopeless. All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t expect to just write three posts a day and think that’s going to build a large audience for you. Unfortunately, that’s just not enough anymore. That being said, there are still opportunities out there and there are bloggers who aren’t all that well known who’ve taken advantage of them. For one thing, even if your blog hasn’t reached critical mass, there are other blogs that have. Cross-post there and get your name out to a larger audience. There are more than a few people who’ve eventually turned cross-posting into a paying gig after proving they’re talented writers who can consistently and persistently post quality content that meets the standards on a larger, more popular blog. Everything changes, including the nature of the blogosphere; we all just have to adapt to it.

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