Aug 20, 2012

Internet Writing and the Content Vacuum

It's been a few times now I've had full weekday control of the Monthly's headline blog, Political Animal, and I feel like I have a decent idea now what it's like being at the top level of blogging. (Not to say that I am at the top level, of course, just that I've walked in those shoes for a few days and gotten some blisters.)

Anyway, the first thing I've noticed is that it is really, really hard to do well. I've had days before when I just didn't have anything to do and ended up at home writing 4-5 posts in one day on this site, but pro blogging is an entirely different beast. The expectation is that during the day you will write 10-12 posts. This includes an intro music video, a lunch links post, and evening links and/or video. So that means 7-9 short, punchy essays on something, with maybe 1-2 of those being longer and more worked out thoughts.

This ferocious demand for content is both good and bad. The iron weight of responsibiliy—the knowledge that there are high expectations and that this is a Big Chance for me to prove myself—is a powerful motivator. I usually have a pretty steady stream of decent ideas during the course of the day ("decent ideas" by blog standards), but I'm not all that great yet at capturing them and fleshing them out. I probably forget about 30% or so. (The fact that I get about half of these riding the train to work doesn't help.) Those expectations are good at making me harness myself and work as hard as I can.

On the other hand, occasionally during the blogging day I hit a wall—where I've written out all the ideas on my notepad, and I don't see anything interesting on Memeorandum or the big news sites. Panic starts to seep in. Come on, I think, gotta write something. Maybe I'll just point out some Romney lie (bottomless vein of material there) or make fun of some conservative. Now, nothing wrong with pointing out lies or doing a classic blog hit job on someone who really deserves it (e.g., Rich Lowry). The problem is that the need for new content is what's driving the post rather than an idea about something. It makes me feel boring and hackish, which kills my confidence, which makes the writing worse too. Easy to start a vicious cycle.

Furthermore, writing frantically all day long leaves me exhausted and wrung out, and less interested in catching up on my RSS or reading books, which is what ultimately drives new thoughts and posts. I just want to open a beer and watch Game of Thrones. David Carr had an interesting thought on how this sort of thing might have driven the recent plagiarism of Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria:
The self-cleaning tendencies of the Web got credit for unearthing the misconduct in the first place. Then again, the Web’s ferocious appetite for content — you are only as visible as your last post, as Clay Shirky recently said to me — probably had something to do with why Mr. Lehrer tried to feed the beast with retreads and half-baked work.
I think this should be combined with the increasing power law character of journalism. Like everything else, it's now dominated by a few hyper-famous people, a few more midlisters, and a gazillion striving nobodies. What this means for the hyper-famous is that the marginal utility of more product decreases very slowly—there's basically no limit to the amount of stuff someone like Zakaria can dump out, especially if you're willing to branch out into other forms. Radio, TV, columns, podcasts, speaking engagements—if Zakaria could stay awake 24/7, he could be making money continuously somewhere. (Of course, I reckon this trend has been around for a long time, but it seems to have been accelerated by the internet.)

The fact that the paragraph in question—a simple, bog-standard summary of gun law—was copied from a recent New Yorker (!) one of the most widely-read publications in the world, made some people speculate on Twitter that Zakaria didn't write the column, that it was some lesser employee or an intern. Plagiarizing from such a source is just flat idiotic, and it's hard to imagine Zakaria making such a mistake, even if he were a total amoral hack. I wouldn't be surprised. He'd be following in the footsteps of famous hack cartoonists (e.g., Jim Davis) who oversee a team of artists and writers and spend much of their time approving branded products.

It seems highly unlikely that I'll even have the option of fucking up as bad as Jonah Lehrer did (who resigned in disgrace from the New Yorker), but this is a good reminder of the pitfalls of success, and the importance of keeping a balanced perspective. If I had my dream job, I'd like to post 4-6 times during the day, and write longer pieces during the extra time. More importantly, I don't want to get into the situation where the demand for content pushes me so hard that I stop taking new stuff in. (I think I could get the hang of full-time blogging, say, but no more than that.) And Andrew Sullivan's habit of regular long breaks, disconnected from the machines, seems very smart, even necessary. I don't think I could keep up with the likes of Matt Yglesias or Joe Weisenthal, and trying looks like a recipe for burnout.

I imagine it's easier than it looks to fall into the corruption of stealing or lying, or the soft featherbed of hiring interns to do your stuff. But whatever happens, I will never forget that I got into journalism to discover new facts and stories, and to tell the truth, not to make huge piles of cash.


  1. Needs to be said Zakaria paraphrased & did not "copy" the material, but the parallels were giveaways.

  2. Needs to be said Zakaria paraphrased & did not "copy" the material, but the parallels were giveaways.

  3. Hey Ryan, when you do get a chance to read a new book, I would recommend Jill Lepore's THE MANSION OF HAPPINESS, A HISTORY OF LIFE AND DEATH. Ms Lepore is a Harvard History Professor and a staffer at the New Yorker. B

  4. @Bruce: I agree, Zakaria's offense was a minor foul at most. His show is pretty good, I hope this reminds him stay focused.

    @B: Ok, sure! Did this come out recently?

    1. Yes, don't know the specific publication date, but it was reviewed in the NYT about 2 weeks ago.

  5. Saw the comparison last week online but don't recall where. He simply neglected to identify a simple sourcing. You or I would have been ignored for it.

  6. zakaria - nothing new to say except to copy someone else.
    if blogging is hard, just don't do it.