One of my favorite bloggers, Glenn Greenwald, has just moved his blog from the open market (so to speak) to Salon, where it will be behind a subscription wall, albeit one which can be reached if you are willing to click through a rather modestly irritating advertisement.
As an aside, I actually would be willing to do that, but the site doesn’t always function properly in Windows 2000 using Firefox. Maybe it would if I subscribed, but I’m not willing to risk $60 to find out.
Back to Mr. Greenwald’s move.
He says that his move is justified by his need to make a living and that, in fact, the future of the blogosphere depends on people like him, blogging full time, being able to make a living from their blogs.
"I'm sorry that there are people who think that clicking through an ad (or subscribing to avoid it) is a grave insult and an outrageous imposition. It also can be an inconvenience for bloggers (or political analysts or activists of any kind) who -- driven by passion and a desire to contribute in some way to improving the state of the country -- spend 3 hours per day or 8 hours per day or 12 hours per day on their work without being able to earn a living. To begrudge someone the ability to do so -- or to act as though they are engaged in an act of betrayal or even some kind of corruption -- because they find a way to work on behalf of their political ideas and earn a living doing it is truly bizarre."
But to me his move to behind a subscription/ad wall is alarming in two ways.
First is that it suggests a trend toward less open blogosphere. Whether I would pay a subscription to read Mr. Greenwald’s column at this point, having already become a regular reader, is one thing. But I came across his column initially when I was "cruising" the open blogosphere. If his column had been behind the subscription/ad wall at that time, I almost certainly would never have seen it to begin with.
What happens when all of the skilled, insightful bloggers follow his lead? How much will it cost me to have subscriptions to all of the "for pay" sites on which their blogs reside? How will newcomers to the blogging world determine which columns they actually want to follow?
Will the trend lead to a blogosphere that is populated only by people who do not attract enough of a readership to be invited to move to the subscription sites? A blogosphere of writers, admittedly such as myself, who barely know what they are talking about?
Under that scenario the Internet news and commentary becomes a set of sites to which people pay subscriptions to read articles and op-ed pieces written by writers who are doing it on a full-time basis as a means of making a living. In what way precisely does that differ from what we call today the "mainstream media" and against which the blogosphere rails rather continuously?
Which leads me to the second and rather (to me) alarming trend in the blogosphere, and that is that there are people who are actually doing it full time with the expectation of making a living doing it. And, further, that they are of necessity doing it as parts of larger entities.
Mr. Greenwald says that Salon has given him a contract that assures that they will not in any way interfere with what he writes or how he writes it. I don’t doubt that for a minute, but I don’t believe that his writing will be unaffected by the environment in which he is writing. How can it not be? In fact, I suspect that it already has been.
Here is a paragraph from a piece he wrote in April 2006;
"As has been clear from the beginning, and as Savage notes, the significance of the NSA scandal was never about eavesdropping. Its significance lay in the fact that the President got caught red-handed violating the law on purpose, because he believes he has the power to do so. To defend his conduct, the administration has been forced to parade those theories around out in the open, and as a result, it is only a matter of time before the public starts to realize how severe the crisis is that we have in our country:"
Sharp words. Very specific, very much to the point, but not even bordering on hyperbole. Compare that with the quotation above. "I'm sorry that there are people who think that clicking through an ad (or subscribing to avoid it) is a grave insult and an outrageous imposition." Actually, nobody said that. They merely said that they didn’t like doing it. Since his guest posting at Salon, Mr. Greenwald’s writing has been increasingly filled with hyperbole and sarcasm. (Which is rather typical of Salon, and is another reason I plan not to subscribe.)
When one is engaged on a full time basis as part of a larger whole, one simply cannot remain unaffected. That is one of the shortcomings of the mainstream media; that individual item coverage tends to be affected by the opinion and style of the larger body. It isn’t necessarily that anyone wants this to happen, it is simply "the nature of the beast."
Even if unaffected by the larger environment, a full time writer is not the same as a true independent.
There is a difference between someone who emerges from an office in order to obtain facts from which to write a news or op-ed piece, and someone who lives in the same world as the reader and writes about his experiences and observations form the viewpoint of his passion for the social or physical environment in which he lives.
A journalist leaves the office to interview or watch a politician in action, then returns to the office to write about that politician. The blogger drives to work in rush hour traffic, works for wages, goes to lunch at McDonalds, drives home through rush hour traffic, and then writes a blog about how he feels about the effect that that politician is having on his life.
So the blogosphere evolves. Mr. Greenwald says this is a good change.
I’m not so sure.