The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32
Anne Field § The booster pack / 2014-02-15 16:15:39
Josh Rubenoff § The booster pack / 2014-02-09 04:29:20
David Lang § The right flavor of fame / 2014-02-07 15:13:49
Robin § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 16:41:42
Navneet Alang § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 03:40:31
Sam M-B § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 03:32:35
Chris Baker § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 02:38:57
G Love § Conversation Media / 2014-01-30 07:26:22
Navneet Alang § Calculating the Weight of the Object / 2014-01-26 16:07:58

Was Marc Ambinder actually a blogger?
 / 

Today Last week, Marc Ambinder reached the end of his tenure as a politics blogger for the Atlantic, and toasted the event with a thoughtful post on the nature of blogging. The central nugget:

Really good print journalism is ego-free. By that I do not mean that the writer has no skin in the game, or that the writer lacks a perspective, or even that the writer does not write from a perspective. What I mean is that the writer is able to let the story and the reporting process, to the highest possible extent, unfold without a reporter’s insecurities or parochial concerns intervening. Blogging is an ego-intensive process. Even in straight news stories, the format always requires you to put yourself into narrative. You are expected to not only have a point of view and reveal it, but be confident that it is the correct point of view. There is nothing wrong with this. As much as a writer can fabricate a detachment, or a “view from nowhere,” as Jay Rosen has put it, the writer can also also fabricate a view from somewhere. You can’t really be a reporter without it. I don’t care whether people know how I feel about particular political issues; it’s no secret where I stand on gay marriage, or on the science of climate change, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. What I hope I will find refreshing about the change of formats is that I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called “Marc Ambinder” that people read because it’s “Marc Ambinder,” rather than because it’s good or interesting.

My esteemed coblogger tweeted some terrific observations about Ambinder’s post:

@mthomps @robinsloan Now you can blog and be a reporter in a different way from how Ambinder & The Atlantic think of those two things.less than a minute ago via YoruFukurou

@mthomps @robinsloan But Ambinder’s (& others’) conception of “reporter” & Atlantic’s (& others’) conception of blogging are incompatible.less than a minute ago via YoruFukurou


I expect when Tim has more than 140 characters, he’ll nod to the fact that The Atlantic’s website actually encompasses many different ideas of what blogging means – from Andrew Sullivan’s flood of commentless links and reader emails to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ rollicking salons to Ambinder’s own sparsely-linked analyses. And beyond the bounds of the Atlantic there are so many other ideas, as many types of blogs as there are types of books, and maybe more – Waiter Rant to Romenesko to Muslims Wearing Things to this dude’s LiveJournal to BLDGBLOG.

That Ambinder’s essay doesn’t really acknowledge this – that it seems so curiously essentialist about a format that’s engendered so much diversity – disappoints me, because he’s such a thoughtful, subtle writer at his best. His sudden swerve into the passive voice – “You are expected to not only have a point of view” – briefly made me worry that he intends to become one of those print journalists who uses the cloak of institutional voice to write weaselly ridiculous phrases such as “Questions are being raised.”

It puzzles me that the same fellow who wrote that “a good story demolishes counterarguments” would casually drop the line, “Really good print journalism is ego-free.” “What I mean,” Ambinder says, “is that the writer is able to let the story and the reporting process, to the highest possible extent, unfold without a reporter’s insecurities or parochial concerns intervening.” I think I know what type of long-form journalism he’s referring to – there’s a wonderful genre of stories that make their case with a simple, sequential presentation of fact after unadorned fact. The Looming Tower. The Problem from Hell. David Grann’s stunning “Trial by Fire” in the New Yorker.

But there’s an equally excellent genre of journalism that foregrounds the author’s curiosities, concerns and assumptions – James Fallows’ immortal foretelling of the Iraq War, Atul Gawande’s investigation of expenditures in health care. This is ego-driven reporting, in the best possible way. For every Problem from Hell, there’s another Omnivore’s Dilemma. Far from demolishing counterarguments, Ambinder’s mention of “ego-free journalism” instantly summons to mind its opposite.

Likewise, his contention that “blogging is an ego-intensive process” has to grapple with the fact that some of the best blogging is just the reverse. It doesn’t square with examples such as Jim Romenesko, whose art is meticulously effacing himself from the world he covers, leaving a digest rich with voice and judgment so veiled you barely even notice someone’s behind it. In fact, contra Ambinder, I’ve found that one of the most difficult types of blogging to teach traditional reporters is this very trick of being a listener and reader first, suppressing the impulse to develop your own take until you’ve surveyed others and brought the best of them to your crowd. Devoid as it is of links, non-Web journalism often fosters a pride of ownership that can become insidious – a constant race to generate information that might not actually help us understand the world any better, but is (1) new and (2) yours. Unchecked, that leads inevitably to this.

In just the way Marc Ambinder’s post wasn’t necessarily an attack on blogging, this isn’t necessarily a defense of it, or an attack on traditional journalism. If Ambinder recast his musings on blogging in a slightly different way, I’d actually agree with him wholeheartedly. If, as I’ve been arguing in this post, the form is flexible enough to encompass so many approaches, that means every choice contributes to a blog’s unique identity. Perhaps more than any other publishing/broadcasting format, a blog is a manifestation of the choices and idiosyncrasies of its authors.

And I think this is what Ambinder’s experience reflects – his choices and his idiosyncrasies. He chose to blog about national politics – an extraordinarily crowded (and particularly solipsistic) field. To distinguish himself from the crowd, he chose to craft a persona known for its canny insider’s pose and behind-the-scenes insights. I think it was a terrific choice; I’ve enjoyed his Atlantic writing a lot. But there’s little essential about the format that compelled him to this choice.

The title of this post is, of course, facetious. (Although I’d kind of love it if the pointless “Who’s a journalist” debates gave way to pointless “Who’s a blogger” ones.) Of course Marc Ambinder was a blogger – he tended to a series of posts displayed on the Web in reverse-chronological order. Beyond that, there are common patterns and proven techniques, but very few rules. Print imposes more constraints, but some folks find a sort of freedom in that. I hope Marc Ambinder does, and I hope to read the product.

13 comments

Ambinder himself drew my attention to his shifting use of pronouns. Most of the parts of the post written in the first person are fairly straightforward, but the central, almost buried graf–the one that has provoked and intrigued everyone and is being quoted and requoted–is the one with the most essentialist, unqualified prose and the weirdest shift to the second person and passive voice which you highlight. The other shifts to second person are also all somewhat emotional sentences. Taken literally, they seem like irritating generalisms begging to be “demolished” by any vigorous media intellectual. Taken as cathartic narrative by a writer who needs the distance of generalisms and the second person when describing his stressful experience before moving on to something new, they seem like a very honest confessional of ‘how it felt’. ( That’s the weird thing about personal, conversational writing—it verges into the territory of actual conversation, when precision and clarity are sometimes sacrificed for a sort of emotional truthfulness that conflicts with literal interpretations.) As soon as I looked at it that way, my sympathy overtook my disagreement.

I think I sympathize with him on two fronts. You write, “Perhaps more than any other publishing/broadcasting format, a blog is a manifestation of the choices and idiosyncrasies of its authors,” and but perhaps the frequency and incessant continuity of blogging can give those initial choices and idiosyncrasies too much momentum and power over the blogger, especially in an institutional setting? Of course blogging can be whatever you make of it and innately allows a variety of tones, but when its removed from its lone rider origins and placed in an institutional confine, the rapid iteration cycle and the overflow of feedback can create a tremendous social pressure to stick to whatever initial choices are perceived as successful, not allowing room to step back and ponder other possibilities. Ambinder’s post felt like the declaration of someone purging themselves of a habit that might have initially been valuable but has gotten out of control.

Secondly, there was something irritating about Jeff Jarvis’s brief twitter snark on such a long and reflective piece that made me instantly sympathetic towards Ambinder. ;-)

I felt some of the same sympathy you did. I love this reading:

Taken as cathartic narrative by a writer who needs the distance of generalisms and the second person when describing his stressful experience before moving on to something new, they seem like a very honest confessional of ‘how it felt’.

I think that’s absolutely true. More soon.

Really beautifully put. I also like this passage:

“…when it’s removed from its lone rider origins and placed in an institutional confine, the rapid iteration cycle and the overflow of feedback can create a tremendous social pressure to stick to whatever initial choices are perceived as successful…”

The pressure on bloggers does seem to have industrial/institutional/social/temporal aspects, and your language catches the flavor of all of them.

(Sorry, mixing metaphors, it’s late.) .

Matt, I think you make a great point that Ambinder’s characterization of blogging is in many ways particular to the crowded, ego-heavy DC blog world that he inhabited. But I also think that his criticisms of the demands of an online persona apply more broadly to the different kinds of blogging than you give him credit for.

For the past three years, I’ve heard over and over that journalists must develop a “personal brand” in order to survive in the new world of web journalism. Get a blog, get on Twitter—get an audience, or you’re toast. This idea surfaces regularly in lists of advice for journalism students. I’ve even heard a proposal or two that he journalism of the future will be supported not by advertising or by subscription costs, but by fan club sales: buy a t-shirt from your favorite narrative journalist! Look—a coffee mug with a picture of Susan Orlean’s chicken! I think Ambinder’s essay is important because it’s the first time I’ve heard pushback on this idea from a journalist who was very successful in making himself a personal brand. I read Ambinder’s farewell to blogging as his desire to de-brandify himself, to retreat from the persona he had created.

Obviously, as you point out, there are many ways of blogging, and many kinds of blog personas. I assume many bloggers—maybe yourself included—wouldn’t even say they have a “blog persona,” but simply that their ordinary, multi-sided, thinking selves blog.

But I think many bloggers—not just the ones in the DC fishbowl— face the pressure to build and maintain a consistent identity. And Ambinder is right in saying that this is something that print journalists don’t have to deal with in anything like the same way.

“Really good print journalism is ego-free,” Ambinder writes. “What I mean is that the writer is able to let the story and the reporting process, to the highest possible extent, unfold without a reporter’s insecurities or parochial concerns intervening.”

I wouldn’t gloss this as just talking about narrative journalism, but about the kind of journalism where a reporter gets to start with a clean slate and a single question—where agendas and interest groups and the probable reaction of this group or that one recede, and all that’s pulling you forward is your sense of the still-veiled contours of the story. It’s no accident that Ambinder talks about the story and the reporting process “unfolding.” What makes (at least a lot of) really good journalism is that readers get to discover something that seems new and exciting because the journalist has just discovered it, too.

What’s particularly exciting for journalists about narrative journalism is that part of what it means to discover a story is to discover the voice you’ll use to tell the story. Will you be naïve or knowing, smug or elegiac, angry or extravagant? Will you exaggerate your narrator’s persona to prove a point, or will you let the facts “speak for themselves?” I think distinguishing between different types of narrative journalism as “ego-free” or “ego-driven” based on whether an article “foregrounds the author’s curiosities, concerns and assumptions” is a mistake. Atul Gawande isn’t a more “ego-driven” journalist than David Grann because Gawande writes himself into an article as a character and Grann doesn’t. The two writers are simply making a stylistic choice based on how they think a story can be best communicated to an audience. For any article, a third-person, “just the facts, ma’am” account is every bit as artificial as Joan Didion’s fits of the vapors.

I think this may have been what Tim Carmody was talking about when he wrote of Ambinder, “It’s very hard to blog as a reporter. You have to be a writer, which is different.” Just-the-facts-ma’am reporters may forget that they are enacting a persona, because their voice is given and generic. But part of the essence of being a writer is the creation of an on-page persona—the creation of a voice.

But the great thing about old-school narrative journalism, or straight-up writing, was that you didn’t have to stick to one voice. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, you could create a new voice, and a new persona, for every story. A lot of writers don’t—if you find a good persona, why not stick to it?—but the option is always there. And your persona was also limited to a certain article or a certain book. It was confined. You created it and let it go. You didn’t have to wake up to it every morning. If Tom Wolfe didn’t want to feel like a Martian, he could leave his white suit in the closet.

But blogging (and other persona engines, like Twitter) function in a very different way. That’s because what is central to blogging is not just “a series of posts displayed on the Web in reverse-chronological order,” but a very different, interactive and intensive relationship with an audience. I’ve learned a lot from what you’ve said and written about the way blogs can be used to build communities around certain questions or topic-areas, and a lot from Jay Rosen’s insistence that those words “the readers” or “the audience” be replaced with “users” who are part of a community. There are plenty of unfolding benefits to working with, and being accountable, to a whole community, rather than just to your editor.
But I think there is a difficult, sticky area for web journalists in this transitional period, when we have lots of exposure to a vocal audience that hasn’t quite become a community, when we are suddenly required to have a persona (within certain strict guidelines) but haven’t been told when—or if—that persona can ever be shut off.

The structures of the media web reward people who can consistently and volubly fill a certain niche. To succeed as a journalist on the web, by the metrics we use today (Twitter followers, Facebook likes, pageviews) you not only need to specialize in a certain subject, you also need to produce content regularly and rapidly—ideally, you need to produce content in small tweets and snippets all the time. Your personal brand must always be on the march, your narrative advancing. Even the journalists most shielded from the pressures of daily production—say, investigative journalists—are still being asked to present themselves to readers, at least at forward-thinking web news organizations. (CaliforniaWatch, which just won an ONA award, is currently going through their newsroom for a “meet our reporters” series.) In the blog world, you can’t really experiment with one voice today and a different one tomorrow. Well, that’s not quite right: you could, of course, but wouldn’t that undermine your brand?

Historically, one of the joys of being a journalist was getting to be—just slightly—a different person every day. You got to have different obsessions, different companions: today a bank robber, tomorrow a Mennonite. Maybe your copy would be dropped neatly into labeled sections, but nobody could pigeonhole you; your job was to explore the miraculous variability of the world.

I think some people do this very beautifully on the web, but the incentives of the link economy make it much more difficult to succeed at this. Success is easier-if you consolidate and amplify your online persona and keep it consistent. This, we’re told, is the way to stand out of the crowd—even if it means that you end up like Ambinder, tired of the sound of your own voice.

Wonderful response, Lois. Some marvelous points. (I don’t have a “blog persona,” I just have a gajillion blogs. Snarkmarket will always be home, though, even while I rent a few guest houses.)

This deserves a considered response as well.

You are definitely a dinner party host and not a saloon-keeper :)

Agreed and agreed!

Lois hits so many new nails on the head we really need a tree structure for this thread.

I think Ambinder’s essay is important because it’s the first time I’ve heard pushback on this idea from a journalist who was very successful in making himself a personal brand. I read Ambinder’s farewell to blogging as his desire to de-brandify himself, to retreat from the persona he had created.

This really syncs with Tim’s post, which analyzed the biographical angle for highlights I was clueless about. (I’m not a regular Ambinder reader.) And Lois (and, incidentally, Howard) is totally right–this fishbowl effect is not limited to political blogging. In tech and business blogging there’s ruthless pressure to create a persona, and those that enjoy it thrive. Arrington, anyone? My limited and highly unmemorable foray into professional blogging was actually emotionally painful–I’m talking crying in editors’ offices painful–in no small part because my existing and organic amateur blog-persona was so entirely unsuited for the emerging genre of snarky Web 2.0 startup commentary, my assigned topic.

part of what it means to discover a story is to discover the voice you’ll use to tell the story.

I almost think part of the ‘old’ process was working on that discovery with others–editors, art editors, photographers. That was a lot of fun. Blogging where each post is truly a collaborative packaging would really be something. I suppose that’s the idea behind Storify, but it’s still a retroactive collaboration. There’s something about secretly putting on a show together and then presenting it to the public that’s really fun and usually missing from the blogging process. It seems like it’s there in 48hr mag, but that’s not a sustainable model for regular, frequent media, is it Lois?

I really enjoyed this, Matt. particularly for its appreciation of the *diversity* of the experience of blogging. Ambinder’s assumptions from the perch of the journo-political blogosphere would make little sense to inhabitants of any of the many other blogospheres.

It’s worth noting that the pointless “who’s a blogger” debate took place, over and over again, in ancient blog times, when people argued about whether you had to have comments to be a true blogger, or insisted that real blogging was link-blogging and therefore diarists and essayists couldn’t truly be labeled bloggers, and so on. Those arguments are thankfully behind us, in the dustbin that is, I think, finally beginning to engulf “who’s a journalist” as well…

“There’s something about secretly putting on a show together and then presenting it to the public that’s really fun.”

So true. But I think what’s cool about Longshot/48HRMag is that it’s proved that it’s equally fun to open up this process, invite people to help you put on a show, and then present it to the “public.” The energy is the same, the core group of schemers is the same–but opening up certain channels of participation to just about anyone ends up adding energy, rather than making the process seem bland, un-secret, “public.” I think that’s the key to what makes Longshot work–it’s doesn’t feel like a “public” project, but like a secret enclave whose hidden door was left open on purpose, if you are quick enough to dart through.

Secret or not, these kinds of collaborations are a totally different kind of beast than political or news blogging. Although they are definitely kindred to the way that The Wire’s David Simon experienced journalism: http://www.esquire.com/features/essay/david-simon-0308

…About to talk in circles, good night.

For what it’s worth, I asked Jay Rosen on Twitter last night: was @marcambinder arguing that a “view from somewhere” can be more restrictive than a “view from nowhere?”

And Ambinder himself answered: ” interesting. I guess i was.”

Earlier today was trying to formulate, in tweet form, a conversation with Howard about how Jay Rosen’s evangelism on ‘the view from nowhere’ sits ill with me, but was failing at 140 characters and guilty about what I should be doing. But I think Ambinder is onto something. The View from Nowhere shouldn’t be an absolute requirement, but in protesting its hegemony do we have to execute it? I feel like I’ve learned a lot, as a reader, from prose written in the ‘View from Nowhere’ style–especially in science.

I love this discussion!
I just wanted to add one thought about a point in Ambinder’s post that really connected with me and that I haven’t seen discussed. In his post, he said that he “loved the freedom to write about whatever I wished, but I missed the discipline of learning to write about what needed to be written.”
So many times as a print reporter, I would find myself assigned to a story that just seemed as dull as dishwater — one about an experimental desalination plant leaps to mind. But almost without exception, the discovery process of reporting turned that dull assignment into something at least interesting and often fascinating. I would not have chosen to write those stories — I had no special knowledge, expertise or interest that would lead me to those topics. But the process of “writing about what needed to be written” disciplined me as a reporter to look beyond my own narrow interests, to seek points of intersection among stories, to see what I was covering from a broader perspective than my own. The water plant story that seemed so boring turned out to be a pretty interesting piece of science writing. It also led me into later stories on the politics of regional water supplies, consumer pieces on the reason your bill keeps going up and eventually an investigative piece into some shady dealings by a city attorney. The boring story was part of a web of stories that I never would have found if I’d followed only my own interests, theories and expertise.
In the discussion about individual brands and topic specialization, I wonder sometimes where the place is for the good generalist — the one who writes what needs to be written.

I loved the freedom to write about whatever I wished, but I missed the discipline of learning to write about what needed to be written.

Great post Matt. I’m gonna miss Marc’s articles.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

Below, you can use basic HTML tags and/or Markdown syntax.