Michael Lewis and Andrew Sullivan in 2014.

Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

Goodbye to the Dish and Blogging, Too

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Andrew Sullivan will cease publishing his blog tomorrow, after more than a decade. For those of us who have been around a long time, this can't help but feel personal.

I didn't come to blogging through Andrew, as many did; my "blogfather" was Instapundit, who I discovered because I read an article about him in Time or Newsweek. That was back in 2001, when those were magazines people read every week. A month or so later, I thought, "Hey, I have opinions! Maybe I could do this ... " and the rest is 13 years of my personal history. 

Everyone who blogged in that era knew Andrew, and read Andrew, and felt his personal influence through his generous links and his passionate engagement in the lengthy conversations that used to sprawl across the pages of hundreds of blogs. Like many people, I guest-blogged for him, and I enjoyed a resulting increase in my own traffic. Then I became his colleague -- first at the Atlantic, then at Newsweek/the Daily Beast. Now he's leaving, and it feels like one more sign that our era is ending.

Long ago, when blogging was a fresh new form that attracted a lot of chin-stroking journalism, Glenn Reynolds said something that stuck with me: Journalism is a lecture; blogging is a conversation. That's not as true as it used to be, and it gets less true every day, as old bloggers leave and are not replaced. Ezra Klein attributes much of this to social media, which is certainly part of the answer; Facebook does not reward Part Seven of a back-and-forth about affirmative action. It wants neat, self-contained, authoritative statements about The Way the World Is, preferably ones that bolster your ideological commitments by eschewing caveats, ambiguity or serious engagement with the other side. As I frequently joke with my writer friends, the ideal blog post for the social media world would be headlined: "Everything You Already Believe Is Completely Correct, and Here's Some Math You Won't Understand That Proves It."

I imagine that a number of bloggers breathed a sigh of relief when the form became less conversational -- no need to respond to all those uncomfortable questions the other side is raising! The great thing about Andrew was that he kept up the conversation. He is passionate in argument, and he and I have had some fierce disagreements over the years. But right up to the end, he kept asking uncomfortable questions and offering answers from both sides. That's pretty rare, and pretty admirable, and I'm deeply sad that one last vestige of the old days is soon to be no more.

But the problem with the old model of blogging is not just social media; it's that blogging is exhausting. Two or three items a day doesn't sound like a lot, but it takes a long time just to find something you want to write about. And the slowly dying ecosystem of other blogs makes it harder, because there's no longer a conversation you can just easily hook into. Instead of plopping yourself down at a table where people are already talking, you have to wander through a room filled with people who are speaking to an audience through a megaphone and decide which of these oratorial topics might interest your own audience and a few thousand of their Facebook friends. It's much lonelier, and consumes more energy, than it was in days of yore. This is why I spend so much time on my comments section; it is the one remainder of the old back-and-forth that made me love blogging in the first place.

Most of us, one way or another, stopped doing what we used to do. I write fewer, longer items; others stopped blogging entirely. Andrew kept up the volume, even increased it, but by the end, it took a staff of 10 to do it. It's no wonder he burned out; the wonder is that it took so long.

But that burnout is a warning for journalism. My industry faces two big challenges. The first is to find a business model that will pay for journalism -- which is not being killed off by bloggers, but by giant Web companies that sell lots of ads without doing any of that expensive reporting. Andrew was the pioneer of one possible model -- subscriptions -- and I think his experience has shown that this model won't work. The Dish got an amazing amount of support from loyal readers, far more than anyone else could hope for, and it pulled in enough money to cover the cost of operations, but only if those operations operated at an unsustainably high pitch.

The other challenge is "what will journalism careers look like?" My profession, after grousing about "pajama-clad bloggers" who were allowed to say anything they wanted without editorial interference, has moved toward that model. As ad dollars have died, we have come to rely more and more on armies of people putting out quick content. Obviously, I'd be ridiculous to complain about that model, and I'm not. I think something is being lost as the long form dies, foreign bureaus are shuttered, and the dull but necessary job of reporting on city council meetings and state budgets becomes financially unviable. But I also think there was a lot of fat in the old model where star writers produced a piece a week, or a piece a month, or a piece a year. And that much has also been gained: the tremendous leaps forward that the Internet made possible in reporting on data and policy, the immediacy and interaction of the new forms. We can do more now than we did before, and we can do it at whatever length the subject requires, rather than being hemmed in by the tyranny of the column inch.

But the retirement of Andrew Sullivan raises a question that I've batted back and forth with other people in the game: How many people can keep it up over a career? We don't know, because no one has tried.

Before you ask, no, I am not talking about myself; I still love my job and have every intention of doing it until they carry me out feet first. But I certainly do contend with burnout, and as I age, I've realized that I have to actively manage it -- which is why I no longer blog on weekends unless there's an emergency, and I have recently started making sure that I take a sustained block of time off every three months. And even so, I'm one of the few left who have managed to keep up with extensive daily blogging for more than a decade. The fact that Instapundit and me and Tyler Cowen and a few others are still plugging away doesn't mean that you can staff an entire industry that way.

Of course, when people burn out, you can just replace them with fresh, young 20-somethings who have lots of energy and no family obligations. But that model has a number of drawbacks, starting with the fact that, eventually, the fresh, young 20-somethings might catch on to the fact that there's no future in their jobs. Also, of course, you lose all the experience and expertise that the older journalists built up, so you end up having the exact same arguments, with the exact same mistakes people made last time, every five or 10 years.  This is not some sort of grumpy rant against young writers, mind you -- it's great that they have so much voice. I'm merely pointing out that older writers add value, too, and a system that can't keep them is going to be a system with serious problems.

We're not losing Andrew Sullivan, of course -- he'll still be writing and speaking in other venues. But we have lost something that was great. And I hope we won't lose more like him.

  1. To offer a personal example of how this cycle works in other industries, I remember mentioning some new Medicare payment reform to my dad -- who, as it happens, was a budget analyst at New York Health and Hospitals Corp. in the 1970s. He listened with delight, and said, "Yes, we tried that exact thing. Here's why it failed."

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To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net