Some Thoughts On New Journalistic Ventures, Internet Time, and Your Media Diet

This week, I've been substituting for Greg Sargent at his Plum Line blog at the Washington Post, which has been a lot of fun. I've enjoyed getting exposed to a new and larger audience. But it has also been challenging, particularly since I've tried to keep posting here on the Prospect as well. Greg's blog runs on a pretty strict schedule—his readers expect a post to be there when they get to their desks at 9 am, then a couple more through the day, and finally a roundup of links to other stories at the end of the day. They also expect writing that is pegged to today's events, but gives a broader perspective that will still be relevant tomorrow.

So that's demanding, even if there are people out there who write a lot more than that every day (Bekah Grant, a former writer for VentureBeat, recently wrote how "I wrote an average of 5 posts a day, churning out nearly 1,740 articles over the course of 20 months. That is, by all objective standards, insane." And don't even ask about the demands made on the people who write for sites like Gawker.) In the few moments when I haven't been panicking about whether my idea for the post that's due in an hour will be sufficiently interesting (or when I have no idea for the next post at all), it has given me some perspective on what we do here at the Prospect and how our writing and reporting fits into readers' lives.

The new journalism ventures which have gotten so much attention—Nate Silver's Five Thirty Eight, Glenn Greenwald's The Intercept, and Ezra Klein's Vox—the first two which launched within the last few weeks and the last which will in the coming ones, and have come by criticism in various places for things like the diversity of their staffs and whether they're living up to their promise. While much of this criticism is on target, I think we should be careful not to believe that any one enterprise is going to be the Future of Journalism, and get overly disappointed when it isn't. I'm not saying "Go easy on them!"—if you spend millions of dollars and publish manifestos, your product should be spectacular—but we should just remember that no web site, no matter how snazzy, needs to be the be-all and end-all of our information needs.

That's what so great about the Internet. Sure, few people have the time to read 50 web sites every day, but nobody needs to limit themselves to just one, either. Given some of the nastiness that has been directed at Nate Silver from old-school journalists over the past few years (perhaps understandably, since he was directly arguing that much of political reporting and punditry is useless, and that isn't something you want to hear if that's how you make your living), you'd think that we were all going to be forced to read either his work or that of shoeleather reporters, and we couldn't read both.

There are more thoughtful critiques of Silver's work from Paul Krugman and Marc Tracy, but the upshot is that Silver's data-driven analysis is one way to help understand the political world, and there are other ways that also help us understand. It isn't a zero-sum contest, where a worthwhile 538 post on presidential polls means that a magazine profile of a candidate's chief adviser has nothing to tell you.

Which brings me back to the Prospect. Here's something to think about as you construct your own media diet. If you have the time, the ideal thing would be to expose yourself to a combination of perspectives—the quantitative, the reported, the analytical—and also things that were produced on a variety of schedules. You'd want to read something telling you what happened today, something else telling you how you might think about what happened yesterday, and something giving a broad perspective on what happened this year.

Is that possible if reading things on the Internet isn't your full-time job? I think it is. But to be honest, those of us in this business wrestle with questions of time constantly. Here at the Prospect, we know that our site isn't where you would go for breaking news; it's the middle and long views that we do really well. But it's also true that one of the Internet's commandments is Thou Shalt Have New Content Every Day, because if you don't, fickle readers will visit the site, say "This is all the same stuff I saw yesterday," then leave and not return. I should take this opportunity to praise the wisdom of my editors, who give me the freedom to write about whatever interests me, are indulgent of the fact that I can't seem to say anything in less than 500 words (and often write posts that cruise right past 1,000, just like this one is threatening to), and don't grumble when I take an extra couple of hours on a post even though they'd rather it went up earlier in the day.

Anyhow, my point is this: although we should critically examine every high-profile journalistic venture, if any one doesn't measure up, we as readers haven't lost anything beyond the few minutes we spent reading something that didn't quite measure up. This is, as I've written before, the golden age of information. Our choices for things to read that will help us understand the world are practically infinite.

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