Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 13, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

MIRROR, MIRROR....Ross Douthat writes about the problem of stale columnists who stay on the job year after year after year:

There are columnists who stay persistently interesting even after decades on the job, but they're few and far between, and even the best of them might profit from five-year sabbaticals here and there. The rest should be...strictly term-limited, at five or ten or fifteen years. It would be good for us, the readers, and good for them as well.

But what about the beam in our own eye? Do bloggers get stale too? There's a whole generation of high-traffic political bloggers who have recently passed the five-year mark and show no signs of quitting. Should we all be taking sabbaticals too?

Kevin Drum 12:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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Please don't. If you all took sabbaticals I would get more work done, but my job isn't all that important.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on November 13, 2007 at 12:14 PM | PERMALINK

Are you, and Atrios, and some others and boring as Bavid Brooks? David Broder? George Will? Kraphammer? I'd say no. The four I mentioned have all outlived their sell by date.

Posted by: Joe Klein's conscience on November 13, 2007 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

There's an important difference between bloggers and op-ed columnists. A leading newspaper only has room to print about three or four op-ed articles per day. But the net has room for millions of blogs. If you get boring, but keep publishing, people can read something else instead. But if an op-ed columnist is boring, stale, but continues to take up column inches every other day, he or she is taking up a slot that could have been used to print something more interesting.

Posted by: Joe Buck on November 13, 2007 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

Do bloggers get stale too?
Should we all be taking sabbaticals too?

In the best of all possible worlds, you and Matthew Yglesias would be replaced by me and egbert.

Posted by: Al on November 13, 2007 at 12:24 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, please quit blogging. See you in a few years.

Posted by: Deliliah on November 13, 2007 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

You, no. Josh, no. Mr. Black, no. Most of the rest, yes--especially Sullivan.

Posted by: glenintexas on November 13, 2007 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

I would settle for a blogger taking a one year sabbatical on any issue they have posted on more than 50 times in one month. Or maybe 1,000 times in a year. The rate is negotiable, but you get the idea.

Posted by: Adolphus on November 13, 2007 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

Blog to your heart's content, Kevin. You've managed to keep it interesting so far.

The internet is not (yet) the creature of a media monopoly. Readers can go on sabbatical any time they like, and there's no need for bloggers to do so until they run out of words or energy.

Posted by: Boolaboola on November 13, 2007 at 12:49 PM | PERMALINK

On the other hand there are some who disappeared far far too soon. Specifically Bilmon. Not to mention the late lamented Media Whores Online and Berube, though the latter is still around--he just shut down his personal blog. Probably some others I could name as well.

Posted by: DrBB on November 13, 2007 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

Kind of along the lines of Adolphus, I think the greater of variety of topics you blog, the less likely you are to go stale.

I have two blogs. One is typical liberal to left-liberal politics, plus special focus on Peak Oil and the subprime fallout/housing bubble.

I have a second blog where I cover philosophy issues, especially cognitive philosophy/cognitive science, critical thinking/skepticism, religion/atheism, and aesthetic issues such as poetry (including my own), classical music and other fine arts.

Trust me, I have plenty to keep me from getting bored or stale.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on November 13, 2007 at 12:54 PM | PERMALINK

Bloggers are different from columnists. Columnists get to have their say and maybe one person gets a letter to the editor in response. Bloggers start a discussion anyone can join. Columnists are kept on by their editor cronies or sydicates and thus never die or even fade away. When bloggers get stale, you'll see the result on these threads.

So Kevin, the day you see posts only from Al, Eggie and mhr, that's the day to hang it up.

Posted by: tomeck on November 13, 2007 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

You bet bloggers get stale even when they think they're being innovative. Kevin has done a great job in not being a boring read even with a few bad posts along the way he's very entertaining until he starts blogging about what Yglesias is blogging about who is blogging about what Sullivan is blogging about because he saw that Josh is blogging about it too. However, that's to be expected. But where blogging gets really stale is sites like Josh's where all posts are really nothing more than teases to get you to click on the link in order to get more hits on the hit counter to rack up more income. Besides the fact that a lot of the latest posts are nothing more than reposts from news organizations that I've already read elsewhere.

Posted by: Paul on November 13, 2007 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

How can one get stale sitting in their pajamas in their mother's basement? It's a recipe for never-ending freshness. But there's something to the sabbatical idea, and not just for pundits. ALL DC-based journalists should be forced to rotate out of the capitol after a few years. The quality of journalism would shoot up exponentially. Reporters who have been there for ages think their wonderfulness is the reason why sources talk to them and people return their phone calls (think of Woodward wondering why other reporters don't just ring the White House for access). But the dirty secret is that just about any reporter from the sticks would be just as successful if backed by the Post or Times. Let them stay 10 years and they'll morph into Shailagh Murray.

Posted by: JZ on November 13, 2007 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

Unlike columnists, bloggers interact with readers as a matter of course --they are getting instant feedback and almost write for that purpose.

Columnists might spur letters to the editor or comment posts, but they don't actually interact with their readers as part of their writing, Broder's monthly online chats notwithstanding.

That's what makes bloggers better and more interesting --they usually thrive on feedback from their readers and use it. Columnists thrive on feedback from editors and the powerful who may give them feedback coupled with alterior motives.

Posted by: david in norcal on November 13, 2007 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

"Should we all be taking sabbaticals too?"

Feel free. You aren't the only blogger on the block, and I don't have to buy the newspaper at (an overpriced) 50 cents to read any of them.

Bloggers don't have the long-term franchise that editorial writers have. I buy the paper for the comics and get the editorials - though with the death of Molly Ivins there are very few columnists left worth reading in either the Dallas or Fort Worth papers. Both have restructured the editorial page recently, and cut sharply back on syndicated columnists. The newer local guys no longer discuss national politics.

The subscription wall really hurt the NY Times. I haven't even gone back to read Krugman unless someone refers to him on-line.

So Kevin, you are only as good as yesterday's blog. I'll keep reading you as long as you stay relatively fresh and continue to attract an intelligent bunch of commenters. If you want a sabbatical, feel free, but don't expect to be welcomed back with open arms any more than the NY Times has been. You aren't Garrison Kielor, you know.

Posted by: Rick B on November 13, 2007 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

as has been pointed out -- apples and oranges. If bloggers get stale, the measure is obvious. With web sites, the market speaks quickly. With papers / the Villagers, there are no market forces at work.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on November 13, 2007 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

An important distinction is that bloggers don't need to worry about word count, while editorial columnists do. Most MoDo columns could just as easily be distilled to a paragraph -- or a handwritten note (replete with exclamation points & doodles!!!), to be passed along to her seventh grade friends. That's not saying that some bloggers aren't really windy (Greenwald & sometimes Sullivan), but the format allows the writer to post developing (or even undeveloped) thoughts without forcing some conclusion where one doesn't necessarily exist.

Posted by: junebug on November 13, 2007 at 2:07 PM | PERMALINK

Bloggers have not been at it a long time. The landscape has changed less during their tenure than it has during the tenure of a Broder or a Novakula.

Many of the columnists are still living in a different era--they started writing when Democrats were the corrupt ones (controlling big cities and the House) and Republicans were clean. They have not yet realized that things have changed. When they started, people didn't make a big deal out of small errors or one bad column, because it was too much work. Now, they work in the era of blogs, where their stupidity is made clearer, and they can't handle it. They also come from an era when there was a moderate consensus in journalism, and they are very confused by its disappearance.

Twenty years from now, when Kevin is still blaming all of our problems on the fact that the media claimed Gore claimed he invented the internet and still predicting that Musharraf's days are numbered, he'll have replaced David Broder as our senile media friend, and the chips installed in our brains will force us to laugh at him. Keep going strong until then.

Posted by: reino on November 13, 2007 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

The staleness of Beltway columnists has as much to do with their never getting the hell out of Washington, reading anything online or talking to non-Villagers as it does with their having hung around for decades. Of course, all of those things reinforce each other.

Posted by: shortstop on November 13, 2007 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

Should we all be taking sabbaticals too?

Yes. Make room for the rest of us.

Posted by: Xanthippas on November 13, 2007 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK

not to mention, the minute you bore me, or anyone else, you get instant feedback (assuming you, or your employers, track visitors, time spent, posts and the like) if your page views went down 25% over six months, you would take the hint, one hopes. your ad revenue would decrease, donations would decrease, fewer interesting people would respond to your posts (and yes, fewer other interesting bloggers would give you trackbacks) my not coming here, in some miniscule way, affects your revenue, and the only revenue you have is me (And all the rest of us) coming here to read you.

now take the oped page of the Post today, boring, all of them, nothing new. I wouldn't post or comment on any of them, but I still had the paper dropped off out front. the oped page could get incredibly useless, as it almost has, and I would still read the sports page, the business section, etc. I don't buy the paper for the oped page alone, even more so for one individual columnist, I do come here for one person, though. or at least the discussion that one person starts.

Posted by: northzax on November 13, 2007 at 2:57 PM | PERMALINK

I would venture that we could all benefit from a five-year sabatical. However, finding someone to pay us for that... well, that is the rub...

Posted by: Jim G on November 13, 2007 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, but you don't actually write stuff, or have to have a point.

I kid. But not entirely. An op-ed piece is supposed to be a coherent essay in miniature. There are wide variations within the form, but it is a form, and had definite boundaries. Whereas a blog post is free to pounce upon every new thing and riff on it, as long or as short, as well thought out or as off the cuff as you please. The majority of what bloggers do is react, not ponder. And reactions are a dime a dozen, interesting independent thoughts few and far between.

Posted by: C. on November 13, 2007 at 3:31 PM | PERMALINK

What northzax said. I might add, you might also do what Matt Yglesias did recently, and ask your readers directly what parts of the blog they like and what parts they don't, and adjust things accordingly.

Also, bloggers are more likely to get burned out and give up blogging themselves---see Billmon, fafblog, Media Whores Online, etc.

So there are two self-correcting mechanisms for bloggers that don't exist for twice-weekly columnists.

Posted by: JoshA on November 13, 2007 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

I think the rule should apply to commenters more than bloggers -- whenever you feel you have to add your pithy retort to at least one posting every day it's time to take two weeks off... I wish I could take back some of my more inane brainfarts.

Posted by: cruel dude - formerly the minion on November 13, 2007 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

I miss Media Horse (MWO).

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on November 13, 2007 at 5:02 PM | PERMALINK

Comparing op-ed writers to bloggers is like comparing ice cream to nukular weapons; they are different kettles of fish, or something.

What makes a blog work is the comments as much as the subject of the blog. Every day I read through the news feeds & op-eds from my home page, them go to the blogs to try to gain some insight into what I have already read. Usually I get more news I want to know from the blogs than I do from the RSS feeds. But the comments help fill in areas where I have either little knowledge or helps me define a more reasonable personal position on that issue.

As far as taking a sabbatical, if you make enough from the blog to be able to afford that, you are making too much money. Seriously, if you become stale, you will know from the ever dwindling list of comments & lower web visits. So far, you keep it interesting & the commentors don't go too far out into the rage against each other mode, though some days it gets pretty wild around here. I also appreciate that you post on several different topics a day.

Posted by: bob in fla on November 13, 2007 at 5:05 PM | PERMALINK

I wish I could take back some of my more inane brainfarts. Posted by: cruel dude - formerly the minion on November 13, 2007 at 4:55 PM

Me too. (My own brainfarts, that is.) Late one night I read a post here, read through the comments, and then added my own comment which I realized was almost exadtly what Kevin had said.

But blogs can be more lively than columns and, if they're not, no trees suffer needlessly.

Posted by: thersites on November 13, 2007 at 5:32 PM | PERMALINK

Two points:
First, the sainted Billmon did get stale from time to time. Billmon then took a few months off, and started again, with batteries recharged. Unfortunately, Billmon's latest hiatus seems permanent.

Second, there is one class of commenters that doesn't ever seem to get stale: top political cartoonists. Herblock was still good in his tenth decade. Oliphant seems to have been at work since the Spanish-American war--again good. Trudeau long ago lost his ability to create or maintain sympathetic characters (although the war seems to have helped him regain it), but remains a very sharp political cartoonist. How do they stay good so long?

Posted by: Joe S. on November 13, 2007 at 5:33 PM | PERMALINK

He tasks me. Yes, he tasks me.

Posted by: Pinko Punko on November 13, 2007 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

My ass is hella tired. Even I'm sick of my stale, unfunny shit.

Posted by: Roger Ailes on November 13, 2007 at 6:07 PM | PERMALINK

A lot of columnists seem "stale" (Dowd, Krauthammer, Dowd, Broder, Dowd, etc.) because they always sucked lungs. But their paper never admits the mistake it made in hiring them, and so never fires their boring, useless, inane asses.

Posted by: calling all toasters on November 13, 2007 at 6:28 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, you are one of the sanest people in the blogesphere and I look forward to your writing every day. You sometimes write about non-political stuff and ask interesting questions. Keep it up!!!

Posted by: Merrimarr on November 13, 2007 at 6:29 PM | PERMALINK

I am considering a break after five years. OTOH if all the other five and six year liberal bloggers quit I would stay on to be the Broder.

Posted by: Gary Denton on November 13, 2007 at 6:35 PM | PERMALINK

There are bloggers who cease to be interesting. But none of them write for Washington Monthly. (It remains, above all, the most interesting national-issues blog in the 'sphere.) But since it pays so little, they tend to run out of gas before they get stale. The number of still-interesting bloggers who hung 'em up before their time is staggering.

Posted by: Jeff Alworth on November 14, 2007 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK



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