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March 12, 2014 11:35 AM Paul Glastris on the Shortcomings of the Wonkosphere

By Martin Longman

In the Editor’s Note for the March/April/May issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the “wonkosphere,” as well as a bit of the history of how it emerged around 2000 and has evolved since then. Some of the more recognized wonk-netizens (Ezra Klein, Kevin Drum, Josh Marshall) did early work at the Monthly, and then went on to bring the genre to the strictly digital world. Though, in doing so, according to Glastris, they merged wonkishness (policy) with partisanship (politics) in a way that has become the hallmark of the blogosphere in general.

This satisfied a previously unfed audience and quickly changed the quality and character of how policy is covered. It brought some star-power to wonks for the first time. But, even as this new kind of journalism was getting its footing, the old system was decaying.

Up until the last decade or so, there really weren’t “policy journalists” per se, outside the rarified pages of magazines like the Washington Monthly. In mainstream outlets, the political reporters, the stars of most newsrooms, wrote some about policy, but only as it related to the horse race. They were oddsmakers (will such-and-such bill pass the Senate?), not explainers or evaluators (how well do experts think the bill’s specific provisions will work in practice?). The task of following the details of policy was relegated to a second group, beat reporters who covered certain agencies and issues. The best of these (think the New York Times’s Robert Pear’s health care coverage) had encyclopedic knowledge of their issues and sources deep in the bureaucracy. They won awards and enjoyed a certain amount of respect in newsrooms. But they were not celebrities. They did not get invited on TV to share their opinions. And they did not write much about the political dimensions of the issues they covered.

As newsrooms trimmed their staffs to meet budgetary requirements, fewer reporters were working the bureaucratic beat, getting into the weeds of the agencies and breaking stories on how policies were working, or not working. One consequence of this, Glastris argues, is that the problems with the rollout of the ObamaCare insurance exchanges were not detected despite the fact that many people working on them knew things were not on schedule.

The traditional media failed to see that one coming, too, as did Congress and the White House, even though documents quickly surfaced showing that plenty of people in the agencies and the contracting companies knew that disaster was brewing. The shriveling of the old media beat reporting system and the government’s shrinking willingness to conduct oversight probably explains this systematic failure. But if the wonkosphere aims to be a better alternative to traditional policy coverage, it needs to broaden its scope of reporting, to have sources not just among academic experts and high-level policy-makers but deeper down in the agencies and other organizations where the rubber of policy meets the road of reality.

A second weakness with the online wonkosphere identified by Glastris is that it, like seemingly all journalistic endeavors these days, is too tied to the news cycle.

The wonkosphere’s other big weakness derives, ironically, from one of its greatest strengths: its newsiness. Policy bloggers drive traffic by illuminating and adjudicating policy disputes at the center of the day’s political news. But almost by definition that means their reporting agenda is tied to whatever policy issues official Washington deems important or to those that happen to be generating a lot of partisan controversy. While that’s a valuable service, we also desperately need journalists to be looking over the horizon, at the policies Washington and the news media should be focused on but aren’t—like new ideas to provide Americans with retirement security, or affordable higher education, or what can be done beyond Obamacare to bring down the costs of health care.
But such over-the-horizon reporting, as with rubber-meets-road implementation reporting, takes money and patience. The problem is that neither resource is in very plentiful supply in journalism these days.

Of course, this is the challenge of journalism in the digital age. How do we get paid?

If the New York Times can’t afford a reporter to cover the inner workings of the Department of Health & Human Services, how can we expect Josh Marshall or Ezra Klein to be able to afford it? The audience for untimely policy debate is small and unlikely to create profits for those who provide it. So, I believe the answer here is that we must somehow change the culture of the blogosphere so that the audience gets over their expectation that everything should be free. In the past, readers paid for their information through subscriptions, or indirectly by looking at advertising. Those methods of compensating journalists are generally optional for the reader now, and it’s undermining the quality of reporting that people receive.

The lesson is, you get more and better content if you agree to pay for it. If enough people internalize this truth, maybe journalists can get the money and find the patience they need to do the over-the-horizon policy reporting that Glastris wants to see.

Martin Longman is the Web Editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune. He has worked as a community organizer for ACORN/Project Vote and as a political consultant for Democracy for America.

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