Ten years ago today I up-loaded my first post to the group blog Room Eight, after having been invited to join by site founders Ben Smith, now the news editor of Buzzfeed, and Gur Tsabar. As they described the site in 2008 “Room Eight is the imaginary neighbor to New York City Hall’s legendary press room, Room 9. Technically speaking, it is a group blog, or an online community. It’s a place where both insiders and informed outsiders can have a running conversation about New York politics. We encourage all members of the political community to write on the Room Eight blog, and anyone can set up a blog on Room Eight.”
That ambition eventually became unfulfilled. Most of those who initially posted on the site have stopped doing so, or do so rarely. Ben and Gur turned the site over the Alley Interactive, a firm that provides internet services for publishers, a few years ago. But I have continued to post, even creating an alternative site, “Saying the Unsaid in New York,” when Room Eight stopped working — before it was revived by Alley Interactive. As a consequence there are times when the Larry Littlefield blog accounts for well more than half the Room Eight posts. As it is currently structured the site has about 10 posts per page, and with 105 pages ascribed to me I guess I’ve put up about 1,050. The total is 387 pages on Room Eight, so I’ve written about a quarter of the posts in total. But I’ve written 28 of the past 50, and a higher share in recent years that (unlike this one) lacked a prominent election such as the one for Mayor or President. A discussion as to why I’m still doing this, and speculation as to why others have mostly stopped, follows.
First of all blogging is unpaid work, and eventually people are going to get tired of it. Life moves on, and other pursuits become more important or necessary. So why do it in the first place? Initially, I suspect that some of the posters believed Room Eight would be more widely read, and thus more important, than it turned out to be, and that being a writer on it would at least provide prestige if not income. And I think Ben and Gur hoped to make a little money.
For a while Room Eight may indeed have been widely read, but eventually that ceased to be the case. I have no idea how many people read my posts on Room Eight. On Saying the Unsaid in New York, where I can see the statistics, about 25 to 30 people per day read about 50 posts, and not usually the most recent. As many posts as I’ve written, I generally write one once a week or less, not twice a day, so people don’t often check to see if there is a new one. WordPress tells me that charts are often downloaded, now that I have been taught how to include charts. Spreadsheets with tables are downloaded less often than I would like.
With a professional at the helm and some advertising on the site, perhaps more people are reading my posts on Room Eight than on Saying the Unsaid in New York. But I tend to write long, complicated essays of interest to a small, wonky audience. That isn’t the plan for a widely read blog, let alone one that makes you famous or makes money.
The bottom line is I never expected to be rich, or famous, or quit my day job. So a small audience is not a concern for me. What I actually hope to achieve, perhaps someday, is to increase the knowledge of someone with the capacity to put out a simplified, shorter version of what I’m saying that would, in fact, be read by a larger audience.
I’ve repeatedly offered to walk members of the news media through all the data I put up, showing them where it comes from, how it is tabulated, and what issues are raised by the output. Issues that could be followed up. No takers. But I keep trying. Perhaps if I identified myself as “The Center for Comparative State and Local Government Fiscal Policy” and hired a flack to issue press releases things would be different.
Second, the other early posters may have simply run out of things to say. Initially there is all this information that the general public doesn’t know, and a high level of motivation to make that information available. And then you’ve done it. The motivation isn’t nearly as high to write the same thing, or something like it, again and again and again – despite the possibility that this time additional people might see it that had not seen it before.
This is something I’ve wrestled with myself. Since my posts tend to be data-based, however, and new data comes out every year, there is always something new that can be added. With detailed posts from the past still available, moreover, I have the option to write shorter summaries, but link to the older posts so that what I say still has all the back-up.
Third, it is possible that someone else pulled the plug on the other once-prolific bloggers, because they are no longer willing to put up with the diversion of their time. There are other priorities in a family, and they have to take priority over what is in effect an unpaid job.
It is also possible that someone who once had been helping the other former bloggers is no longer available to do so. At the office I write 44 six to twelve page reports per quarter, and these are subsequently edited by another person and then re-read by someone else. I also edit 28 reports per quarter, and these are then re-read by someone else. As an unpaid, avocational blogger, on the other hand, I have no editor and I can never manage to get rid of all the typos myself. You can’t see your own, because your brain knows what you meant to say, and that is often what you see regardless of what is actually there. In this the reader is getting what they pay for – an unprofessional job.
In contrast I was always amazed at how few, if any, typos Room Eight writers such as Gatemouth and Rock Hackshaw had. My assumption is that someone was editing their posts for them. Perhaps whoever that is not longer is willing to do so. And instead wants their time spent on something else.
Fourth, blogging is discouraged by the nastiness of anonymous comments on the internet. Early on a couple of elected officials/prominent journalists tried to engage the public by writing on Room Eight. Rather than a debate about the subject of their posts, what they received for their trouble in the comments was unprovoked personal invective of the type common to comment forums across cyberspace. They soon stopped writing. Other bloggers got in personal battles with each other. The Room Eight principals were even sued by the Bronx District Attorney to reveal the name of one of the early writers who wrote under a pseudonym.
On Room Eight and Saying the Unsaid, on the other hand, the political nasties have left me alone. Perhaps because I write about situations and generally don’t name names, while for those in the political world it is never about what and always about who. Perhaps because these political types aren’t the sort to read a long document with charts and spreadsheets. Perhaps because they learned a lesson from the early attack on Room Eight – going after someone just calls more attention to them.
What bloggers really have to worry about, however, isn’t what is said in public. It what might happen in private. As Ben Smith noted in his affidavit in that long ago legal proceeding “although some posters on Room Eight use their own names, and Gur and I do, the great majority use pseudonyms. Many Internet posters use pseudonyms because that gives them more freedom to comment on situations and to criticize powerful figures without having to worry that they, their families, their employers, or their political associates will be intimidated or face adverse consequences from having particular comments associated with them.”
One blogger was squeezed after just a few month of blogging after his identity was threatened to be revealed, and had to stop blogging until his situation changed lest he lost his job to the detriment of his family. He later returned, was again forced to stop, and then returned again, recently revealing the name of his tormentor after he died.
In my case, on the other hand, not only are facts about government of little interest to the political types that play those games, there isn’t really very much they can do to me. After a two-decade career (if you can call it that) in government, I now work in the private sector for a business that doesn’t rely on government money. And I’m far enough along in life that I’m not really too worried about the effect of blogging on my career. Running for office against an incumbent, something I did in 2004, was after all far more of a violation of an unwritten law and provocation against the powers that be.
While those in politics face the most risk of retaliation for going off the reservation on “this thing of ours,” others are not immune. If you work for the government, if you work for a business that gets contracts for the government, you could be a target. Aaron Renn, a successful blogger, gave this as one of the three reasons not to start a blog.
“Writing a blog can hurt your career prospects. You need to understand that for a lot of people, blogging has a bad reputation. So if you are a blogger, people who might hire you are going to look at you funny. Big corporations are all about risk management. An employee with a blog creates reputational risk for the company. Who knows what you might say on it? And they are going to be wondering if you are spending your days doing actual work for them, or checking on your blog.”
“Also, the mere act of blogging can get you labeled as a nutjob in some cases. Maybe that’s less true if you write for your company blog or about something like PHP coding. But for the urban space I write in, it inevitably involves public policy, which means politics. What do you think of the various political bloggers in your town? That’s probably what city and civic leaders think about you if you run an urban blog.”
“Also, if you are telling the actual truth on your site, you are probably going to end up making some people mad. People who are mad at you aren’t likely to hire you. In my case, there’s no question that writing a blog has hurt my economic prospects in some places. But even urban bloggers who are entirely positive and boosterish about their city often find that no one is interested in them for an actual job. I previously talked about the case of one of the people at Urban Cincy. The founder of Urban Cincy was even sued by people affiliated with a political group that opposed the streetcar. They wanted to deny his right to vote in Cincinnati….It’s not a universal pattern of bloggers getting dinged. But it is a real risk.”
It’s a risk that apparently very few people are willing to take, which is perhaps the reason why very few additional writers have shown up on Room Eight over the years. If being an American means something other than getting a McMansion, a couple of SUVs, and spending lots of time at the mall, however, the very idea that people are cowed into not speaking their mind is offensive. Blogging is American. Shutting up is un-American.
The factors that motivate me to write remain in place, and grow each year. Anger and disappointment that things are going in the opposite direction that I want them to go, with regard to the value placed on the future and the less well off. And frustration that no one even talks about it, because most of the available information is created and fed to the media by the organized beneficiaries of current arrangements. I can certainly understand the feelings of the uninformed people angry enough to vote for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, even if their solutions don’t add up. It isn’t all their fault that they are uninformed.
If more of the professional news media was putting out something other than press release-based journalism, and public agencies and think tanks providing detailed information about what our state and local governments were doing to my satisfaction, the perhaps I wouldn’t feel compelled to do this myself. But as I wrote eight years ago “Nobody’s Gonna Pay You to Tell the Truth.”
Particularly since the internet revealed to the news media the reality what type of content most people actually read, and professional journalism started getting downsized out of existence.
So I have become a one-man think tank, funded by my own lost weekends, to avoid having to answer to anyone with any interest in suppressing any information. Unlike the situation when I worked in the public sector, there aren’t five levels of oversight to prevent the analyses I produce from seeing the light of day. The more certain facts are under Omerta, the more I feel compelled to write about them. The less some people like it, the more I refuse to give in. The more I seen the public discussion dominated by interest groups saying things that are not true, the more I feel compelled to tell anyone willing to listen what is true. When you know as much as I have come to know over 30-plus years of following public policy, the BS you hear drives you nuts.
I’m not doing this because it’s fun. I’m more like a bad golfer, who each weekend gets so frustrated that he feels like throwing his clubs in the lake, but keeps showing up to play the next weekend anyway.
There is one more reason why some people may have stopped blogging, or may only do so rarely. Physical limits, which I are currently right up against. My hobby is too much like my job, and as I get older I sometimes find it difficult to type and mouse so much. Once a month or so I have to take an Advil and a break to get through the end of the workday, because my left pinky won’t hit the right key anymore. Physical limits, and the need to put paid work first, are the reason I write fewer blog posts than I once did. But as long as there is so much unsaid that ought to be said, I don’t intend to stop.