I hope Brendan Nyhan is wrong when he says this:
Today, online politics has come to be dominated by two warring camps, just like offline politics. And while many critics complain about the polarization of the blogosphere and its effect on elections, how blogs will affect the economics of opinion journalism is less well understood. In particular, partisan blogs have become so popular that they are threatening the business model — and the independence — of center-left opinion magazines, which may be forced to toe the party line to ensure their survival.
He illustrates this point with his own experience. A founder of the now-defunct Spinsanity, Nyhan was invited to blog on The American Prospect’s TAPPED site. The American Prospect is a liberal publication, but like The New Republic, it was not monolithic and could be contrarian from time to time, in keeping with the open-mindedness long associated with liberals. But after Nyhan posted a couple of items criticizing other liberal bloggers, TAP’s editor asked him to limit his attacks to conservatives. This diktat caused Nyhan to quit.
Is TAPPED afraid of dissenting viewpoints? Not editorially. But according to Nyhan, it is afraid of popular left-wing bloggers’ Moses-like effect on the flow of liberal click-throughs:
One important factor shaping TAP’s decision may have been the popularity of Democratic bloggers like Atrios, who pump out a stream of pre-filtered news and commentary. Before the rise of online competition, opinion magazines had some freedom to be idiosyncratic and less partisan than their readers. The initial incarnation of the Prospect, for example, had a thoughtful, academic tone. But the availability of more points of view online (while laudable in many ways) has paradoxically increased the pressure on ideological publications to pander to readers, who have the option of seeking out exclusively partisan blogs instead.
In addition, the huge audiences of the partisan bloggers make them a key source of online traffic for opinion magazines if they supply ideologically favorable content. (At Spinsanity, we quickly learned that it was virtually impossible to get links from liberals when we criticized a liberal, and vice versa for conservatives.) Similarly, the risk of not getting links means that few commentators are willing to criticize the gatekeepers.
In some cases, the threat may be existential. Opinion magazines lose money — a lot of money — and are vulnerable to further financial losses. Atrios, Kos, and other liberal bloggers have attacked The New Republic for years, helping to undermine the center-left magazine’s lagging popularity among liberals. If TNR’s subscriber base were to shrink as a result of these attacks, the viability of the magazine could be threatened.
Nyhan points out that conservative journals of opinion were always less prone to ideological divergence, but the same syndrome exists on the right as the left. Although it does seem to me there are a number of bloggers that get called conservative but are really more libertarian, like Instapundit, Ann Althouse and The Volokh Conspiracy, who provide lots of links, but rarely to right-wing mags.
I like a battle of ideas, not a march of talking points. My advice to TAPPED and The New Republic is to take more risks, not fewer. I can’t help but think that when Bush is truly a lame duck and there is fresh soil being plowed in both political parties, the lock-steppers on both the right and the left will seem a bit marginal–dull and shrill.
For over a century, the opinion magazines have played a role as idea labs for the candidates. If all they’re doing is saluting Kos and Hugh Hewitt all day with predictable rants, that will just drive the stuff of politics, the intra-party policy debates, out of the public eye and into realms accessible only to insiders. That’s not what the Internet promised.
*UPDATE: Here is Nyhan’s blog post about the reaction to his column. Extremely interesting comments. although it seems as if no one got his point. The question isn’t whether the right and left blogs enforce conformity. Some do, some don’t. The question is whether the right and left blogs are causing the traditional opinion journals to mute contrarian points of view or self-criticism for economic reasons — to keep the referral clicks coming from the more popular blogs.
This is really an economic issue. A political blog starts out as a labor of love, done for free. If it catches on, it can sell ads, but the ad revenue need only “pay for” the time the bloggers spend working on it, and the small amount of overhead needed for web hosting.
However, the New Republic and The American Prospect (and National Review, and Weekly Standard) have the enormous additional cost of maintaining a paid staff of writers, editors, graphic artists, circulation managers, ad managers, etc., plus paper, ink, postage and rent. They are hoping their web site advertising will offset some of those costs.
And, if Nyhan is correct, the editors of those sites have noticed that traffic goes up or down based on whether these sites give reliable reinforcement to their ideological fellow-travelers. This tendency exerts pressure on editors of these magazine-based websites to enforce comformity, he believes.
So the real question on the floor is: Do we lose anything if these magazines are forced by the marketplace into becoming more orthodox?