Dylan Byers of Politico says the uber-blogger has had his heyday. He begins by citing a paragraph from Washingtonian’s profile of Sully:
What the Dish hasn’t done is drive the conversation, as Washingtonians like to say, the way it used to. Since the site went independent in early 2013, only five of its most-viewed posts have attracted more than 100,000 page views. About 781,000 people visit the site every month, a not-unrespectable showing. Then again, that’s fewer readers than Sullivan was attracting at the Atlantic site 3½ years ago. Meanwhile, the number of eyeballs has only grown, and most online media companies are doing everything possible to capture them. The Atlantic, for instance, expanded its site and more than tripled traffic after Sullivan left; it had 16.6 million readers this past March.
The Andrew Sullivan era of journalism is over. Blogs — defined as “an eclectic, scattered” reverse-chronological journal, “covering everything from foreign policy to TV to religion,” often in the first-person — are all but dead. Sullivan is the last of the Mohicans, which is a testament to his success. He was there in the beginning, and he’ll probably be there to turn the lights out after everyone has left.
For better of worse, the people formerly known as bloggers need to have specialties in order to command a following. Ezra Klein needs to cover domestic policy, Nate Silver needs to make predictions, Ta-Nehisi Coates needs to write about race, and so on and so forth. You can switch beats, but you have to have one.
The appeal of “the blog,” in Sullivan’s heyday, was that if you were smart enough or provocative enough, you could cover whatever you wanted. The truth is, people want breaking news from well-sourced reporters or smart analysis from experts who know what they’re talking about. Sensibility is cheap.
Well, let’s think about this. If the era of Andrew Sullivan is over, then that cannot be good news for Rod Dreher, who, like Sully, is a generalist who depends on readers liking his sensibility. I’m a charter subscriber to Sully’s site, and check it multiple times each day. I do think it’s fair to say that the site doesn’t seem as necessary to the conversation as it once did, but I think that’s because Andrew seems much less involved in the site. It seems more of an aggregator than the personal diary it used to be. In the past, every six to eight months, I would get so fed up with some hobbyhorse Andrew was banging on that I would swear off of his site. That would last about two weeks, and then I was back. That voice was just too interesting, and he and I paid attention to the same things most of the time. I found I wanted to know what he was focusing on, and what he had to say about things (except for pot, porn, and Sarah Palin’s vajayjay). I hadn’t thought of it this way until the Byers post, but I can’t think of the last time I stepped away from Andrew’s site in a huff. I wonder if that’s because the site has less Andrew in it, for better and for worse. Don’t get me wrong, I value the site so much I pay for it, and link to it. Still, I’m not sure that Andrew’s decline in subscribers and in influence is a sign of the times for all generalist bloggers, or if it just represents a maturing of Andrew’s website and sensibility.
Besides, it strikes me as a deeply Washington perspective to think that Sullivan’s site must be declining because he’s not talked about in Washington circles as much anymore. Andrew can speak for himself, but maybe he’s just not as interested in politics as he used to be. I know I’m not, and I know that there are a lot of people who can live fulfilling lives without reading Politico or following Washington’s agenda closely. When I left DC for south Florida in 1995, I spent months watching C-Span before I finally let go. This is hardly an original observation, but it really is true that people inside the Washington political and media bubble struggle to imagine that their town and their world is not the center of the universe (Manhattanites are the same way, but their parochial universe doesn’t have the same presence in the media and in the life of the national imagination that Washington does.)
True, if Andrew Sullivan wants to be influential in policy and politics circles, or to regain his previous influence, he should probably do some things differently. But maybe that doesn’t matter to him. Why should it matter, as long as he’s able to make a living writing about what he wants to write about? It’s hardly news that TAC isn’t (yet!) as central to the Washington conversation as our competitors, nor is it news that living in a tiny town in rural south Louisiana is about as far from the centers of decision-making as you can get. But I get to write for a magazine whose broad conservative vision I agree with, and more, I get to help build it up as a voice for alt-conservatism. I get to write about what interests me, and I’ve managed to build a substantial readership of all kinds of people, not just those who agree with me. Besides, I like the view from outside the Washington bubble. I’m glad I lived there when I did, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with living there (I’m not an anti-Washington conservative), but the satisfactions of the writing life at my age and stage of my career can’t be beat.
My point simply is that just because Andrew Sullivan is not as relevant to the Washington conversation as he used to be, but that doesn’t mean Andrew Sullivan is not relevant, and it certainly doesn’t mean Andrew Sullivan isn’t happy, and doing meaningful work. Besides, if having been the most influential advocate for a winning cause that defined his career and life is all he accomplishes in his writing life, that’s pretty spectacular. What more does he need to prove?
Anyway, on the point about whether or not general-interest blogs are still popular, what do you think? Is Dylan Byers right to say that people either want breaking news or expert analysis, that “sensibility is cheap”? He may be; I don’t know. I still value sensibility, and a distinct voice. Maybe I’m a creature of my era.
I think my own sensibility, aside from being culturally conservative, and religiously particular, is one of curiosity about the world. If you had told me a year ago that I would today be consumed by a love for Dante, I would have been shocked, but on second thought, I wouldn’t have thought, “Well, sure.” Because that’s how I am. That’s the sensibility you get on this blog: eclectic and open, but with a definite point of view. That’s not going get as many page views as bloggers with strong, definitive conservative or liberal points of view, and a willingness to take the fight to the Other Side all day, every day, but I get by. You could triple my salary, and I still wouldn’t move back to DC or NYC, even though I loved the lives I had in both places. I don’t love the prospect of those lives anymore, and I’d rather make less money doing what I love, even if my day has passed. Life is short, and it’s later than you think.