Thursday, April 24, 2008

What is a Blog? Economics and the Marketplace of Ideas

Astute readers of this blog will have long ago noticed a connection with the BlueOregon blog edited by Kari Chisholm, Jeff Alworth and Charlie Burr. This connection is personal, not political, and is due to the fact that Jeff is a very close friend and has been for two decades. Jeff and Kari, from time to time, mention my blog on BlueOregon and have increased my traffic considerably. However, I try not to engage in politics (as opposed to policy) in my blog and have just as often rankled BlueOregon readers as have pleased them with my analyses of policy proposals. In my blog roll, I link to BlueOregon and its closest right-wing counterpart, Oregon Catalyst, because I have the arrogance to believe that people of all political persuasions can benefit from some well thought out economic reason.

With that said, BlueOregon has become the target of a little yellow journalism hatchet job from Willamette Week which attacks the blog and suggests bias and conflict of interest. This amuses me for just what does WW think a blog is? It appears it thinks blogs are a form of journalism and thus should be subject to the rules of journalistic ethics. But this is patently absurd. While a few blogs explicitly aspire to a form of journalism, most notably Talking Points Memo and especially its related projects, the vast majority are simply opinion. Even at TPM the bias is up front: "Commentary on political events from a politically left perspective."

I have no illusions about what a blog is; it took me about 3 minutes on Blogger to set up this blog and get it up on the world wide web. This blog is a representation of my opinions, biases, peccadilloes, etc. What I love about the web and the blog-o-sphere is the very embodiment of the "marketplace of ideas." But in this market, as in any market, the burden is on the consumer: "caveat emptor." This does also suggest a burden on producers to truthfully reveal relevant information about the product. I have disclosed that I am a economist and professor and, in fact you can visit my web site and CV to decide if you think anything I say should be taken seriously or not. You can easily satisfy yourself with an echo chamber of like minded bloggers, or you can (as I do) look to find a spectrum of opinions that will challenge your views on an issue and make you a better and more nuanced thinker. It is entirely up to you.

But this is a marketplace and the consumer has only to click a mouse button to quickly express their preferences. Which gets me back to the WW article. The logic of the article seems to go like this, because BlueOregon is so popular it should be held to journalistic standards of ethics, and conflicts of interest on the part of its editors should not be allowed. Then, through strong innuendo they imply terrible bias on the pert of BlueOregon itself (talk about journalistic ethics). There are two things wrong with this argument. First, as I said above, a blog is not journalism, and second, WW does not seem to believe in markets.

If the blog is biased and there are a lot of dissenting voices that are being suppressed, then other outlets could and should emerge. BlueOregon is in a hyper-competitive market: new entrants can start up at zero cost - there are no barriers to entry. This is very different than print journalism in which there are extremely high start-up costs. So the very fact that BlueOregon is so popular does not suggest that they are some kind of gate-keeper for Oregon progressives on the web, it suggests the opposite - that BlueOregon is extremely good at doing what it aspires to do, provide a forum for these progressive minded Oregonians to express themselves. Its success in the marketplace of ideas in other words, is not due to some market power, come corner on the market, but is due rather to the fact that it offers a product many want to consume. There is one requirement for the market outcome to be efficient and that is full information. Thus it is important for the editors of the blog to be up front about conflicts of interest they may have, and the editors of BlueOregon are.

Finally, though it is in one's nature to defend oneself against unfounded and unreasonable attacks, BlueOregon really has no need to do so. The product and its success speaks for itself.

By the way in the further interest of disclosure, I do not define myself by political party but I did once take a (slightly silly) test on Political Compass to assess my economic and social leanings - here is my result:
So there. Apparently I am in good company with the Dalai Lama...


Pat Malach said...

Individual blogs represent the views of individuals. You don't need to be an economist to figure that out.

But that's not what BlueOregon is, it it?

It advertises itself as a progressive "water cooler," not a typical blog that represent the views of one, two or three authors.

In fact BlueOregon's credibility is built largley on the fact that it doesn't represent the views of a small group of contributors, but of a larger progressive community represented by this large and varying group.

Those bylined contributions are not the issue.

And that is what many, many smart people such as yourself simply refuse to acknowledge.

This issue arises from the "in the news" and "elsewhere" posts. because these posts are not bylined, they represent the choices of "BlueOregon," the water cooler.

When those "in the news" and "elsewhere" pieces contain a striking bias -- (ie) anti-Novick and pro-Merkley (remember your own, "Is Novick too short to get elected" column that was immediately front-paged at BO while the multiple MSM stories reflecting negatively on Merkley were ignored?) --well then progressives who feel their water cooler has chosen sides, they get a little pissed.

Moreover, because of the publisher's undeniably close ties to the democratic party, the blog is a pseudo official blog for state Democratic Party politics.

So people react to the bias in the supposedly neutral non-bylined BlueOregon posts the same way they would if the DPO took sides in a primary.

So which is it. Are the non-bylined pieces at BlueOregon supposed to reflect a neutral position in the primary or not?

If not, then they should be bylined.

It's really not that complicated, it one drops the defensiveness and looks at it without the "blue-colored" glasses.

Jeff Alworth said...

A disclosure of your history with BlueOregon might put your comments into some context, Pat (Malach).

Patrick, one other thing we try to do is offer transparency. Obviously, there are disgruntled folks like Pat who feel we don't do a good enough job on that score, but part of the reason his criticisms have teeth is because we provide him with the evidence he needs to damn us.

When the "product" (since we don't earn anything, it's a conceptual product, I guess) is a communication, the hosts/authors rely purely on their credibility. To the extent readers no longer trust a site, they'll drift away. I think Pat Malach's continued engagement of the site is evidence that we do a pretty good job on that score.

Jeff Alworth said...

I should add, by putting it a little more explicitly: Kari often tells people that if they don't like the site, they should quit reading it. That they don't tells me we're doing something right.

Pat Malach said...

That's nice, Jeff.

But you never really addressed any of the substance of the post.

It's those Blue-colored glasses, I guess.

And you're right, BlueOregon does many things well, but maintaining a neutral voice in which "in the news" and "elsewhere" pieces it runs hasn't been one of them.

Moreover, BlueOregon is influential. And the people who have been reading and complaining have forced the issue into the real press, which in turn made the the editors and kari, the publisher, do a much fairer job in choosing those stories without bias.

Again, Jeff, BlueOregon would be better served by less defensiveness and a more honest look from within.

My history with BlueOregon:

I lost my posting privileges after posting "Welcome to the Democratic Party, now sit down and shut up," which chronicled the behavior of Merkley supporting blogger BeaverBoundary, then run anonymously by Mitch Greenlick Aid Tom Powers. Powers had searched the voters rolls to publicly accuse me and other Novick supporters of not even being Democrats.

When I pointed out that in fact I am a Democrat, he insulted me and said that fact made him sad.

I simply asked BlueOregon readers what they thought of that behavior from an obviously well-connected Democratic party insider telling others they don't belong in HIS party.

Also notable is that BeaverBoundary was welcomed to the blogosphere on BlueOregon the first day of its inception, and then Powers immediately began attacking Novick with the GOP inspired tax-and-spend-liberal smear. At least one of those posts was also immediately front-paged on BlueOregon.

Really, jeff, you think this episode makes BlueOregon look better.

Those blue-colored glasses are thicker than I thought.

By the way, I feel quite liberated over at . I don't have to worry about upsetting the Democratic Party that keeps Kari's firm, mandate Media, afloat.

I should have started it long ago. But thanks for the push. :)


P.S. Still waiting for you to analyze BlueOregon's non-bylined "in the news" and "elsewhere" coverage of the Novick/Merkley race. But I imagine why you wouldn't actually want to sit down with the objective analyst hat on and take a real hard look.

Pat Malach said...

Whoops. That's .

Pat Malach said...

well, it worked on the preview.

Fred Thompson said...

Maybe it's just the season, but aside from the odd post by Chuck Sheketoff and a few others, there's not much there there. The vast majority of posts are about personalities and positions -- who's up, who's down, who said what about whom and what we ought to think about it. If you are looking for ideas or policy discussions, BlueOregon is probably the wrong place to look. If you want sports news, go ahead.

One thing about the sports pages is that even where they make an effort to be 'fair and balanced' the home team gets most of the coverage.

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