Among its many peculiar achievements, the Internet seems to have pushed the old “observer effect” – wherein by paying attention to a process we alter its outcome – into the realm of magical thinking. Back during election season, I remember, I had assembled a little rosary of blogs I’d cycle through every day – or, let’s be honest, every hour: Nate Silver, TPM, Politico, RealClearPolitics…as though the existence of the daily cavalcade of kerfuffles depended on me being around to bear witness.
Eventually, the endless news cycle would be revealed as the engine of ephemera I already suspected it was. Mr. Silver’s uncannily good number-crunching had Obama on a cruise course to victory from mid-September onward. I could have done something worthwhile with my time; I could have…I don’t know…read a book. Instead, what did I do? Nate Silver, TPM, Politico…
Since the election, however, I’ve found that most of these sites give me a headache. The expanded version of Politico, in particular, seems to have diced the news cycle to such a fine consistency that, by the time I get to them in the afternoon, the morning’s chunky controversies are so much dust in the wind.
So which of the political blogs do I still read? To my surprise, it’s The Atlantic’s. I’ve singled these guys out before, but I’d like to cast my interpretive net a little wider. That theatlantic.com feels as worthwhile now as it did back in July (a veritable eternity, in the blogosphere) seems to me to point to some of the overlooked ingredients of good online writing.
First, I like that The Atlantic focuses on a certain subject – in this case, politics – but not too narrowly. Digressions are encouraged, in a way that keeps the conversation tethered to the wider culture, and accessible to newcomers. This turns out to be a tricky middle ground to occupy; it’s something we’re still working on at The Millions. Still, it seems possible to write about a given passion while still addressing a general-interest audience. (The New York Review of Books has been doing it for almost half a century.)
Another thing I admire about The Atlantic’s blog offerings is the plurality – not to say preponderance – of voices. Jeffrey Goldberg, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ross Douthat, Andrew Sullivan et al offer a broad range of insights and provocations. Still, unlike the tentacular Huffington Post, this eighteen-armed blog monster feels refreshingly vincible. A mere half hour of my attention exhausts it. And in the everything-all-the-time world of the web, such limitation may prove to be a precious commodity.
This is, of course, a somewhat self-serving post: We at The Millions have a vested interest in figuring out how the successful websites became so. (And my lifelong love affair with print continues; you will have to pry my weekly New Yorker from my cold, proverbial fingers.) Still, trying to figure out why we like what we like may help preempt the “slow decline and emerging blind spots” Max, among others, has warned us about. Now if someone could just figure out how to make online journalism profitable…