The American Prospect magazine is in trouble. Real trouble. I’ve responded to their SOS, but my small donation won’t be nearly enough to save the Prospect. Unless a lot more progressives invest in keeping it around, one of the best sources of progressive journalism and commentary may well go under. The prospect is far from alone in its plight. Many other similar progressive entities are in the same position, or teetering on brink of oblivion.
Conservative’s can afford to give away freebies like Human Events and the Washington Examiner, meanwhile progressive outlets like the Prospect go begging or go under. It looks like progressives can’t manage to keep our own media alive. The question is: Why?
I’ll repeat the story of the time I moderated the blogger forum at a well-known progressive conference. The discussion focused on how to amplify the progressive message in Washington, or some such. Natasha Chart spoke first, and spoke very eloquently about the difficulty of doing just that as a blogger, often without the benefit of a salary or health insurance. Natasha’s story is one example of the reality many progressive activists live with. Maria Leavey — who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to promote progressive voices in the media, lacked health insurance, without a salary or health insurance, and died of heart disease that might otherwise have been detected and treated — is another.
Natasha went on to speak about the need to support those who are already doing that important work. She talked about the time invested in doing that work, and how it’s difficult to impossible to do it on a volunteer basis. She made the case that if we want a strong progressive voice in DC, in the media, etc., we’re going to have to invest in it.
The first response to what Natasha had to say came from a woman who was quick to say (and rather vehemently at that), “Well, I didn’t come here to talk about getting jobs for bloggers.”
That, to me, said it all. It still does.
The right has a media infrastructure because they invested in it. They have no shortage of talent, because they seek out young talent, nurture it, support it, and promote it when ready for primetime. As long as one doesn’t stray too far from the fold, you’ll find a place somewhere. (Let’s face it. There are people earning a good living in conservative media who would probably not be able to get a job anywhere else.) In fact, you could end up with a paycheck for life — and a substantial one at that.
We are not letting ours die. We’ve never really had one in the first place, because we’ve never really owned it as a movement — certainly not to the degree conservatives have. It’s something that’s been built up in a piecemeal fashion by the apocryphal “bloggers in pajamas,” but not really supported in strategic fashion. Progressives got the jump on conservatives online, but they will catch up to us for the same reasons they’ve left us in the dust when it comes to other media.
Since emerging onto the political scene in 2002, progressive bloggers have found three paths to success that supported their blogging. have shaken out into three . A handful of progressive bloggers have managed to get hired by mainstream media, and get paid to blog full time. Occasionally, lightening has struck and created a few “stars,” who’ve been able to parlay that into their own brand. I can count them on my fingers. A few more of us has been at it long enough to get hired by advocacy organizations, or have translated blogging into successful consulting work. As Chris Bowers wrote, we are subsumed into other paradigms, but are not a paradigm unto ourselves.
Sometimes there have been successful blogs sponsored by larger entities. The successful ones usually have the advantage of having well known bloggers with their own built-in followings on the roster (which means an immediate return on investment), and when the project is over or the money runs out, everyone moves on, or contracts expire and the bloggers with built-in audiences take their audiences with them when they leave. (The preference for already-developed talent and the bang-for-buck that goes along with it has been many written about times before.) They cycle then repeats itself.
Conservatives deserve credit for understanding that you get what you pay for and you pay for what you get. You want a media infrastructure? You want a deep bench of talent? You’ve got to invest in it. You’ve got to pour money into it, with an eye towards long-term investment, understanding that it won’t pay off right away. In fact, you’ll probably lose money on it in the short term. But even if you give it away for free, you message penetration only gets deeper. And if you’ve got virtually no competition on the other side, that’s even better.
The payoff won’t necessarily come in traffic or dollars. It will come when the media is so saturated with your message that it practically becomes the only message. It will come when you can set the terms of any debate without breaking a sweat. It will come when the media is so drenched with your message that the other side has to adopt some part of it, or at least adopt your language to have a hope of breaking into the mainstream. It will come when your opposition simply accepts the premises you’ve already determined, before the debate even begins.
The payoff will come when you’ve crossed the finished line, while your opponents are still trying to invent the wheel — or, better yet, debating whether they want to invest in inventing the wheel in the first place; or deciding to just wait for a volunteer to do it in their spare time, and then just catch a ride.