December 18, 2005

Coda

Post-Mortem

From December 2002 until September of this year, I was the sole writer, editor, and publisher of this site, a widely-acclaimed "experiment in amateur journalism and hobbyist reporting" (as my boilerplate went) which focused on Portland politics.

During that time, I partook not only of the standard blogger's refrain of linking to and commenting upon other news sources, but also spent countless hours at election campaign events, neighborhood meetings, and wonkish sessions on City policy, contributing to the local media scene my own brand of original and opinionated reporting.

It was a full-time endeavor, both my avocation and my vocation, made possible through a combination of advertising revenue (several local political candidates advertised on the site) and reader contributions -- although the latter category would include members of my family back in New York, who in essence subsidized what the Portland market for the site never managed to support on its own.

When people asked me what I did, I replied: "I write a website about local politics." Sometimes, once they asked what it was called, they at least vaguely recognized the site's name.

And then, on September 24, I announced that I was finished. In that post, I said that at some point I would return to offer something of a post-mortem. Using as a springboard an article of mine which appeared in today's Sunday Oregonian (the full version of which also is available), what follows is that post-mortem.

When I launched Portland Communique, it was purely as a personal exercise. Having lived here for five years, I was determined to learn more about the City that had become my home. Committing to writing about it every day seemed the way to do that, as it would require reading more -- and more deeply -- than I had been. Ultimately, no matter how widely-read the site became, it always was a commitment to myself.

Almost all blogging is a personal exercise, of course. It's why we blog, why we sometimes take a sudden hiatus, and usually why we quit.

That rare breed of full-time bloggers (who practice what some people call stand-alone journalism) of which I was a part struggles not only with their own level of interest in the endeavor, but with the everyday challenges of paying their bills.

I have stated that I shuttered the site primarily because I was losing interest, not in the main due to the financial issues -- and that much certainly is true. What has become clearer in the intervening three months, however, are at least some of the things which prompted and promoted that waning interest. As near as I've been able to determine so far, there were three such motivators.

  • Growing weariness with the prominence of demagoguery.
  • Major local stories looming on the horizon.
  • Inevitable future dominance of the financial issue.

Growing weariness with the prominence of demagoguery.

For me, much of my loss of interest stemmed in no small part from feeling like I was beating my head against a brick wall. Too many elected officials, political candidates, newspaper columnists, and local bloggers opt for demagoguery over debate.

Two examples most immediately come to mind -- one from the local blogosphere and one from the local newspapers -- although there certainly are others.

In the debate over the Portland Development Commission, some bloggers (and blog commenters) who were critical of the agency took advantage of the entirely legitimate questions being raised over its activities, by attacking PDC not only for its own actual mistakes, missteps, and mismanagement, but for its mere existence as Portland's urban renewal agency.

While these critics might have perfectly fair questions about urban renewal in general, and apart from the specific problems with how PDC conducted some of its business, to blame the agency for the realities of Oregon's urban renewal laws isn't an example of public policy debate, but of pure pandering.

That's cheap exploitation in the name of scoring rhetorical points, and it does a disservice to civic discourse.

In no way do I argue that it's illegitimate from the standpoint of public policy debate to question urban renewal in general or the state's laws governing how it functions. But there are countless ways in which those issues cannot legitimately be conflated with examples of specific misdeeds by a specific agency -- but some people insisted on conflating them anyway, because it served their rhetorical purposes to do so.

These people didn't seem (to me, anyway) to be interested in accurately informing the public about the distinctions between PDC's activities, how urban renewal functions, and the state's laws governing urban renewal. Even if you oppose all of these things, public policy debate fails to be debate if we don't care about presenting an accurate picture of the issues at hand.

But that sort of posturing certainly isn't restricted to the local blogosphere. Phil Stanford of the Portland Tribune once chided Multnomah County for planning a "green roof" on the County headquarters at a time when local needs such as keeping prisoners in jail weren't being adequately met.

The problem, as I pointed out at the time, is that the money for the one couldn't simply be moved over to the other.

While that might be frustrating, it's the way much funding of local government activities occurs. Certain funding sources are dedicated to certain activities, and restricted from other uses. One could reasonably, of course, attack that reality of government funding.

Or, one could do some actual reporting -- you know, that thing which people who claim the mantle of journalism are supposed to be doing anyway. One could research how much time and energy the County spent on securing the money for that green roof, compare it to the time and effort spend on trying secure funding for public safety, and if there's a major discrepancy, call them on it.

That would have both scored rhetorical points (although legitimate rather than cheap ones) and accurately informed the public about how their local government functions.

To not take that approach is an abrogation of the responsibilities of anyone claiming to practice journalism. To willfully misinform the public should be considered a cardinal sin for anyone who might claim to be a journalist.

Simply to write a column which inherently implies that the County could, if it but chose to do so, move the money over to keep prisoners in jail misinforms and deceives the public, once again in the name of scoring cheap rhetorical points.

It happens all the time here. It's rampant. I tried (with varying degrees of success, and sometimes I myself managed to veer off-course) to steer my readers' understanding of local politics away from demagoguery and towards debate.

In the end, it wasn't really that I lost interest in local issues per se, but that I lost interest in constantly running up against the wall of demagoguery.

Certainly that wall is nothing new, nor is it restricted to Portland. And I am certainly not arguing that the local blogosphere is all demagoguery and no debate. What I'm arguing is that my work as a full-time blogger exposed me to more demagoguery than I could handle -- from officials, candidates, columnists, readers, and bloggers alike.

As I said, it was with varying degrees of success, but what I sought to do with Portland Communique was make a knowledge of local politics more accessible to people.

That seemed to be something Portland needed, as I learned, for example, from the attention received by my coverage of the Sam Adams/Nick Fish race for City Council in 2004.

Given that the local television news stations all but ignored that race (unofficial recollections by both candidates suggested that only one story had been done about it), was anyone in town even aware that fully three out of five Council seats were up for grabs last year?

That's a Council majority, and local TV news didn't care.

Making a real knowledge of local politics more accessible to people requires fact, not fiction. In the end, perhaps I simply didn't have the stomach for what turned out to be a much more difficult than expected fight to get any signal heard through the noise.

Major local stories looming on the horizon.

As indicated earlier, there's no question that at some point the financial issues would have grown to become the dominant ones, and I'll get to that point next. But there's a more specific manner in which they would have been an issue in the near-term.

It seems strange and counter-intuitive to suggest that the imminent arrival of major stories would factor into shutting down the site. But bear with me for a moment.

Already underway, and stretching into next year, there are four major stories which I would have needed to cover in depth to do them any justice, in addition to all the smaller ones: The local 2006 elections, major elements of the Bureau Innovation Project, the review of the City Charter and the Community Vision Process.

It would have been impossible to cover these major stories, on top of the normal daily flow of news, without resources stable and sufficient enough to rid this site of financial stress.

All of these major stories combine into what I had once termed the "foundational moment" which may be descending upon Portland over the course of this coming year. To do them justice would have required that my time and energy be focused on reporting, not on juggling bills and trying to milk my readership for more financial support that ultimately just wasn't available.

That's not a shot at my readership. Especially over it's final year, this site had a steady and dedicate group of financial supporters, both through directly contributing and taking out advertisements.

Rather, the point is this: Attempting to practice some form of journalism-by-blog already was a challenge without a sudden confluence of several major long-term stories to cover. Meeting what would have at least been my own expectations when covering these stories came to seem a next-to-impossible task -- both because of the issues discussed in the previous section, and those in the one which follows.

As I'll discuss in the next section, it appears there might be certain realities when it comes to the market for full-time bloggers on a local level. Those realities would have come into direct conflict with what the site would have required in order to properly cover the major stories of the coming year.

Inevitable future dominance of the financial issue.

Unquestionably, Portland Communique was widely-acclaimed by a broad spectrum of people -- as long as you narrow your focus to those people who go out of their way to find local coverage of local issues. It also received a rather healthy dose of media coverage.

But most people in town know The Oregonian, they know KGW, and they know KXL. They don't know Portland Communique. And that creates certain, shall we say, market realities.

So, despite the popular presumption, I didn't quit because of the money, although without question the reader-supported site simply was not financially self-sustainable.

But money isn't irrelevant either. It will continue to be next-to-impossible for anyone to do original reporting via weblog on a full-time basis absent real financial support. National-level bloggers, to some extent, have been able to pull off blogging as full-time work, but the dynamics which make that possible don't generally appear to scale down to the local level.

I don't know the solution to that -- but without one, local blogospheres here and elsewhere will continue to suffer.

That doesn't mean that local blogospheres somehow are irrelevant if they aren't lucky enough to have any full-time blogger-journalists. Blogging as a form fulfills an increasingly important function of filling in the cracks between traditional news coverage and expanding access to a larger pool of citizen voices.

(What's considered "mainstream" media, for example, is a function of what's available to people, not a function of how that media functions or what it covers. There is not much that is more mainstream than people seeking out information and opinion to help them make sense out of their lives. As more people turn to blogs for this, that may make them mainstream, but it doesn't have to mean the blog form somehow has "sold out".)

So while full-time bloggers aren't required for local blogospheres to be useful, the weight of the challenges apparent in trying to be a fulltime-blogger did mean that I, at least, couldn't do this anymore.

On a purely personal level (which in this case turns out also to be my professional level), it largely came down to this: Blogging about local issues does not hold much interest for me if I can't give it the full force of my time and attention.

I'm simply not much interested in blogging the types of things I covered unless I can do it in the way I was doing it. To do less than I was doing here would short-change both my personal interest (the life-blood of the blogger) and the level of commitment I think the issues deserve.

Whatever the case, my hope remains that locally-oriented bloggers can find a way to cut through the noise of demagoguery with the signal of debate.

But to truly make a significant difference, and to take adequate advantage of the possibilities blogging represents, that's ultimately going to require a stronger constitution than I apparently possess -- and some way to financially support the practice.

While it's true that I quit in large part because I could no longer stomach the demagogues, it's anyone's guess what might have happened if that had been the only stress, and I wasn't also struggling to pay the bills.

That's not to suggest I would give that a shot, if presented the opportunity. Rather, it's just that it will always be in the back of my mind that it's a part of the experiment which I simply never got to run.

Note: Comments and trackbacks for this item will be open for thirty days, and then I will shut them off. Unlike the policy when this site was active, comments and trackbacks also will be moderated, to prevent this from becoming a free-for-all or open thread. That doesn't mean I won't let you be critical -- it just means I won't let you be off-topic.

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Comments (4)

  1. allehseya on 19 Dec 2005

    ....hmmm, can't clone you, haven’t won the lottery and apparently, even if we all promise to behave and debate nicely --- the tragic fact remains: it wouldn’t change anything…(sigh).

    this has to be the worst holiday season, ever.

    i miss you doing what you did

  2. fournier on 19 Dec 2005

    i miss the communique too. but i'm happy that b!x, apparently, is surviving.

  3. Paul Manson on 04 Jan 2006

    It is good to see a post - if nothing else but to know that b!x is still there.

    The great thing about the site was that it was personal enough that you came to trust and know the way stories were presented. Yet it was not so personal as to cloud the story. In an age of AP and NYTimes News Service stories displacing the local identities, I liked knowing the person was there - even if we never met in person. I miss the local organic news.

  4. Kotowski on 24 Jan 2006

    Sad to see the blog die. I have to tell you, when I'm having a really bad day, I still click back to the Than Clevenger posts and laugh. And laugh. And laugh some more.

    Thanks again for the entertainment and best of luck in the future.

    AK