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August 21, 2005
David Warsh, Proprietor


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The Virtual Corridor

It was just ten years ago this month that Netscape had its initial public offering. Remember the vague feeling of anticipation, of not quite knowing what would happen next? The browser turned “online” into a household word signifying massive economic change.  Now Google, another middleware giant, is raising $4 billion in new money to extend its reach deep into Asian economies. Chances are that search engines and other software innovations will work still greater changes on all kinds of markets in the coming years, including markets for news.

Meanwhile, however, I have a confession to make. I don’t read blogs very often. Blogs are sometimes said to be the myriad micro-battering rams by which the wall between print and Web journalism will be demolished. Indeed, The New York Times (which has touted the doctrine of “platform neutrality” for years), earlier this month announced that it would merge its print and online newsrooms in the spring of 2007 in order to make the Web “part of the DNA of its newsroom.”

Every newspaper reporter a blogger-to-be?  Well, maybe so. So far, though, I don’t feel as though I am missing much by not reading the semi-pros.

A couple of days spent clicking around the economics blogosphere last week gave me the feeling of walking through a maze of corridors, as in a dream, academic passageways giving way suddenly to corporate swank and back again to think-tank threadbare. I passed dozens and dozens of offices (they were websites, of course) and posted on page after page, as if on doors, was much material — whimsical, substantive, fragmentary, graphic and photographic — such that students might profitably read while they waited, and passers-by might quickly glimpse the soul within.  But there was very little access to, much less engagement with, whatever more interesting work was going on inside.

Indeed, Newmark’s Door is what one witty professor names his blog. Craig Newmark describes his personal page as, “Things One Middle-aged Economist Finds Interesting.” (He is no relation to the San Francisco Craig Newmark, founder of Craig’s List.) “One wife, two kids, many computers. Likes: economics, family and friends, computers. Dislikes: too damn many to list.” So the North Carolina State University professor describes himself.

Old habits die hard. Mainly I still look at eight newspapers every day. The Financial Times arrives on the porch. I walk to the corner newsstand for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Boston Herald. After breakfast, I go online and scan four more:  The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Sun.

And, of course, I look at Romenesko every night.

Romenesko, in the unlovely language of the online trade, is a meta-site, one where a human aggregator does his daily work. In this case, that means the page edited from a Chicago suburb (Evanston) by Jim Romenesko, on which he digests, five days a week, with understanding and concision, nearly everything published in American media (newspapers, magazines, radio and TV)  about newspapers, magazines, radio and TV, that may be of interest to the people who work in and around them. A newsie who doesn’t read Romenesko regularly is hard to find.

There are many other such sites. For American politics, for example, there is the heavily-annotated The Note or the stripped-down Real Clear Politics, both free versions of the expensive but wildly popular Hotline, a daily digest prepared by a staff of around 20 editors and reporters.  Industry newsletters generally command premium prices. Government bureaucracies and universities prepare their own round-ups for internal use.

All kinds of mechanical schemes are afoot to automate these tasks one way or another — Kinja, Technorati and Memeorandum to name just three. Using Technorati, for example, you could sort through some 18,399 posts about Paul Krugman culled from the 15.5 million blogs it searches — 20 of those posts having appeared within the last twelve hours. All kinds of RSS readers are in the works, too, bits of free software that can be programmed to collect and assemble index lines from your favorite sites. Columnist Mark Glaser follows developments in the interaction of news and publishing technology in the University of Southern California Annenberg School’s Online Journalism Review.

What’s the likelihood that Jim Romenesko will be replaced by a robot any time soon?  It is not very great, I think. Indeed, the circumstances in which a news junkie from St. Paul, Minnesota, emerged as honest broker to the North American media industry are unlikely to be duplicated.

But it is likely that a Romenesko-like figure — or two or three of them — will emerge from the economic blogosphere in the next few years.  Indeed, Nouriel Roubini’s Global Economics Monitor has begun a campaign to vault into the small circle of highly popular online destinations for those interested in international macroeconomics.

For most of a decade, Roubini, an economics professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business (with policy experience in the Council of Economic Advisers during  the Clinton administration and in the Treasury Department under Clinton and Bush), ran a personal Website that served as unofficial aggregator of serious writing about the crises that roiled the international economy in the 1990s — a high-toned bulletin board frequented by those eager to see what had made the cut.

Then, a couple of years ago, he rolled out Roubini Global Economics as a commercial enterprise, featuring a daily digest, directory, blog coverage and a continuous stream of his own commentary. Earlier this summer, he re-launched the site on a subscription basis.

It is too soon to tell whether RGE Monitor will deliver on its ambition to become king of the hill — too soon even to tell whether it is one hill or several — but there is no doubt that Roubini has entered an arena that includes magazines such as The Economist and Forbes. (Romenesko, it should be noted, is backed by the Poynter Institute, a philanthropically-endowed media think-tank, and thus is spared the need to sell advertising or subscriptions.)

The fact is that an enormous amount of interesting material about economics is available on the Web but not yet organized. The publishing of working papers which, taken altogether, constitutes the body of technical economics has reached an advanced state.  The sites of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Centre for Economic Policy Research and Social Science Research Network are about as accessible as they can be made to be. But no central place for economic advocacy has yet emerged comparable to, say, the highly-evolved (but now extinct) Tech Central Station. It is not for lack of trying.

For example, Columbia University’s Joseph Stiglitz and co-editors J. Bradford DeLong and Aaron Edlin of the University of California at Berkeley launched The Economists’ Voice last year, but it has yet to take off. Other groups are formulating plans. La Voce, an e-zine produced by a group of Italian economists, is widely admired. Econonomic Journal Watch is a peer-reviewed online vehicle for scholarly commentary and criticism of academic economics.

And then there is the long corridor — the blogs themselves. These run from The Becker-Posner Blog, a site shared by  Nobel Laureate Gary Becker and US Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner  (even judges’ chambers have doors on the hallway, after all), to Brad DeLong’s Semi-Daily Journal (“Fair, Balanced and Reality-based”), and include a great many interesting people in between. Some attempt to maintain a certain focus. Others verge on stream of consciousness.

Blogs thrive through the process of linking to one another, thereby simultaneously defining the community with which they identify and increasing their traffic, and their claims to influence. Such “blog-rolls,” or lists of links to “Sites We Like,” are usually found in the left or right rail. Between the blog-rolls at Atlantic Blog, Asymmetrical Information, Division of Labor, Marginal Revolution and  Crooked Timber (with its especially interesting list of academic bloggers arranged by discipline), you can get a pretty complete picture of the core of the community. Last month, Craig Newmark tried his hand at ranking them. (See the entry for July 25.) No very great clarity emerged.

The metaphor of Newmark’s Door illuminates much about blogs, but not all. Taped to wooden doors along office corridors, especially academic corridors, all around the world are cartoons, photos, clippings and headlines torn from newspapers, even the occasional printout of Economic Principals. But the image of a long virtual corridor fails to capture a crucial element of the Web — the interactive phenomenon known as buzz.

For much of the day, the week, the year, economic blogs will resemble little knots of conversation at an enormous cocktail party. Talk among the party-goers will be subdued. Then some item of real novelty will capture the imagination of a few, and then a few more, and through links and aggregation be passed long from group to group, until it takes by storm, not just the Web, but all the other relevant organs of opinion, too. The capacity for buzz is the source of the power of blogs (of cell phones, too). It is what makes them so subversive of entrenched authority.

But precisely for that reason, you don’t need to read them all the time — for the same reason you don’t have to have the radio on all day long. Somebody will tell you when there is something new.

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