Correction to This Article
A Feb. 5 Outlook article incorrectly said that Christiansted was once part of the Dutch West Indies; it was part of what were then the Danish West Indies. The article also misspelled Christiania, the former name of Oslo.

Goodbye to All This

By Steven Luxenberg
Sunday, February 5, 2006

Over the course of my nearly 10 years as Outlook editor, I witnessed the demise of the mass media.

Oh, there's plenty of media -- more than ever before. And there's plenty of mass -- readers consume more information in more ways than ever before. Take The Washington Post Co.: We have fewer paid subscribers for our print edition today than we did in 1996, but we have many more readers for our journalism, if you count the newspaper and the Post Web site. The company also publishes the Express (a free Monday-to-Friday tabloid aimed at local transit riders) and now owns the online magazine Slate, as well as El Tiempo Latino, a local Spanish-language paper. Soon, we will have Washington Post Radio. The water cooler still exists, but the crowd around it no longer shares the same knowledge, let alone the same assumptions.

In this expanding media universe, where news is transmitted at light speed and readers want opinion in "real time" (as one e-mailer told us recently), how does a weekly commentary section exert its gravitational pull? Or more to the point: How do we serve our print readers and our growing Web audience when they exist in such different places on the space-time continuum?

This is the question that I find myself thinking about most as my stint as Outlook editor comes to a close. Like my predecessors, I'm taking a final turn at bat before I pass on my Outlook hat to Susan Glasser of The Post's National staff. In their farewell pieces, Jodie Allen and David Ignatius wrote at length about how they put the section together every week and offered trenchant guidance about getting pieces published in Outlook. They said it well -- what we favor and frown upon among the unsolicited manuscripts. I'm going to take a different path. I want to sketch out how the world of opinion journalism has changed in my decade at Outlook's steering wheel.

Imagine this: When I became Outlook's editor on June 1, 1996, The Washington Post did not yet have an online version of itself. Our Web site, washingtonpost.com, debuted on June 19, 1996. MSNBC was a month away from its maiden telecast, and Fox News was still on the drawing boards. We received most submissions in those days not by e-mail, but by fax or on floppy disks. (Yes, really.)

When I was appointed to the job, I remember telling an interviewer about the challenges of putting out a weekly section in a world that was becoming used to hearing commentary at almost any hour on cable television. I said I was worried about losing the provocative arguments of thoughtful people to the immediate gratification and easy fame of TV. Why spend hours sweating over 1,500 or 1,800 written words for meager pay, as Outlook writers had been doing for years, when you could offer a collection of pithy sound bites and become a star? Could we continue to attract the writers we admired and wanted offering them nothing more than a prestigious venue, careful editing and the best newspaper audience in the country?

I had no idea what I was talking about. In a few years, with the explosion of the Internet, it became apparent to me that our challenge was much greater than I had envisioned. Think about it: Cable TV might have oodles of time to fill, but it still has limits. It can offer news and opinion 24/7, but not 28/7 or 36/7.

The Internet, however, is 5,500,000 x 24/7. That is, there are an estimated 5.5 million active bloggers out there right now -- people who post their thoughts on Web logs, or blogs, which are available to anyone with access to a computer, at any time, 24 or 7.

Getting good numbers on blogging can be maddening, but by any measure, it's clear that the blogosphere is expanding while newspaper circulation declines. The 5.5 million figure comes from Intelliseek's BlogPulse ( http://www.blogpulse.com/ ), which says it counts bloggers who have posted something publicly in the past 30 days. BlogPulse carries a running total of identified blogs on its Web site; last week it stood at nearly 22 million, and was growing at the rate of about 60,000 every 24 hours, according to Natalie Glance, a BlogPulse researcher.

The Blog Herald, a blog that covers the blogosphere, offers a much higher number: more than 200 million blogs worldwide. Why the discrepancy? Because, asserts Blog Herald founder Duncan Riley, his tally counts blogs in all languages while others count mostly those in English and the Romance languages. But the Blog Herald number also includes inactive or abandoned blogs, as well as "private" blogs that are password-protected and meant only for family and friends.

No need to get blogged down in the numbers. My point is that as readers have splintered into millions of little audiences, it's hard to serve both print and Web consumers with the same set of articles.

Now bloggers, hold your fire: This isn't another rant about old vs. new media, about the wild and woolly Internet vs. the sober and responsible mainstream news outlets. Each has its flaws and virtues, which others have examined. I want to save my words and bytes for what all this means for Outlook.


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