If the conventional blog wasn’t dead before The Dish’s demise, the shuttering of Andrew Sullivan’s iconic internet publishing venture surely signaled the end of traditional blogging. Once an intriguing new publishing form that shunned the norms of traditional journalism for a more personal and—wretched word—”edgy” tone, the blog has now basically died with only a few odd examples that are holding on. These days many classic traits we associate with blogs are simply normal parts of more conventional online publishing.
Sites like the various Vice Media and Gawker publications hit the faux-edgy (read: edgy-as-long-as-it-doesn’t-offend-the-suits-and-haircuts) tone that long characterized early blogs while many of the Vox media properties have incorporated both the high-publishing frequency of early blogs as well as the click-baity headlines that would emerge later as social media became a more effective way of finding new readers. Meanwhile the more establishment publications have simply incorporated blogs as a way to give their writers a space to fill in arguments from their primary work as reporters and columnists, as the Times has done with Ross Douthat’s blog.
So where does this leave a site like Mere Orthodoxy, a site which first launched in 2004 as the blog of a few Biola University grads simply looking for a place to share what they were thinking about with their peers?
One possible option for Mere O is to monetize by becoming an online magazine in the mold of other former blogs that have made the conversion to more conventional publications. You could look at a site like Mashable as one example of this. At one time Mashable was a tech blog written by only one writer and is now a major media brand covering a variety of topics. So it is certainly possible to make the transition from blog to conventional online media. (There’s also no shortage of writers who have made this move as individuals—Bill Simmons, Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, and Glenn Greenwald all come to mind.)
Though there are many strengths with this approach, it is not what I want for Mere O. Once you make the move toward becoming a conventional publication that has been monetized the focus of the project must inevitably shift toward the concerns of a typical publication which is meeting deadlines, producing new writing on a consistent basis (I refuse to use the word “content”), and so on. And while there are sites that have managed to adopt this model without a drop in the quality of their work, I think most sites will find it difficult to do that.
The obvious downside to this approach is that we don’t have much money and so we can’t afford to pay contributors or the folks who maintain the site (FYI). But that isn’t all bad either—once you introduce money to the situation it creates an economic necessity that drives no shortage of poor work. You start publishing pieces “just to have something up” because you need traffic. As a result, many major online publishers publish the occasionally fantastic work alongside plenty of dross that was quite obviously published in order to drive clicks to the site and what meager ad revenue they could come by to the publisher.
One of the few exceptions to this rule has been Grantland–a site that has basically said they don’t give a rip about the normal economics of online publications and instead publishes far less frequently but at a generally much higher quality. However, it is only able to make such a move because of the generous subsidizing they receive from ESPN. As the former employees of The New Republic can tell you, that model only works for as long as the owner is willing to foot the bill. (And given the budget-cutting going on in Bristol it’s not unreasonable to wonder what kind of future Grantland will have.)
A second possibility for Mere O is that we would become more of a niche publication focused around covering one or two issues in some depth. By developing a narrower focus and some degree of expertise we can become more of an industry site in a given vertical, which might make it easier to monetize and easier to find and produce strong writing. So we’d look to a site with a more niche focus like Ars Technica or Shut Up and Sit Down as a template for what we want to do.
However, for a site with a name like “Mere Orthodoxy” it seems a contradiction to become too narrow in our focus. Indeed, the hyper-specialization of the modern mind seems, to me, like one of our era’s great weaknesses. After all, there haven’t been two writers in Christendom’s recent history capable of writing better on most any topic imaginable than CS Lewis and GK Chesterton, the two men from whom our site takes its name. If we ever become a site exclusively focused on politics or evangelicalism or any other narrow focus I’ll think we’ve failed to live up to our name.
This leaves what seems to me the best option for us as a site. There are two parts to this vision. First, the site is less a conventional magazine or web publication and more a publishing forum that a group of friends exists around. Much as like-minded writers have, throughout history, developed friendships via a republic of letters, so we can develop these friendships (and a vision for life that these friendships rest upon) through the shared work of Mere O.
We exist free from the confines of traditional publishing as well as the need to focus exclusively on one or two verticals. To some that may be a weakness, but to me it is one of our greatest strengths. This freedom allows us to do two things that are needed at any time but, perhaps, especially today: To put the emphasis of our work on developing writers (and, by extension, readers) in a way of seeing all of life and to say what needs saying with elegance and care. Matt once said to me that the world is worth living in and so we want to talk about all of it and we want to do so in a way that reflects our love of it. My dream for Mere O is that we would cultivate writers who are joyfully indifferent to the news cycle, the online writing economy, and the many fads that are trending for a week before passing in to obscurity. Rather than focusing on what has happened in the past 2-3 weeks I want us to focus on thinking about long-term concerns. I’m less interested in the political battles of today and more in the kind of world we are working toward realizing in 25, 50, or even a hundred years.
Of course, doing this well in a way that avoids the many traps waiting for any young writer is, as one of my old professors would say, fiendishly difficult. So we will not rush to produce something, nor will we be compelled into doing something we shouldn’t by the pressure of a deadline or the need to chase pageviews. The only things we need to publish on Mere O are things that are well-written on a topic that matters—which could be most anything. And when do those things need to be published, you might wonder? When they are done.
As far as what this means about Mere O’s future, three major things stand out to me:
- Mere Orthodoxy cannot simply be a blog. It must be a publishing forum maintained by friends united around a common vision of the good life and capable of explaining and sharing that vision with our readers. Here the success of Mere Fidelity, which for me at least is defined by the friendship and warmth as well as the intelligence of our four hosts, can be a model for the whole site.
- Mere Orthodoxy cannot be narrowly focused on the issues that evangelicals tend to narrowly focus on. While it’s true that our recent publishing record would suggest that we’re chiefly concerned with politics and sex ethics, I hope that in the future we can again return to publishing more broadly on a host of topics. I’d love to bring back the “Reading the Hymns” feature that was once a part of the site and I would also enjoy seeing more work done on economics, television, and sport, although I hope that the other members of our site will, in time, help shape the site through their own interests and work.
- Finally, as the above makes clear, Mere O isn’t going to be a publishing business because I don’t have the time or desire to make it one nor do I think we can be a blog for the simple reason that I don’t even know what that would mean today. If there is any kind of existing model for what I want us to be, I suppose it’s (predictably enough) something like a more public, online version of the Inklings. Writing is a major part of the work, but it’s not writing existing in an online vacuum removed from relationships and institutions nor is it writing as a product to be commercialized through some sort of business strategy (not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say). It’s writing as an attempt to say something true about the world. And the second piece of this approach is as important as the first—we need a solid group of people existing around the writing who are discussing it, questioning it, and challenging it.
If you’re interested in writing for us or have any questions, please feel free to find me on Twitter and we can talk. (If you’re not on Twitter, I’m also on Facebook. My profile is locked down pretty tight for people who aren’t connected to me, but if you add me as a friend I’d be happy to talk there as well.)