Peter Frase has an excellent post about the Reinhart-Rogoff debacle and how it reveals the limits of wonk-journalism. In essence, wonk-journalists are those that sort of know how to read studies and translate them for the masses, but they cannot vet those studies, and the way that they present the studies gives them way more gravitas than they actually deserve. Frase is not a fan.
These are all great points. I wonder though what exactly can be done about wonk-journalism. Frase and other critics often ascribe the rise of wonk-journalism to an ideological commitment to liberal technocratic objectivity, but I suspect there is something more superficial involved here. If you are writing on the web and trying to generate the kind of traffic necessary to support a blog, you need a lot of posts everyday. Studies come out everyday, think tanks put out reports everyday, and data is easy to get and make a graph about. Wonk-journalism, because of the subject matter it is covering, provides the volume of content necessary to make a blogging business successful.
I think Wonkblog’s Dylan Matthews — a person Frase picks out in his piece — is a good example of how the business side of things might force the hands of those looking to work as an online politics writer. I don’t know how dedicated Matthews is to this style of blogging, but if you follow him on twitter, you realize this isn’t the only stuff he knows about. Unlike Ezra Klein who seems to be almost entirely ignorant of background political theory stuff, Matthews seems pretty well-read in even some of what might be regarded as the more fringe edges of political thought (I’ve seen him tweet about Analytical Marxism for instance). But could he write about that at wonkblog and get paid? Doubtful. Could he write about that anywhere and have a job as a blogger? Almost certainly not.
Such writing would not get past the gatekeepers of those institutions willing to pay bloggers, and even if it did, it probably would not get nearly as much traffic as rewriting studies and reports does. Which brings us to the big point here: if you don’t like wonk-journalism, what do you replace it with? Long-form magazine-style pieces with a cliche mix of history, a cite or two to an iconic political thinker, and a cursory application of those things to some contemporary issue wont do it. So what will?