November 28th, 1994: From ground level, it probably seemed like any other day. Men and women were going to work. Sparrows were singing. And the lazy, sneering devils of Big Media? Well, they were doing the same thing they'd been doing since John McLaughlin invented the half-hour TV squawkfest in 1832: twisting the truth like a circus clown wrenching a pink balloon into a scoliatic poodle, sticking their elitist asses out their insular skyscrapers, and unleashing great hailstorms of shit on the long-suffering citizens below.
But on November 28th, 1994, Big Media committed an injustice that, while hardly noticed at the time, would ultimately bring to mind the proverbial butterfly fart in Indonesia that causes a tornado in Texas. The scene of the crime: the New York Times. The perp: some condescending bastard named John F. Burns. The transgression: in a celebrity profile of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, Burns mentioned that Clarke had been nominated that year for a Nobel Peace Prize. But instead of identifying the nominator as "Glenn Harlan Reynolds," which would have been the fair, unbiased, accurately reported thing to do, Burns identified him as "Glenn Harlan Roberts."
Why this wanton snub? Perhaps Burns was conspiring in some secret, malicious way with Big Chomskyism, or Big Homelessness. Or maybe he did it for the sheer amoral thrill of it. In the end, it really didn't matter, because whatever Burns' infernal motive was, the damage had been done: millions of people now knew the Arthur C. Clarke fan only as "Glenn Harlan Roberts." And there was nothing Roberts could do about it, except brood, and brood, and brood some more, because Big Media is an arrogant, restricted, contemptuous racket, forever off-limits to Yale-educated law professors who occasionally write for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
Or at least it was in 1994. But even though the unduly maligned Roberts didn't know it yet, change was afoot. Indeed, thousands of miles away, in a Palo Alto, California garage, a San Jose Mercury op-ed writer named Joanne Jacobs was putting the finishing touches on a longtime side project of hers: the Internet. On December 3rd, 1994, less than a week after the New York Times had ruthlessly renamed Roberts, Jacobs unveiled her new invention to the masses.
Unfortunately, Jacobs' first version of the Internet was so complex that very few people were able to master it. Mostly it was used by pornographers who, faced with the limitations of HTML 1.0 and 28.8 modems, tried in vain to convince their clientele that essays on the historical birth of Jesus were actually just as titillating as hi-res photos of hot barnyard fuck action and interracial rump orgies.
But Jacobs continued to refine her product: in 1999, she created Blog It!, a software application that made web-publishing substantially easier. Because of its built-in credit-card processing capabilities and cool logo, Blog It! caught on with a maverick group of Internet e-tailers who were determined to bring an underground, anti-marketing sensibility to the world of online commerce. Instead of building obvious virtual department stores, they disguised their Web operations as eclectic bookmark collections, tech-oriented tip sheets, and the uncensored diaries of sensitive Scandanavian teenagers.
As "blogging" became synonymous with Web commerce in the wake of their success, Jacobs grew frustrated: after all, she didn't spend 19 years inventing the Internet, and then another five years inventing Blog It!, just to create a new way for Big Global Capitalism to sell mix-tapes and alternative blue jeans. To show slow-witted Internet publishers how to truly exploit the tools that she had developed, Jacobs created her own blog in early 2001 and immediately began using it to agitate for a massive, unrelenting air-strike against Canada.
And, suddenly, the full potential of blogging and the Internet could no longer be overlooked. It wasn't just a new channel for corporate commerce. It was also a new means of personal expression, a cheap and easy way to disseminate carefully researched and crafted opinions, like talk-radio without any dialing! As soon as people realized this, the commerce-oriented Internet collapsed.
And Glenn Harlan Roberts? At long last, he had a way to launch a counterattack against Big Media: with his new blog, Instapundit.com, he could expose its old-boy cronyism; he could police its lazy reporting and hapless fact-checking; he could deconstruct its biases and force it to acknowledge how, thanks to its elitist opinion-mongering and preening self-regard, it had completely lost touch with the values and concerns of the common law professor…
But toppling an institution as vast and entrenched as Big Media is a serious endeavour, and Roberts knew he'd need the help of an old pro. For years, of course, Larry King had been fighting the good fight from his post at USA Today: in column after column, he railed against "aloof and elitist" pecksniffs who snubbed audience favorites like "Patch Adams" and "The Waterboy;" he blasted Big Media for favoring scandal over real news; he wrote with lacerating wit and penetrating economy and take-no-prisoners resolve.
He was, in essence, the god-father of blogging, but he was also 106 years old and slowing down - and that's why, in the fall of 2001 when Roberts approached the wizened ur-blogger and asked him to share his wisdom, King assented. And now, as the following examples show, the work of the student is all but indistinguishable from that of the master:
Somebody get Ms. Klein an agent -- she can write, and she's posed topless in Playboy. I foresee a book contract by May!
KIMBERLY STRASSEL has some nice reflections on the "Faces of Ground Zero" photo exhibit. I've seen the photos, and they're terrific.
LYNNE KIESLING (who by her photo is quite a babe, especially for an economist) has an interesting piece…
You should also note that Rand Simberg's post on the wounded media is terrific -- several people have suggested that it should be named the Best Blog Post of 2001, and I think they're right.
Hey, maybe I'm not as dumb as I look!
Instapundit.com debuted on August 8th, 2001, and from its very inception Roberts tore into Big Media like a pit bull trained by Mike Tyson:
"THANKS TO SLATE for mentioning InstaPundit in its Best of the Fray section this week," he lashed out at Michael Kinsley and company on August 22, 2001.
"EXCELLENT [Time magazine] COLUMN BY RICK STENGEL on traditional media's fear-hate-contempt of Internet news," he accused on September 1st.
"ROBERT SAMUELSON echoes an InstaPundit theme…with this excellent [Washington Post] column on the blurring lines between work and non-work," he assailed just two days later.
"INSTAPUNDIT IS A COOL SITE! I know this because the [National Review Online] says so today. Thanks, guys!" he groused on September 4th.
This was exactly the kind of candid, contrarian discourse Internet readers lap up: within weeks, thousands of loyal fans had elected Roberts their all-purpose ombudsman. "ANOTHER TRAFFIC RECORD YESTERDAY," Roberts reported on September 5th. "InstaPundit just blew through the previous record for traffic," he followed up in an Instapundit.com exclusive on September 10th.
The next day, of course, the unimaginable happened, as terrorists hijacked four airplanes and killed thousands of people. It was a major distraction, but somehow Roberts stayed focused on what was truly important: "TRAFFIC has been amazing," he revealed on September 12th. "There were almost 4200 visitors yesterday, going way beyond the previous record of the (terrorism-free) day before." On September 13th, the trend continued. "TRAFFIC yesterday hit yet another new record, breaking 4200 readers," he wrote at 06:52:03 AM. Soon, however, the old mark was already obsolete. "Yesterday we broke the 4200 mark," he reported at 10:35:39 PM. "Today we're already at 5200."
For less savvy Internet operations, such overnight success is often just the first step toward failure. To accommodate more visitors, you have to purchase more bandwidth and maybe even more servers. If you don't play your cards right, you could end up with actual employees: a few geeks to manage the technical side of things, and a few suits to develop the revenues that you need to pay for the geeks, the equipment, the bandwidth, and themselves.
But as the great sage A.J. Liebling once quipped, "Freedom of the press belongs to those who can offload expenses onto someone else!" And, thus, like many other bloggers, Roberts hosts his site on blogspot.com, where hosting is free if you agree to serve a banner ad on your blog, and only $12 a year if you'd rather keep your site ad-free. In addition, Roberts also saves money through the software choices he makes: instead of buying an expensive content management system or even worse, developing one in-house (as Salon.com did), Roberts uses Blogger Pro, which costs $35 a year, plus additional fees for users who post more than 100K of content each month. To keep track of visitors and other site statistics, Roberts uses a free application provided by Bravenet.com.
In making such choices, Roberts saves thousands of dollars each year. For example, a typical web host charges approximately $20 a month for an account that includes 3 to 5 GB of data transfer, plus an additional per-gigabyte fee of $3 to $10 for any data transfer over 5 GB. At such rates, a site like Roberts', which appears to transfer at least 2 GB of data each day, would cost $2220 a year to maintain at the $3 per GB transfer rate, and $6840 a year to maintain at the $10 per GB transfer rate. (Click here for a long digression on the costs of blogging.)
Instead, Roberts simply pays $12 a year to blogspot.com parent company Pyra Labs to keep his site ad-free. Somewhat disturbingly, he's also paid the $12 fee for a few other blogspot.com sites that he likes, a move that suggests that as the donations to Instapundit.com pour in, he may be falling prey to the same kind of fiscal profligacy that doomed Boo.com and other spectacular dot-com flame-outs.
At the same time, it's clear that Roberts hasn't wholly abandoned his pragmatic approach to web publishing. "There's not much in Salon that couldn't have been done cheaper (and probably better) by bloggers," he asserted in a December 5th, 2001, Instapundit.com dispatch. And indeed, if Salon fired its editors and layout people, got rid of its costly content management system, and simply purchased server space and bandwidth from blogspot.com for $12 a year, it would probably save millions. And that's just a start. Throughout 2001, when the online ad market was so hot ads were practically selling themselves, Salon insisted on maintaining a 16-person sales and marketing staff. As Roberts put it in that December 5th dispatch, this was "classic corporate flab," and it goes a long way toward explaining why the six-year-old webzine is $74 million in the hole even though it has never employed Katie Couric or Roberts' mentor, Larry King.
Of course, Salon is a bastion of Big Media elitism - with its hundred-year legacy in the world of print and TV and its thousands of worldwide employees, it's far too entrenched in the past to ever truly understand what it takes to succeed in the online world, and too full of itself to farm out part of its operation to an innovative company like Pyra Labs, even though Pyra has grown to the point where it now has over zero full-time employees.
But if Salon.com seems determined to die a slow, stubborn, painful death, other nimble start-ups are following Roberts' counsel and thriving online. Foxnews.com, for example, does not employ editors, layout people, or Salon editor-in-chief David Talbot, and because of such economies it has turned the Web into a smooth-running money machine that needs only a handful employees to operate at peak capacity.
As efficient as it is, however, even Foxnews.com can't match the efficiency of Roberts. Indeed, while Instapundit.com's audience continues to grow - "NEW TRAFFIC RECORD: 30,526 yesterday. Thanks!" Reynolds reported on January 25, 2002 - he realizes that a single website cannot possibly reform Big Media by itself. Because of this reality, Roberts has also started contributing regular columns to two other websites: Techcentralstation.com and the aforementioned Foxnews.com. From these Instapundit.com satellites, Roberts continues to deliver the same kind of hard-hitting exposes that established his reputation as Big Media's worst nightmare: in one recent article at Foxnews.com, for example, he unmasked the ways in which gun control organizations and various other "left-leaning" advocacy groups trick lazy, credulous journalists into publishing their press releases, instead of publishing the press releases of large corporations like they're supposed to do.
"The fact is that mainstream media organizations have been allowing themselves to be used by activist groups for decades, in ways that they don't fess up to their readers and viewers," Roberts writes. Thanks to his efforts, however, the public is finally starting to see through Big Media's tricks. And as a consequence, Big Media is crumbling. Salon will be the first to fall, and then The New York Times, and then CNN, and then all the rest.
What institution will Roberts reform after that happens? I've heard that Joanne Jacobs is working on a new invention called "email" that may replace traditional print-based correspondence: perhaps Roberts will use it to take on Big Postal Service. But I'm not waiting for the collapse of Salon, or the Times, or CNN to express my gratitude to Roberts for the good work he's done: I'm expressing it now. Indeed, as the venerable instapundit might put it himself: "Thanks, Glenn Harlan Roberts! Thanks for your excellent, spot-on, terrific media criticism! Thanks for being a prolific Web titan!"
EXPLANATORY NOTES FOR THOSE WHO DESIRE THEM
A LONG DIGRESSION ON THE COSTS OF BLOGGING
current | archives | about | firstname.lastname@example.org | elsewhere