Reflections on the End of RBC, Part III: The Rise and Fall of the Blogging Phenomenon

This will be my last post on RBC, which closes shop in less than two weeks. My first reflection was on Mark Kleiman as a blogger, my second was on my own experience of blogging here, and this last is about the phenomenon of blogging more generally.

When future historians recount the development of writing and publishing centuries from now, they will likely mention the invention of alphabets, parchment, the printing press, book binding, and copyright protection. They will without doubt also mention the development of the Internet, which transformed writing and publishing as surely as it did almost every other aspect of human existence.

Beginning around the late 1990s and continuing into the aughts, you could not swing a cat without hitting someone who was starting a blog that focused on politics, public policy, or both. The technology made it cheap, magazine and newspaper editors were no longer exclusive gatekeepers, and people who felt they had many important things to say had their chance.

I would emphasize “felt” in the prior sentence because many of those guys (they were overwhelmingly guys) were wrong and only produced mediocre content, typically for less than a year before they exhausted themselves (and their readers, if they had any). Gerry Marsden was interviewed once about how his group (The Pacemakers), The Beatles, and many other Liverpool bands were sent to Hamburg by their managers, where they played in clubs 4-6 hours a night, 6 or 7 days a week. As he put it, if you fundamentally had talent and creativity, you survived and got better, but a lot of bands figured out they only ever were going to come up with a few decent songs and they wisely quit (or got fired). Blogging was like that and the number of failed bloggers quickly came to outnumber the successful. Mark Kleiman survived this Darwinian challenge as did a group of his contemporaries, many of whom were or maybe still are on the blogroll at the right side of this page.

What Was Achieved

At their best, the cohort of policy/politics bloggers provided fresh viewpoints that ventured helpfully beyond the then-acceptable range of discussion. They also expanded the audience for some exciting, relevant research that would otherwise only have been known within the academy. That in turn sometimes translated into greater public or political willingness to re-imagine some public policies.

The blogging onslaught also challenged traditional media outlets. RBC for example became the go to source for serious drug policy analysis for many major publications that had previously only had screeching ideologues to quote (something our drug policy trolls never got was how they gave the site credibility by providing a sharp contrast between themselves and the people at the grown-ups table). Other blogs became important fact checkers/auditors of national outlets and columnists, a number of whom started vetting their pieces with expert bloggers before taking them public in NYT et al.

At the same time, because so many bloggers were volunteers, we inadvertently hurt some fine media outlets that were dependent on paid subscribers, which also of course meant hurting some good journalists who needed a salary. One indicator that this was occurring was how many heavyweight bloggers and in some cases whole blogs started getting bought up by newspapers and magazines who didn’t want the competition.

Why It Collapsed

Some voluntary policy/politics bloggers are still at it and I salute their industry and persistence. But there are now countless dead policy/politics blogs out there (including within the RBC blogroll). In my view, two distinct things hurt.

First, paid journalism collapsed as the Internet-unleashed forces (especially Facebook and Google) suctioned off advertising revenue. Many outstanding bloggers who worked for small magazines and regional newspapers went under along with the ship upon which they were sailing.

Second, social media blew up as a phenomenon. The shorter, easier to write content of Twitter and Instagram pulled many eyeballs away from blogs. And those media are not conducive to the long-form, more carefully considered product in which blogs specialized. RBC was among those affected both in terms of losing readers but also bloggers’ attention — Mark for example loved Twitter and spent a lot of time on it, which took away from his blogging time; other bloggers followed a similar course.

Even if my friend were still alive, I think RBC would have continued to wind down in the years to come as its readers and writers moved on to other things. I’ve personally come to terms with it and the decline of policy blogging in general. Yes, an era is over, but we had a pretty good innings, didn’t we?

Reflections on the End of RBC, Part II: A Personal Perspective on the Pains and Joys of Blogging

This is the second of my three reflections made during this, the last month of RBC’s existence. The first was devoted to Mark Kleiman as a blogger. This one is devoted to my own experience as a blogger. I stipulate at the outset that this reflection may only be of interest to me, but one of the joys of blogging is that you can write posts even if the only person who will benefit is yourself.

How I Got Here and What I Did

I am not sure when I started reading RBC, but it was likely around 2008. Mark already had a strong stable of contributors then (Michael O’Hare, Andy Sabl, Jonathan Zasloff, and Harold Pollack were regulars), in addition to indefatiguably producing his own content. I learned things about public policy regarding crime, drugs, and health from reading RBC that were helpful to me in my work as Senior Drug Policy Advisor in the Obama White House. During my Washington days I also fed Mark some stories and trial balloons that he riffed on in these pages.

When my sabbatical year ended and I moved back to Palo Alto, Mark generously asked me if I wanted to join his crew. He described RBC as a “blogger’s blog” that had a medium sized following — way more than most blogs but way less than the big beasts. But he also said, correctly, that RBC’s work was picked up frequently by national bloggers and traditional media outlets (i.e., in the emerging politics and policy-focused blogosphere, RBC was The New Republic or The Economist rather than Time Magazine or the New York Times). My first post was in August of 2010 and explained my decision to accept Mark’s invitation.

I got into the rhythm of blogging pretty quickly and was active here until Spring of 2014, when I largely moved to Washington Post’s Wonkblog. One thing I worked out over my time at RBC was that more posts = more visitors to the blog. Given that, and the fact that I enjoy writing and even find it relaxing, I wrote a lot during my time here: in one 12 month period, I penned 60% of all RBC posts (to be clear, no one else was skiving off, I just wrote a lot). Despite the fact that some of what I wrote was hot garbage, the expansion of content in that period translated into a significant growth in readership. With I hope pardonable vanity, I am proud to have been a part of the crew that gave this site its biggest audience, not least because that readership growth helped attract Washington Monthly magazine to partner with us in a co-publishing arrangement beginning in 2012 that increased our readership even more (although as I wrote in my reflection on Mark, building an audience from scratch as Mark did is infinitely harder than growing the audience of an existing platform).

Pains and Joys of Blogging Continue reading “Reflections on the End of RBC, Part II: A Personal Perspective on the Pains and Joys of Blogging”

Reflections on The End of RBC, Part I: Mark Kleiman as Blogger

In preparing to say goodbye to RBC, I have been spending time digging through the archives. In the process I have come up with some closing reflections that I will share here in our final month of existence. The first part is dedicated to RBC Founder Mark Kleiman as a blogger (I have written about my friend more generally here, this post is just about him as an RBCer).

The oldest post in RBC’s archive is this one, written by Mark on August 30, 2002. Mark started in a place of political alienation: he positively loathed the George W. Bush Presidency. Some people want to write; other people have to. I think at that historical moment Mark had to. In a previous century, he might have stamped out hand bills protesting the actions of Parliament or The King, but in 2002, the Internet was here and blogging was exploding as a written form. Cometh the medium, cometh the man.

My main feeling in looking at the early years of RBC’s archive is admiration of Mark’s work ethic and bloody minded persistence. Day after day he turned out post after post for a tiny audience. RBC was not a group blog but Mark Kleiman’s blog, and he was 100% responsible to keep it going. He pushed that rock uphill and slowly built a loyal audience. Even when Steve Teles and Michael O’Hare signed on a few years in, Mark was still the workhouse content producer.

I feel good about the fact that I was a core writer here when the RBC reached its largest audience (At least 250,000 unique readers a month), but going from no audience to 10,000 regular readers is a way bigger lift that going from 150,000 to 250,000. There were a zillion blogs when Mark was starting out that never hit that initial threshold of a loyal readership base, but Mark got there and then some entirely on his own.

This also highlights what a generous person he was. Many people who had labored so hard to create a platform and a following would not have shared it. But Mark offered RBC slots to dozens of writers over the years, letting them start out with a much bigger audience for their work than they could have attained without years of effort.

Mark also deserves praise for the range of substantive areas about which he blogged about in a thoughtful fashion. He is of course most well known for leading the only widely read English language blog that did serious drug policy analysis, but he also wrote intelligently about crime, politics, poverty, education, and a variety of other topics. I eulogized Mark at the American Society of Criminology last year by noting that he was really a 19th century intellectual rather than a 21st century social scientist: he didn’t stay confined to a discipline and didn’t rely much on complex statistics. Instead he used his roving mind and keen observational skills to make his points, and, he had enough chutzpah to think (usually correctly) that he could say something intriguing on virtually any topic.

At the same time, Mark was sometimes too undisciplined in his blogging, and indulged himself in rants or political attacks that didn’t advance the argument (Not that that was his purpose in those posts, he was I think venting). I wonder if it might explain a mystery of Mark Kleiman as a blogger: Why was it that so many of his equally successful contemporaries were hired by magazines and newspapers to be an inhouse blogger but Mark never was? It may be that the only blog that could hold Mark’s eclectic intellect, temperament, and sensibilities, was the one that he himself founded and ran.

The Reality-Based Community will Close its Doors at the End of this Month

Not an April Fool’s Day joke, we have been discussing the future of RBC internally since Mark Kleiman’s passing and have decided it’s time to close shop. We will have some final reflections from RBCers here in the month to come. In that spirit, I am re-upping this piece from early 2011 that still rings true to me about the role of this blog.

A slow day off of work combined with a fast new lap top (Xmas gift) and no hangover (I followed Mark’s suggestion) makes this a good day to blog. I better understand this medium than I did when I started, and though I remain ambivalent about whether I should keep blogging, there is no denying that I learn from the blogosphere, including RBC.

One of the things I have observed is that many political/public policy blogs are comfort food for a pool of regular readers. If you create a site called “” or “” or “” you will over time accrue a readership, potentially a large one. Your role as a blogger is to repeat, in a thousand different ways, the message captured in your blog title. Your amen corner will then comment enthusiastically, over and over, in post after post that you are oh so right about what you think.

If such a blog strays from its message, the tell will be readers commenting “Hey, this blog is supposed to be advocating X and this post of yours seems to indicate that Y may be true”. And then, the ultimate insult from a comfort food seeker “This is the kind of post I would expect to see on blog Y”. The accusation isn’t that the blogger is wrong, but that the blogger is a traitor to the cause.

Whether providing political comfort food is right or wrong, it’s human nature to seek it out at least some of the time and that’s not going to change. But I thought it was worth saying that it is a feature and not a bug of RBC that if you read us for long you will encounter viewpoints and analyses with which you disagree (perhaps quite strongly).

When Mark Kleiman asked me to start blogging here, he knew there were things we didn’t agree about. And he didn’t say “You must support position Y, political party A, candidate Q” or anything else of that sort. He just asked me, as he asked a diverse range of people over the years, if I wanted to blog here and I said yes. Quincy Adams (ahem), Jonathan Zasloff, Amy Zegart, Robert Frank, Kelly Kleiman, Matthew Kahn, Steve Teles, James Wimberley, Lesley Rosenthal, Michael O’Hare, Bob Jesse, Andy Sabl and Harold Pollack have different knowledge bases and different points of view, which I consider all to the good.

I can tell from our comments that most RBC readers understand that there is no loyalty oath required to be a blogger here, nor an understanding that the posters must agree with each other. There is a shared commitment to evidence over opinion, as well as to civil debate, but that’s different than being monolithic on substance.

Very occasionally I get a comment along the lines of “This blog is supposed to advocate Y and you aren’t doing your part”. This makes it worth repeating that this isn’t a comfort food blog; that’s not our comparative advantage. Does this cost us readers? I am sure it does, but that doesn’t bother me and I assume it doesn’t trouble Mark either. The readers we keep are smart and intellectually curious, and those are the kind of people I want to spend my time around.

Do I wish that more people were interested in data, dialogue and potentially having their opinions proved wrong than are interested in comfort food? Broadly speaking, yes. But I hope this blog comforts those who have a taste for something other than comfort food.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Innocents

Many an eerie film has been described as a “spine-tingling” experience, but few live up to that description literally for most cineastes. The movie that did that to me more than any other, giving me physical shivers like a bucket of ice down my back, is this week’s film recommendation: The Innocents.

Producer/Director Richard Clayton’s 1961 art house thriller demonstrates that a skilled director can jangle nerves without spattering the screen with blood. Clayton started with ideal source material: Henry James’ psychological horror masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw (Although the film’s title comes from William Archibald’s prior effort to adapt the novel to the stage). But Clayton was wise enough to bring in a modern master, Truman Capote, to write most of the script. Capote kept the best elements of the Victorian English novel and suffused them with Freudian overtones and a dose of American Southern Gothic, rotting blossoms and all.

The plot sounds deceptively unoriginal on the surface. A wealthy man uninterested in two child relations (Michael Redgrave) hires a sheltered, rather jejune woman (Deborah Kerr) to be their governess. She moves in to care for them in a Gothic mansion, and the children at first seem wonderful. But strange passions and mysterious events arise which plunge the woman into a terrifying experience. The film, like the novel, leaves the central question of the plot a matter of some ambiguity, making it almost as enjoyable to analyze and discuss as it is to watch.

I don’t know how the 40-year old Deborah Kerr was cast as the lead in this film (unless her governess role in The King and I typecast her), because James’ governess character was originally conceived as a naive woman barely into adulthood who had never been away from home before. Yet Kerr turns in one of the best performances of her storied career, steadily unraveling before our eyes. To the extent the film is interpreted as portraying the psychologically deleterious effects of loneliness and sexual frustration, a 40-year virgin gave Kerr lots of material with which to work her magic.

Astonishingly, the veteran Kerr is matched step for step by the riveting acting of a 12-year old, Martin Stephens. He was already a star in Britain, based in part on his similarly unnerving turn in Village of the Damned. His role here is even more challenging because not only does he need to mix childlike moments with menacing ones, he also has to convey sexual awareness well beyond his years. He manages it all brilliantly.

This is also an amazing looking film, with the gardens and house exteriors (Sheffield Park), and the custom built interior sets contributing to the atmosphere. Even more important is the camerawork of superstar cinematographer Freddie Francis. From the very first shot, he pulls off an impressive array of visual feats, including blackening the edges of many of his interior shots to create a claustrophobic effect, as well amping up the central lighting when needed to get depth of field shots in CinemaScope’s otherwise flat look. Without spoiling the movie, I will just offer that the images from the most frightening scenes of The Innocents have stayed with me forever.

This movie didn’t quite land with audiences or critics when it was released. It was too arty and reserved for fans of more typical horror films of the period, and too traditionally haunted house bound for the arty set. I’m not going to embed the trailer for this reason, because all it does is show that even a major studio with a big promotions department could not figure out how to effectively market The Innocents. Fortunately, as magnificent films sometimes can do, The Innocents gained a larger and larger following as the years went by, until today it deservedly wins a place on virtually every “best horror films of all time” list.

UK Election Numbers

I have swiped some facts to digest from UK Twitter people I follow. I give RBCers four data points and invite any chewing over of them and the election more generally in the comments.

Fact one: Below the headlines, The Greens and Lib Dems increased the breadth of their appeal.

• Green vote rose in 389 seats and fell in 20

• Lib Dem vote rose in 568 seats and fell in 41

Image result for british voting

Fact two: the magnitude of the Tory win over Labour is understated by the seat count. Here are the constituencies in which the Tory vote went up by at least 5000:

Mansfield +8092; North Norfolk +8044; Thurrock +7915; Leicester East +6383; North Devon +5962; Bassetlaw +5463; Cannock Chase +5318; Dudley North +5066. In contrast there isn’t a constituency in the entire country where the Labour vote increased by at least 5000.

Here are the seats where Labour lost 9500 votes or more: Finchley & Golders Green –9595; Jarrow –9657; Falkirk –9786; South Cambridgeshire –9876; Barnsley E –9951; Doncaster N –9971; Leicester E –10026; Barnsley Central –10178; Normanton, Pontefract & Castleford –10971; Wentworth & Dearne –11805; Bassetlaw –13402. Again, this contrasts sharply with the Conservatives who had no seats with such a massive vote loss (Their worst was -5098 in Maidenhead).

Fact three: In 1997, the UK conservatives had a dreadful election, garnering only 30.7% of the vote. But they have increased their vote share every election for 6 elections in a row. Here is a trivia question for politics nerds: has any other party in the developed world had this kind of run in the past quarter century? I can’t think of one, but the hive mind may know what I don’t.

Fact four: 220 of the just elected MPs are women. This 34% female representation is the largest in British history.

A Diverse, Well Behaved, Generation

The segment of White America that regards the country’s shifting demography with terror has a range of cultural and economic fears (well documented by journalists like Nancy LaTourneau and Ed Kilgore).  Among these anxieties is that a less white America will necessarily become a more crime-ridden America.  The latest criminal justice data on the most diverse generation of young people in the nation’s history provides a dramatic demonstration to the contrary:

The rising racially and ethnically diverse generation of adolescents is substantially more law abiding than were the older, whiter generations who are sometimes afraid of them. The pervasiveness of the change is remarkable. Over the past decade, juvenile arrests are sharply down for every class of crime the government tracks, including violent (-48%), property (-61%), drug (-47%), and weapon (-54%).

Some people might argue that declining arrests doesn’t mean less crime (on the questionable theory that if there’s one thing police hate to do, it’s arrest people of color). Skeptics should note the many other positive indicators about this generation of adolescents: They are less likely than prior generations to binge drink, become pregnant, or drop out of high school. They are, in short, “good kids”.

For those hawking apocalyptic visions of a brown tide of youthful violence and disorder, these data are the worst possible news.  But for everyone else, the explosion of lawfulness among the young is one of the most positive, underappreciated developments in years.  And it will have radiating, positive impacts for decades as avoiding the criminal justice system allows more young people to pursue their education, secure good jobs, and form healthy and happy families. Meanwhile, cities, counties, and states, can safely redirect resources from correctional facilities toward more productive investments. American diversity has never looked so good.


Weekend Film Recommendation: La Maschera del Demonio

When Johann Koehler and I were younger and full of energy, we devoted each October to scary movie recommendations, knocking out 4 or 5 every Halloween season. In these straitened times, dear readers, I hope you can survive on one. At least it’s a goodie, namely the 1960 film that put Mario Bava on the map: La Maschera del Demonio.

The story opens with a witch (Barbara Steele, in the role that launched her as a genre star) being burned at the stake by a mob of pious, torch wielding, medieval villagers who seem like many other things in this movie to have escaped from a 1930s Universal monster picture (which Bava visibly loves as much as anyone). In a horrific sequence, they brand her with Satan’s mark and then nail a metal mask on her face and also on that of her malevolent henchman. She of course promises that she will rise again to take vengeance. Centuries later, two men stumble into a crypt and discover an ancient stone coffin and, well, you can guess much of the plot from there (again, especially if you watched the 1930s Universal monster movies).

Bava had done uncredited directing by this point in his career, but was mainly known as a cinematographer. Here, he is officially the director, and turns in one of the most atmospheric, visually stunning entries in the horror genre. He respectfully echoes the classics but adds his own sensibility and enormous technical skill to create a landmark in the genre and in Italian cinema more generally.

The best way to recommend La Maschera del Demonio might be to simply post dozens of photos. Part of why Bava influenced so many directors was his world-class visual sense: where to put the camera, where and when to move it, and how to create images that rivet an audience. In this respect, La Maschera del Demonio recalls two earlier RBC film recommendations in the horror/thriller genre, Les Yeux Sans Visage and Vampyr. The movie is also flat out scary, with suspenseful moments where you want to look away yet also can’t not watch.

There are multiple versions of this film, for two reasons. First, some of the violence — jolting even by today’s standards — was edited out in some countries (indeed, the UK banned the film entirely). Second, it’s an Italian film, so there was no sound recording on set. The actors were likely speaking different languages, and the language for each target audience was inserted in post-production (The multiple English “dubbed” versions of the film are pretty smooth, so it appears that many of the actors were doing their lines in that language on set). Probably the best version to watch is the completely unedited Italian language version, but the next best is the only slightly edited US version that Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman released under the titles “Black Sunday” and “Mask of Satan”. You can legally watch that version legally and for free right here.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Sandbaggers

Britain has long managed to turn out espionage films at all points along the dimension that has escapist fare like James Bond and The Avengers at one pole and grey-shaded, unglamorous, works like Smiley’s People at the other. I can enjoy the fantasies as much as the next moviegoer, but the Brit spy films that stay with me and thereby end up as my film recommendations are all from the grimy, realistic, end of the spectrum: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Charlie Muffin, Callan, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and this week’s film recommendation: The Sandbaggers.

Like Callan’s “The Section” this television series focuses on a small team of agents you’ve never heard of: the “Sandbaggers”. These trouble-shooting spies are led by a former sandbagger, the dour, workaholic, Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden, in a magnificently austere performance). Burnside spends as much time fighting Whitehall bureaucracy and careerism as he does his opposite numbers in The Soviet Union, a process that is complicated by his ex-wife being the daughter of the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office! (Alan MacNaughtan, succeeding in a markedly different role than he played in the satisfying To Serve Them All My Days).

The cast never put a foot wrong, which is a credit to their own talents as well as that of the primary directors, Michael Ferguson and Peter Cregeen. The show was produced by Yorkshire Television, and has an unmistakably Northern English chip on its shoulder about London, HMG, and people who went to Eton, which productively accentuates the cynical viewpoint of the series.

The Sandbaggers was scripted by Ian Mackintosh, a former Naval Officer who may have been in the game himself, and who (almost too perfectly) mysteriously disappeared in 1979. Every bit of the show feels real, from the civil service backbiting and hassles (I cringe in recognition at the ongoing subplot of British secret agents having to fly in economy) to the exciting front-line missions of the sandbaggers. And as in real life, virtue often goes unrewarded, many missions fail, and death does not look pretty.

As with many modestly budgeted British television shows of this era, there is no soundtrack or incidental music, only an opening and closing theme over the credits. Luckily, they got Roy Budd (who wrote the immortal music to another former RBC film recommendation, Get Carter) to compose it. As usual, Budd hit it for six.

As a complete work, the first season is the best for overall narrative arc, especially the evolution of the relationship between Burnside and the first female sandbagger, Laura Dickens (Well-played by Diane Keen). But for a single episode that gives you the flavor of the series, I would recommend from Season 2 the nail-biting Decision by Committee.

The Sandbaggers is a 40-year old show and Yorkshire Television doesn’t exist anymore, so I don’t know if it’s still copyrighted or not. But I will channel Neil Burnside and take the risk to tell you that whatever the rules are, an agent with initiative can find almost every episode of the brilliant series on Youtube.