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Monday, December 22, 2008

It's A Burgh(er) Thing

Posted By on Mon, Dec 22, 2008 at 8:27 AM

So it's come to this: Pittsburgh's finest local-politics blog, The Burgh Report, has gone dark. As you'd expect, there's been some online gnashing of teeth. But whereas the departure of PittGirl attracted a front-page story in the Post-Gazette, and Teacher.Wordsmith.Madman author Chad Hermann got a full-page op-ed piece to explain his departure, the Burgh Report merely received an online-only write-up. Apparently, it doesn't even warrant a mention in this week's "Cutting Edge," the P-G's wrap-up of internet gleanings. (Though in fairness to the P-G, news of the BR's demise may have reached the paper after its Sunday op-ed section was already laid out.)

So I guess it's my turn to be the paid journalist who makes a big deal out of a blog shutting down. Which is fine by me, because I think this one really does matter. 

Let me say right off that I don't see any great conspiracy here. I have a pretty good guess about who The Burgher is, and what I know about that person's life circumstances makes shutting down the blog a totally natural thing to do. (You can find The Burgher's own explanation here.) Those looking for the Hand of Zober in this are probably wasting their time. 

Even so, this is a blow. When previous blogs shut down, I was in the camp of those who said, "For every blog that goes dark, 10 more will arise in their place." Now, I'm not so sure. 

For a time, it was easy to believe (or at least hope) that Internet technology would be a new machine, one that could effectively contest with the mid-20th century technology of Pittsburgh's party-machine politics. And it would be nice to think that progressive voices on the internet were self-replenishing -- the way that, say, Democrat-endorsed candidates for City Council District 2 are. But not so.

As corroded as its cogs and gears may be, the Democratic machine in town doesn't ask a lot of its constituent parts. Almost anyone could fill in for outgoing councilor Dan Deasy -- who heads off to Harrisburg without having made an impression on anyone or anything. Any flunky or hack will do. 

But it isn't that easy for the rest of us. When you don't have access to power, you need numbers and smarts. And the Burgh Report, along with a couple other blogs going silent, is a case where we've lost the latter especially.

In post after post, the Burgher demonstrated an obvious knowledge both of law and the inner workings of government. You're not going to find that many people who bring such expertise to bear -- and who want to share it with the rest of us so openly (albeit under cover of anonymity). It would be equally difficult to imagine someone replacing, say, Chris Briem at Null Space. How many people can write knowledgeably about bond issues, in a way that makes you want to read about them? If the Pittsburgh Comet were to stop posting on those interminable city council meetings, how many people out there would bring Bram Reichbaum's zeal (or flexible work schedule) to the task? 

It's worth remembering that Pittsburgh's original political blog, the notorious Grant Street 99, started in 1999 and went dark after legal action against its anonymous author commenced. It was years before any site rose up to replace it. 

I don't think it will take that long to replace the Burgh Report: Blogging is a much bigger part of the discourse than it was in the late 1990s. But I do think we may be witnessing a sea-change here.

Perhaps we simply got spoiled by an initial spate of bloggers who, under cover of anonymity, were willing to make use of obvious gifts that they were ALSO using in their day jobs. Something was bound to give: Either the threat of losing that anonymity, or the more mundane demands of their working lives, was bound to intrude. 

And now, perhaps, it's up to the rest of us. 

The mythos of blogging is that it is a "crowdsourced" phenomenon, in which a whole bunch of independent voices at some point swell into a thunderous consent, and drown out the chorus of doubters and hacks. But so far, it hasn't played out that way. Instead, we've ended up with a handful of blogs that a crowd of readers rely on. Even now, internet hopes have turned toward the Comet, with Bram Reichbaum playing the part of the Ringbearer, carrying progressive hopes into the depths of Mordor. Which is a hell of a burden to put on Bram.

This is the mirror image, really, of the local progressive approach to politics. We don't seem to have a ton of numbers behind us, and despite our best efforts, we don't seem to be building the massive grassroots progressive campaign that will allow us to storm the halls of power en masse. So instead, we go looking for the Great Hope -- Bill Peduto? Chelsa Wagner? -- who will slay the Democratic Goliath with a sling fashioned from $25 Paypal contributions. Yet the champion departs the field, in large part because there aren't enough of us behind him or her. 

There's a chicken-and-egg thing going on here: Do we not have the right champion because there aren't enough of us, or are there not enough of us because we don't have the right champion? Barack Obama seems to have resolved the conundrum on the national level, but I don't think anyone knows how to pull it off here. 

In any event, my prediction is that there won't be another Burgh Report. But this may actually be a good thing. What could happen is the rise of a chorus of voices -- perhaps none bringing the singular expertise The Burgher had, but perhaps not constrained by anonymity either. Perhaps those voices will prove more robust, and the debate they spawn will be more robust as well.

If that doesn't happen, well ... maybe that little itch should be telling us something. If we can't even maintain a decent stable of blogs, it's hard to imagine how anything is going to get done offline either.  Just as you can't run anonymous candidates for office, you can't rely on an online movement to effect real political change.

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