Elephant Diaries: How Important is Andy Revkin’s Blog?

Last Sunday night, I read an excellent New York Times story via the Web about Steven Chu’s introduction to the ways of Washington. I cover the Department of Energy at my day job, and the DOE is a major employer in New Mexico, so I made a note of the story to include a link to the piece in my Monday morning links roundup on the work blog.

When I got to the office Monday and plucked my copy of the Times out of my mailbox, I noticed that the Chu piece was on the front page of the Times. “Made the front page,” I said to myself.

Why did that matter? Why did I care about the fact that the Times chose to use a piece of its most precious real estate to feature John Broder’s story about Steven Chu?

In the comments on a recent post here, a number of people offered variations on the point made most explicitly by David Zetland:

Paper is EXPENSIVE (time, editorial, etc.), so things in the PAPER (even if you read them online) are “better” as far as the signal to readers of what to read…

Chris Dunford, Kim Hannula and Keith Kloor made variations of this same point (I love my blog commenters!), but it was Zetland who captured the key piece of jargon I needed (I loves my jargon ’cause it gives me stuff to look up, and words to sound smart.): signaling.

The classic econ textbook example of signaling is a college degree, which signals the job-worthiness of an individual. Huge debate about how truly valuable that degree is in many fields in terms of actual worker productivity, but it continues to be used as a hiring decision shortcut.

Just like the trouble taken to get a college degree, all the trouble spent packaging up all that information, printing it up, driving it around town and throwing it on people’s driveways is no longer essential to the actual transmission of information. But it sends a signal.

What does this have to do with DotEarth, the blog run by Andy Revkin at the New York Times?

Chris Dunford said this in the comments on my last post (“Post” here is the Washington Post, subject of my last missive):

Anything printed in a major newspaper has more of it than anything posted in any blog.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is surely the feeling that “Someone important at the Post has looked at this and judged it worthy of its very limited and very valuable space.” There’s a journalistic professionalism that’s associated, rightly or wrongly, with major newspapers and magazines that simply is not associated with blogs and such.

So what’s the signaling associated with DotEarth? As a journalist trying to understand how to function in the new mixed environment where some of my work gets the “print signal” and some lives only in the ether, I view Revkin’s approach as the model: a platform that feeds into his print work, and off of his print work.

What signaling, if any, is associated with DotEarth’s presence at NYTimes.com? Does it get some of the gravitas to which Dunford is referring? Is that part of the signal? Or does the signal only exist on paper?

A related question, as Kim Hannula notes in her comments on the previous post: is there signaling associated with the move of her (terrific) blog to ScienceBlogs, which is affiliated with Seed magazine? Which is printed on paper?


  1. It’s an important question, but the word “readers” cannot distinguish between two divergent groups — those who read the paper version, and those who read the on-line version.

    DotEarth clearly signals to the latter the importance of the issue and Andy Revkin’s central position in the discussion. And if it’s true that the on-line audience is much larger than the print audience, then numerically speaking we have to say that yes, the blog does “signal” to the readership.

    But I’m not sure that really answers the question. If the newspaper wanted to signal to all its readers Revkin’s gravitas, I think it would give him more opportunities to write “News Analysis” columns (which is assuming he would want that work). Has he ever written that sort of piece? If so, I don’t recall it.

    DotEarth is pretty terrific, but if the point is to raise Revkin’s profile and further discussion of the issue, I think it’s going to take quite a while to get the point across to the general public.

    If the point is to dominate the in-crowd discussion of the issue, then I think the blog has already succeeded.

  2. Kit, IIRC the Will-Gore comparison piece that got him into trouble recently was news analysis.

    On the whole I like Dot Earth, but I have two complaints:

    Too much journalistic navel-gazing combined with a tendency to project uncertainty about his own role onto others (e.g. Jim Hansen).

    The format for comments is horrible (can’t see the post with the comments or all the comments at once, plus the [needed] moderation doesn’t seem to have a whitelist function). Andy has no control over much of this, of course.

    Re dominating the in-crowd discussion, I think the case for that needs to be made, unless you’re just referring to the science journalism in-crowd.

    The thing I like best about Dot Earth is the periodic effort Andy makes to gather opinions of different scientists when he blogs about controversial new results. Unfortunately, he limits the value of that by not pulling those comments up into updates attached to the main post.

  3. John, I suspect that most of us over a certain age had their formative exposure to informational media learning to read newspapers while still in elementary school. IOW, we’re trained to think the newspaper format is important. Will that be true going forward?

    Re SB, I think there is signaling involved, but I don’t think it has much to do with the connection to the print pub.

  4. The signaling has everything to do with story placement in the print edition of newspapers–particularly the Washington Post and the New York Times.

    These two papers, especially the Times, still exert huge influence over the national news agenda. If that weren’t the case, then Romm wouldn’t be waging his own personal jihad against the Times every other day.

    But the ability of the Times to still influence what’s really noteworthy news with the placement of front page stories is surprising in this web age.

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