Pittsblog Wind Down Wrap-Up Post #1: Thoughts on the Burgh-o-sphere

Thanks to the commenters who chimed in on my "Pittsblog is going to go" post below, including those who urge me to continue blogging about or posting or highlighting things in the communities of greatest interest to me -- entrepreneurs, economic development, technology and culture. I'm not Sean Connery; I won't say never again. But the moment seems apt for taking stock on a number of fronts. Here's one: the Pittsburgh blogosphere and media ecology.

I started Pittsblog at the dawn of 2004, not quite five years ago. I surfed extensively in late 2003 to identify Pittsburgh-based and Pittsburgh-focused blogs, and I found only a handful: Copeland, Potts, Closkey, Brannen, Togyer, a few others. It's safe to say that Pittsblog was there more or less at the beginning.

Re-read that list: Copeland -- moved out of town. Brannen -- suspended the blog in mid-07. Potts -- suspended his just recently. Cindy Closkey carries on at My Brilliant Mistakes, undoubtedly because she has uncommon determination. She's also a web designer, and as Forrest Gump might have said, geekiness is as geekiness does. That's a compliment. Jason Togyer just cares too damned much to stop or do anything else. That's a compliment, too.

The rest of the Burgh-o-sphere, on the other hand, has exploded, thanks in no small part to Woycheck and Pgh Bloggers, but also thanks in part to some very, very high quality stuff. Though there are several local blogs in this category, including some that have embraced the cause of stripping politicians of their new clothes with admirable zealotry and a couple that succeed more often than I do in bringing reason to debates about local public policy, I'll shout out here only to one blog that receives and deserves nearly universal praise: the Carbolic Smoke Ball (a/k/a the Carbolic Smoke Blog). With leadership from the likes of Judge Rufus Peckham, local media have nowhere to go but up. That's a compliment, too. Really.

Coincidentally, CSB is going through a transition of its own these days, and that's as good an excuse as any to wrap some of this nostalgia into a modestly broader theme. Don't look now, Pittsburgh, but there's one media property in town that not only has a lock on a local market but is making a legitimate play for the national market, and it's not owned by the Block family and it doesn't have call letters that begin with W- or K-. "Peckham" may end up soon in the pantheon of all-time best (or at least best-known) judges, along with Wapner, and with Judy.

CSB, in other words, is Pittsburgh social media's great success story. It may be the one great current success story of Pittsburgh media across the board, social or otherwise. The Burgh-o-sphere's explosion hasn't all been to the good; there is a lot of self-indulgent bathrobe blogging out there, as there is everywhere, and sports-oriented blogs often are indistinguishable in tone and content from sports radio. Fan-dom is absolutely fine, but how many Steelers blogs does the world really need? Above all and most important, however, Pittsburgh's mainstream media are mostly unchanged by all of this -- and that's a disappointment.

Pittsblog came about for three reasons. One, as a newcomer to Pittsburgh, I was frustrated by the under-exploitation of what I believed were some extraordinary local economic resources and what I thought was incessant and needless self-pitying that I read and heard in local mainstream media. Two, there was a nearly complete absence of public analysis and commentary -- even brief, amateur commentary -- on some of the longer term challenges and opportunities confronting the region. Three, I wanted to play around with a blog and to see what would happen.

Several years later, what result?

The underexploitation and self-pitying mostly continues. Pittsburghers have an Oreo-like identity: Tough and proud when Pittsburgh takes on the outside world; chewy and marshmallow-ish when it comes to self-scrutiny. I'll post more about this later, but in connection with this post it means that the MSM here just can't bring itself to really invest in critical examination of the city's and the region's weaknesses (the ridiculous bickering in city government, the need to cater to nearly 100 municipal "neighborhoods," the bullying and posturing of the unions representing public employees, and the embarrassing perpetuation of an entitled power elite, just for starters) and strengths (a natural beauty, community culture, and cost of living that should be the envy of every region in the country, with newcomers banging on our doors to escape the expense and stress of less -- yes, I'll use the word -- livable places).

Big, theme-based public analysis and commentary is somewhat more frequent, thanks mostly to Harold Miller and Chris Briem, and beyond the blogosphere (but right next door) there is the intriguing experiment known as GLUE, the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (which includes a blog), and some elements of Pittsburgh Quarterly. With my attention divided among multiple blogs (not to mention the rest of my life), I wasn't able to sustain a contribution here. (With one exception, I think: Flogging the idea of the Cupcake Class. Folks, just to be clear: that was a joke!) But Pittsburgh still needs much, much more of this.

Over at the Post-Gazette, the most interesting development on that score has been John Allison's The Next Page, which appears once a week. (Check the back of the Sunday Forum section -- but don't search the online archives. The pieces aren't collected in any sensible way. Sigh.) Otherwise, for the last several years One of America's Great Newspapers has continued to sink slowly in the (mid)West, having taken tiny, tippy-toe steps into the giant and growing pond that is social media. If the Post-Gazette serves no other purpose, it should serve as the paper of record chronicling, dissecting, and ultimately analyzing the machinations of the pooh-bahs that run the city and county, some of whom hold elected office and some of whom work for our local governments. Often, however, the most interesting political commentary in town these days, and even some of its most provocative investigation, is online, not in print, and I don't mean the alleged PG blogs. Quick: Go to the Post-Gazette's homepage and find a blog. I dare you. "Pittsburgh Mom" counts only technically; blog it may be, but there's no conceivable definition of journalism that embraces PM. The gang at the City Paper has more of this figured out, and the folks behind Pittsburgh Quarterly magazine -- like CP, a publication with a different model from the get-go -- are experimenting in interesting and potentially productive ways. But the fragmented Pittsburgh media landscape of 2008 largely resembles the fragmented Pittsburgh media landscape of 2003/2004, even if some fragments have come and gone and others have moved around. The region doesn't need consolidation and integration on this media environment score so much as it needs a better sense that there is a there there. That takes resources and leadership. Right now, it's more of the same. Bueller? Bueller?

As to seeing what blogging wrought, mostly it wrought one very unexpected but very welcome and ultimately (hopefully) durable benefit: Rather than extending my voice into virtual corners of Pittsburgh, I met people. I met lots of people. In person and face-to-face. Many of them are (or were) bloggers in their own right; many of them were simply interested in what I had written and wanted to engage, though not just in a comment to a post. More than a few of them work for recognized media properties. The real benefits of blogging to me required and still require that I persist in not being anonymous or pseudonymous (in general, and with rare exceptions, I think that anonymity and pseudonymity are corrosive of civil society -- but that's a topic for another day), because the real benefits aren't virtual. They are social.

At the end of the day, and to cap off my point about the Burgh-o-sphere and the media environment, that sociability has been one of the great strengths of the online group (thanks to the organizers of the Pittsburgh Blogfests; sorry I haven't been able to come to most of them!) and one of the major weaknesses of the local media environment in general. Professional journalists, when confronted with this new world, sometimes forget that the whole point of the information professions is to connect with people. Real journalists, folks who've been writing and reporting for a full career, know this. I grew up surrounded by people like that. Successful bloggers, too, have to get this. CSB gets it (the Judge is among the folks that I've met). But too many folks think that it's just about the information, or the advertising, or the market share, or self-promotion, or the site visits and traffic, comments, and links. They forget that it's about the relationships.

To illustrate and conclude:

Last night, I was driving home with a local reporter who thinks that way, and as we came off the Parkway and started to head up Banksville Road, we came upon a Pittsburgh Police cruiser blocking the highway. Flashing lights ways up the road made it clear that something uncommon was going on. My passenger stuck his head out the window and called to the officer manning the cruiser: I'm a reporter with XYZ [a proposition that could have been verified in an instant]. Can you tell me what's going on?

The officer looked over, with an expression that can fairly be described as contempt. "No," he declared. Then he turned away. Follow-up requests to acknowledge the question were ignored. (I've never had much to do with the Pittsburgh Police Department, fortunately. This episode did not impress.) We drove on.


5 Responses to "Pittsblog Wind Down Wrap-Up Post #1: Thoughts on the Burgh-o-sphere"

Rich said... 9/18/2008 10:35 PM

The reason Banksville Rd. was a mess may have the sobriety checkpoint. The trailer was in the lot in front of the BBQ joint and safety cones extended for quite some ways down Banksville - at least a dozen cop cars in the area. We passed it NB on the way to the Pirates game - there was already a quarter mile backup of cars at 7pm.

Mike Madison said... 9/18/2008 11:33 PM

We suspected as much. All the more reason for the Pittsburgh Police to be especially rude.

C. Briem said... 9/19/2008 6:28 AM

The cupcake thing was a joke?! The next think you are going to try and tell us is that the custard controversy was satire??

Mike Madison said... 9/19/2008 7:52 AM

Cupcakes, custard, and now cookies. I guess I'm responsible for a confection of edible metaphors that rides a razor's edge between serious blog pedantry and Waugh-ish criticism.

Mark Rauterkus said... 9/19/2008 9:08 PM

Thanks for the mention.

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About Pittsblog

Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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