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Aug. 27, 2013, 10:47 a.m.

The difference between a tablespoon and an ocean: An academic blog finds a home at The Washington Post

The Monkey Cage, run by political scientists, is joining up with the capital’s daily. The Post gets high-quality content, the bloggers get an audience, and hopefully, everybody gets paid.

The Washington Post is in content-acquisition mode. Yesterday The Monkey Cage — a much admired group blog run by political science professors interested in connecting their field’s work to the broader political discussion — announced it would be moving to the Post. Here’s site editor and George Washington University associate professor John Sides:

After 5+ years of writing and growing as an independent blog, we think that the Post offers a tremendous opportunity both to increase and broaden our audience and to improve our content.  We think that it will be a great place to continue the blog’s mission of publicizing political science research and providing informed commentary on politics and current events.

The list of independent blogs that have been acquired or leased by Big Media continues to grow: Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight going first to The New York Times and then ESPN; the Freakonomics guys also joining the Times and then going solo again; Ezra Klein bringing his style of wonkbloggery to the Post in 2009; the peripatetic wandering of Andrew Sullivan and Matthew Yglesias from website to website as contracts expire.

For The Monkey Cage — produced by a group of academics and until now not a revenue-generating enterprise — its three-year deal isn’t a perfect analog to what Jack Shafer has termed the Marquee Brothers. But it nonetheless fits into a broader trend: large news organizations realizing the value in sometimes obtaining talent (and brand and audience) from the outside, not just developing it within.

Bird’s eye view

Sides told me that a number of publications had made offers for The Monkey Cage, but that they’d continued shopping around until finding the right fit. “At the end of the day,” he said, “we felt that, when you operate as a niche blog, as an academic blog, we felt like there was so much more room for growth if we could affiliate with a publication that had a really rich history of political news coverage, and had a commitment to a sort of data driven, wonky style of blogging.” Sides felt that at the Post, the original direction of The Monkey Cage would be allowed to go on in much the same way, while being able to rely on the editorial resources that would grow and improve their content.

“As academics, being lively and interesting isn’t exactly our strong suit sometimes,” he said. “The Post is there not to provide any sort of editorial oversight in a real day-to-day, hands-on, editing-every-post kind of way, but really to be there as a resource for us to learn more at the outset about how to write for a digital audience.”

Melissa Bell, director of platforms for The Post, said via email that striking the right balance between “editorial oversight” and the “freedom to innovate” is something they’ve had plenty of practice with on their other online brands, citing Klein’s Wonkblog as a prime example. Still, some — including Jay Rosen — expressed initial concerns over whether The Monkey Cage will continue on with its criticism of how the media covers politics, both at the Post and elsewhere. Sides said that Post editor Marty Baron was clear in negotiations that writing about the Post was fine. (In fact, one of The Monkey Cage’s contributors was beefing with Ezra Klein even as the deal was signed.)

“There’s no real stricture being placed on us,” says Sides. “Everyone’s a big boy and big girl. We can have differences of opinion and still work.”

Sides says Klein’s site-within-a-site is probably the most similar to what the Post Monkey Cage will look like. Wonkblog is a little more policy-oriented than Monkey Cage aspires to be; they might cover environment or education using research and data from economics or criminology or sociology, whereas The Monkey Cage is about “understanding political process and institutions that give rise to these policies.” Sides also compared his work to The Fix, a Post blog which he sees as being aimed at political junkies with “nimble intelligence,” who want the news on a “day-to-day if not hour-to-hour basis.”

The Monkey Cage, meanwhile, usually publishes two to four posts a day, and Sides doesn’t see that number increasing much. “There’s no way we could have that metabolism,” he says. “I think the nature of academics is to fly at a somewhat higher altitude and look at more big-picture kinds of trends or influences and try to describe what is generally true — what do we know from having studied phenomena over a period of time.”

Don’t quit your day job

Expect The Monkey Cage’s content to stay largely the same. (In a comment on the announcement post, Sides notes that content that’s of interest only specifically to political science academics — like complaints of how boring polisci conferences can be — would likely be cut back.) But the business model will change, in part because there really hasn’t been one up to this point.

Loyal readers can take a breath: Monkey Cage content will be excluded from the Post’s paywall for a year. Says Sides: “The year outside the paywall is just sort of a way to transition from having no such structure to having one, and hopefully that will make the transition for our current readers a relatively easy one.”

Ads will become a part of the blog for the first time. “To me it was neither here nor there, that there are ads on the site. It doesn’t effect what we’re saying or writing, and obviously all of that work is not handled by us,” says Sides. Revenue produced by the site will be split in some fashion between the Post and The Monkey Cage’s contributors. But of course, as full time professors, most of those individuals have lots of other responsibilities on their hands. “We’re not being hired — I won’t draw a salary from The Post,” says Sides. “We’re all going to keep our day jobs, as it were.”

For the Post, the deal means new content for minimal extra staff hours while building out its “smart analysis brand.” The Monkey Cage, in return, is looking at pageviews at levels it’s never seen before. “It’s the difference between a tablespoon and an ocean,” says Sides. “I’m not sure we’re headed for a life of luxury and riches, but that’s not why we’re doing this in the first place. We’re doing it because we like to write this way and we think it’s important to communicate what we know to a broader audience.”

Looking outside the newsroom

The inherent obstacles to bringing that kind of academic work to a substantial audience is what motivated the foundation of The Monkey Cage. “We write poorly; we write methodologies that are only accessible to specialists; we hide our research behind paywalls,” says Sides, speaking of the academy. “I feel like one of the things The Monkey Cage has tried to do was emulate some of the academic blogs that were trying to break down those barriers, and it’s pleasing to think that news organizations are starting to see that academics can write in ways that are engaging enough to warrant not just an occasional link, but a degree of sponsorship and institutional support.”

Nate Silver may not be an academic, but his application of hard analysis to issues usually covered in fuzzier tones is an obvious parallel to what The Monkey Cage tries to do. Sides says he’s pleased by the comparison, which he calls “apt,” but not just for himself and fellow contributors.

“I think one of the things that Nate Silver has done that has been a real service to social science and political science is that political phenomena can be understood by using quantitative information,” he says. “It’s not a substitute for the kind of granular detail and knowledge that you can get as a reporter on the ground who’s in conversation with decision makers, in campaigns or on the Hill. I don’t think those things are opposite. But there’s a way that they can complement each other.”

Of course, Silver recently made headlines with the announcement that he would be leaving the Times, which raises questions about the sustainability and longevity of expert-driven, independent blog brands. If The Monkey Cage hits it big, it’ll be an interesting renewal negotiation in three years. But for now, The Post is satisfied and says they’d definitely consider pursuing more partnerships like this one.

“Expert blogs have matured into high quality news sites for readers,” says the Post’s Bell. “It’s in line what we’ve always done in journalism: seek out the best reporters wherever they may be and try and hire them. It just so happens that a lot of great writers happen to be online these days.”

Image by Ery: The Shots used through a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 27, 2013, 10:47 a.m.
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