Monday, December 11, 2006

Blogito, ergo sum

I had a conversation a few weeks ago with Rex in which I said part of the reason I blog is that, for me, the act of blogging has become part of the act of thinking.
I'm a writer. And when writers think, we think as writers. Sometimes that means we think with pen in hand. Sometimes not. But it always means we assume there is an audience for our thoughts. It is that single personality trait -- an arrogance of sorts -- that allows us to be writers.

But blogging has changed something. In the old days, I felt that my thoughts had to be completely formed before someone read them. In fact, there had to be agreement that my thoughts were fully formed. Because there was always at least one editor who had to believe that my thoughts made sense.
But in blogging, things are different. Just as thinking and writing have always been linked in my head, now thinking and publishing are linked. I can share my thoughts as they form. And, sometimes, when I'm lucky, a reader will comment or some other blogger will write something and eventually my thoughts clarify.

I thought of these things today as I sat down to write about, to think about, a post from the New York Times DealBook blog. DealBook is reporting on a visit by Jim Buckmaster, the chief executive officer of Craigslist, to the UBS global media conference. In brief, the Wall Street folks at the meeting were completely perplexed by Buckmaster, who said he wasn't interested in maximizing revenue.
Take a look at the post here.

I read that piece early this morning, and it's hard for me to describe how delighted I was by it. I found myself smiling like a fool for a good half-hour. And at one point I logged on to Craigslist just so I could look at the site again, even though I had been apartment hunting on it just last night.
But as I blog this morning -- as I write, think and publish -- I'm not quite sure why I find it so funny that Wall Street doesn't understand a company "that exists to help Web users find jobs, cars, apartments and dates — and not so much to make money."
I suppose part of the reason I'm so pleased by this is because I find many of the denizens of Wall Street to be hideous. I've lived much of my life here in New York, and much of what I dislike about this town can be traced to the more vile characters that work in finance. And I like any story that makes such people look like fools.
But the primary reason I liked the story so much is because I felt, somehow, vindicated by it. A good portion of my career has involved trying to convince wealthy people that a publication's primary purpose is to serve its readers and its workers. And if I had a dollar for every private-equity investor, overpaid executive, Blackberry-addicted venture capitalist and cash-flow-crazed M&A advisor who didn't understand me, I'd be as rich as they are.
But those people have to listen to Craigslist. Craigslist is big. And big makes them drool.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I was once vice president of online content at Primedia Business. That company had been saddled with hundreds of millions of dollars in debt by Wall Street wizards. And yet you could spend weeks there without ever running into anyone in top management who thought that was a bad idea. One of these guys once told me that the problem with the company wasn't an unreasonable debt load, the problem was that the company had "too many editors in places like Kansas where they all want to go to the kids' Little League games instead of work." Those people, unwilling to work longer hours for less money in order to service the debt, needed to be replaced, he said.
Under any circumstances, that conversation would have offended me. But the scene that day was like some sort of parody of greed. We were having lunch in the executive dining room of a leveraged buyout firm. And he was drunk.
I don't know what became of that guy. I don't much care. But I expect that if he was at the UBS conference he was perplexed by the man from Craigslist.

Of course Primedia Business is no more. First small pieces were sold. Then dozens of people lost their jobs. Then big pieces were sold and hundreds of people were laid off. And then what was left was sold again.
Now, 16 months later, the New York Post says that new buyer has $847 million in long-term debt.
And in the end, all this seems so silly and endless and wrong.

So perhaps what I would say if my thoughts were well-formed is this: I'm pleased when someone like Craigslist's Buckmaster says "no." Because it will give me strength the next time I have to remind someone: "It's about the readers; it's about the journalism; it's about the staff; it's not about you."

For an earlier post of mine about Wall Street and trade publishing, click here.
Click here to read how just a few months after VNU was acquired by private equity investors, the company is laying off some 4,000 workers.

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  1. "I found myself smiling like a fool for a good half-hour." Great post, Paul. Like you, I also found the Wall Streeters' puzzlement very amusing! Why would you do anything if not to make money? Oh, it's so sad -- you've got to laugh!

  2. I plan to quote you, with attribution, in my own blog. Haven't done it yet so I might not, but probably will, and here's why. I knew I wasn't the first to come up with "Blogito, ergo sum," but I searched anyway and found this entry. Your opening is a fine description of why we do this thing we do.

  3. I find the first two paragraphs rather interesting as I've lately been wondering about thinking and writing. Your comments add a third item (which was perhaps already buried in the second) publishing. So:

    Do you notice a difference in the quality of between your written thoughts and unwritten thoughts? (Can you even evaluate such a difference without writing the unwritten thoughts?)

    Now there might be problems here because we use the same word for one who writes and one who identifies as a "writer" (properly, one who wants/likes to write, habitually writes, often as a occupation, and has/has developed certain characteristics as a result of this). I assume by writer you mean the latter. Given that and your definition of a "writer", writing by the non-writer could be something very different than writing by the writer; it could be merely the translation of thoughts to written language without the assumption of an audience. (Or is the assumption of an audience implicit in the act of writing?) Now consider a non-writer writing without the assumption of an audience. How do her written and unwritten thoughts differ? Compare that to your own differences.

    I'll assume that you'd say that writing, in some measure or another, improves your thoughts. Let's say that for the non-writer who does not assume an audience writing does nothing for their thoughts. Accordingly, it would be the assumption of an audience that is causing the improvement. This would mean (coming back to your publishing point) that if we want to improve our thoughts, we should publish them and, again accordingly, we should embrace all forms of blogging, as it forces us to assume an audience.

    Anyway, perhaps an interesting hypothetical. And thank you for your post, it led me down an interesting path.