By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Toward a New England Common

What does Christopher Lydon want? After sitting in on a session he led last Friday at UMass Amherst, my impression was that he really doesn’t know — but that he’s hoping it will emerge if enough smart people put their minds to it.

The post-“Connection” Lydon is a devotee of blogging, and his radio show, “Open Source,” attempts to join blogging and radio. (It’s an uneasy combination, although the radio part of it is often terrific.) At his UMass session, part of the Media Giraffe conference, several dozen of us talked about an idea that he calls “The New England Common.”

What is it? Maybe a network of blogs, like Universal Hub — although, when I asked him about that specifically, he demurred. Maybe something a little more deliberate than that, like the Huffington Post. Maybe — and this is what really seemed to animate him — an online version of the Boston Globe as Lydon would envision it. (Lydon recently caused a stir with this withering essay on the Globe, written for CommonWealth Magazine.)

Blue Mass Group and Marry in Massachusetts have both done a good (if overly skeptical) job of covering the basics of what we talked about. I think the difference between their take and mine is that I believe Lydon genuinely wants to see what will bubble up. Lydon’s emphasis on elite journalists like Richard Dyer and David Warsh (who was there) and elite institutions like Harvard (and Harvard and Harvard) was somewhat amusing given the populist leanings of those gathered. But Lydon seems to be trying to overcome his elitism rather than wallowing in it.

Lydon’s basic question was this: Given the number of bloggers and brains we have in New England, why haven’t those commodities come together as we’ve seen elsewhere, such as New York, Washington and the West Coast?

I don’t know the answer to that, but a few cultural observations may suggest that New England is different. You could go back at least to the 1970s, when the economic landscape was dominated by minicomputer companies such as Digital and Wang. The founders of those companies, Kenneth Olsen and An Wang, failed to adapt, and they fell to a rising information revolution led first by personal computers and, later, the Internet.

For that matter, why has Salon been thriving in San Francisco since 1995 while Boston, a similar city in many respects, has never had anything remotely like it? Salon strikes me as being very similar to what Lydon may have in mind.

Part of why we’re different, I think, may be rooted in a cultural desire for control and for the old way of doing things. Even when something genuinely new comes along, it’s quickly incorporated as the new old, and change is resisted for fear of losing control.

Which might have something to do with the local blogs. I suspect we all like having our independence too much to allow ourselves to be subsumed into a New England Common. I certainly wouldn’t mind if Media Nation were part of a larger network — as it is to some extent, through its listing on Romenesko and mentions on Universal Hub. But I have little interest in its becoming, say, an online column within New England Common, if that’s ultimately the direction in which Lydon wants to move.

For all his enthusiasm, I also wonder whether Lydon understands the limitation of blogs. He made it pretty clear that he wants expertise, research and reporting — all the things for which we still need the mainstream media. Blogging doesn’t pay, and until it does, it’s going to remain something we do when we ought to be doing something else.

Obviously, this is a discussion to be continued. Lydon is an interesting guy, and I want to see where he might go with this.

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  1. Paul

    Salon is okay but not “all that.”

  2. Sachem Head

    It also seems strange to me to “locate” a website like Salon in a place, like San Francisco. The one person I know who works for Salon lives in New York. I think the readership of Salon is not a place-based readership. It was very much unclear to me whether Lydon was looking for a website where the leading lights of Boston speak to the world or a website where the communities of New England speak to each other. His proposed name spoke to one idea, but his pitch betrayed an ambition for the other.I think I’ve been a little harsh on Lydon, and maybe it’s my own provincialism kicking in. But I also think that if his idea is to succeed, it needs to tackle some of these issues.

  3. college radio geek

    I can’t comment too much on the blog side of things, but Dan’s comments on the desire for control and the “new old” gave me a “light dawns ovah Maahblehead” moment – it sums up perfectly the state of college radio in Boston. Something I am (God help me) intricately entwined in.If you’ve ever cruised the left end of the dial, you know there’s a ridiculous amount of college (and high school) radio around here. Don’t believe me? Just check out this list of high school stations alone and remember that here in the metro area there’s WMBR, WZBC, WMLN, WMFO, WBRS, WRBB, WZLY, WERS, WHRB, WUML, WDJM, WXPL, and WGAO. More if you include more of the rimshot markets.I mention that huge list because you will almost invariably find at each and every station, that the staff feels they are “unique” and they play music that can’t be heard on any other station. Furthermore, to suggest that a nearby college station X (or a distant one) has a really good show and maybe your station Y should rebroadcast it is considered heresy and will get you roundly beaten at most any college station. You wouldn’t believe the battle it took to get (and keep) the popular, albeit uber-leftist, “Democracy Now!” on the air at WZBC. It’s a huge undertaking just getting the kids to come to local radio conferences to share experiences with experts and students from other local stations? The hubris is astounding, of course, because these stations largely duplicate each other. There may be one-half of one percent of listeners that can really tell the difference between the music on each station. But if taken in any sort of aggregate, it’s all just “F**k my mother, kill my dog” noise (as a favorite mentor once wryly observed to me) to the vast majority of listeners out there. :-)Independence and control are the ultimate law of the land at each little station…to the exclusion of everything else. Which is a shame. Much like what Lydon is thinking about, if these stations cooperated a little, they could reap some significant benefits. I’ve often thought that if there were a central underwriting system for all those little signals, it would cover a fairly large area & population…and thus could be sellable. Ditto for sports coverage.I’ll toss in one final point; I’m not sure this is true for the bloggers, but it’s definitely true for college radio. What drives the spirit of “independence and control” at most stations is actually a desire to have as little accountability as possible. This is not necessarily a “dig” at the stations; a lack of accountability also means the DJ’s have freedom to experiment with their on-air selections. It’s conceptually similar to academic tenure I suppose. The problem is that it’s often taken way, way, WAY too far. That desire to avoid accountability means that news is not aired (because there’s a responsibility for it to be accurate). Underwriting is shunned (because there’s money on the line). Signal reach is eroded (because it’s a grow-or-die world in radio signals and a bigger signal means more listeners and more feedback/accountability).And of course, it also means that there’s not even a hint of an objective means of determining whether a given DJ is “good” or “bad”, as determined by the mission of the station. So you end up with a lot of “bad” DJ’s who don’t “grow” much in their role and fail to draw any listeners. I don’t mind a DJ who’s not popular because they play ultra-niche music…that implies that they’re hyper-serving a niche audience and I see that as a good thing. The problem comes from so many DJ’s that don’t really put much thought into what they play and end up serving no audience at all.Sound familiar? On the surface, it sure does feel like the blogosphere. If I’m wrong I’ll gladly listen to any arguments on it…because if I’m right then the concept of citizen journalism via the way of the blog is doomed to existence on the fringe, ignored by most and largely subsidized by academia. I’m sure that’s not what Lydon wants, but I fear we may be heading down that road.

  4. Chuck Tanowitz

    I’ve been mulling this over for the past few days as I’ve seen people talk about it. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the conference.I think this is really just about “community” and how a person defines that for himself or herself. Is your community based on being in New England? Is it based on being in Massachusetts? Is it based on being in a particular city or even just a part of that city? What binds people together? Since that varies from person to person, the information people want and read will vary. So the answer may not be a particular site or blog (and there are already a number of good ones with more bubbling up) but in better utilizing RSS feeds and personalized searches. I have a bunch running that tell me everything from when someone is selling a camera lens I want to when UniversalHub puts up a post about Newton.But maybe there is also room for a site that is highly edited and takes carefully crafted articles from prominent local individuals, with people commenting on the ideas they put forth. Almost like a “glossy blog.”But this stuff is so cheap and easy to start, why all the talk? Just start something, see what happens, if it doesn’t work, change it. BMG is certainly good, what is it missing that Lydon and others seem to want?

  5. adamg

    OK, I wasn’t at that forum (darn work), but based on the posts I’ve read, it seems that Lydon does, indeed, want something like a New England Huffington Post, where Big Names can expound on the issues of the day (or should that be: Big Names of the Leftleaning Variety?).Nothing wrong with that, Huffington Post is certainly an interesting site, but it does go against the idea of a “common,” a Park Street where anybody can pull up a soap box and have his or her say (for that matter, the whole notion of a New England Town Meeting).It may just be me, but I’m a lot more interested in something like that than in reading what some Harvard professors who have already been on the Times op-ed page have to say, because most of what they’d write would be national in scope and there are already plenty of places for that (back to Huffington Post). I’d much rather wade through lots of cat posts to find interesting, funny and, yes, sorry, elitists, well written, intellectually stimulating posts by people who actually take the T every day. Basically, the people I link to from Universal Hub.

  6. Tish Grier

    I was at the UMass confernce also, and moderated the keynote panel on citizen journalism…for the life of me, I cannot understand why there was a split between the “political blogges” and the citizen journalists. There was an overlap in the time of the panels, the two groups moved in concentric circles leaving many of the interested cit-j people unable to attend Lydon’s discussion.Wouldn’t it make sense for the bloggers and citizen journalists (who are using the same tools) organize themselves on a grassroots level? Lots of us met and know one another now, and it seems like a fairly easy thing to do (wiki anyone?) Do we really need to be like Huffington Post, or is that a completely different kind of effort? Just a thought.

  7. Meredith

    I attended this discussion last week and the message I heard repeatedly was that there was a compelling need to hear what folks from Harvard or MIT have to say on the issues of the day . . . this was as we were convening in the Campus Center of the flagship state university, UMass-Amherst. (Disclosure: I teach journalism there.)I tend to agree with the people who live and work around UMass, or in the Lowell area, or in the Springfield area who tried to argue that if one were to truly create a lively forum where true New England voices are heard, one would have to include more people than simply those who live in Boston or work at Harvard.A forum modeled after The Huffington Post, which would represent regions within New England as well as subjects of interests I think could have promise.

  8. Anonymous

    Seems to me it is time for someone to get the thing launched and see where & how it flies. Who dares?

  9. another face at zanzibar

    Seems to me that I can find what I want to read wherever it is. “Place” has little meaning anymore. Why does everything have to be on one site? And does just having a site make it useful? I just created this with Blogger: really doesn’t mean anything (the web site by itself, that is), does it? It’s all about content–and content can be found anywhere. Every day I read Dan and Bruce and many others. They’re in different places on the web, but that doesn’t stop me. I think Chris may be missing the point of the web. It’s not about consolidation of content (that’s the old paper model, or, at the worst, the old Time Pathfinder model)–it’s about distribution of content. Inevitably, with content in one receptacle, someone (Chris?) would want to exercise editorial control–and voices would be silenced (in Chris’ world, I bet thinkers from Harvard would get more attention than those from UMass/Boston). Seems inevitable with an arrangement like the one he suggests. That’s probably not his intent, but it would be the result.

  10. BJ Roche

    Hi Dan, Great thread. I also teach at UMass Amherst, and for many years wrote about New England for the Globe. I didn’t get to the panel, but was interested in the idea.I disagree that physical “place” isn’t important in this discussion. New England is one of the last places in the country that still has a regional identity, and the six New England states share quite a few economic, social, political and environmental issues, for example:loss of manufacturing jobs and the emergence of the so-called “creative economy” and Wal-Mart jobs, along with big east-west or north-south economic divides within each state. departure of young people and overall aging of the population questionable future for rural towns, as the agricultural economy–especially dairy– struggles, second homes replace farmland, property taxes increase. (Many rural towns can’t even get high speed internet.) immigration, both legal and illegal. Nobody’s really covering these issues consistently from a regional perspective right now. It might be a great thing to have a “common” for these stories, as well as a resource for New Englanders to share information about their communities, and expertise about the issues they’re dealing with. Make it a site for “doers”: selectmen, school committee members, community newspaper reporters and op-ed writers, not just “thinkers.” And include the “thinkers” not just from Harvard, but UMass Amherst, University of Southern Maine, University of Vermont and the University of New Hampshire. There are lots of smart people with good ideas all over New England. offers a nice model.

  11. Dan Kennedy

    B.J. — Terrific post — thanks for checking in.

  12. Peter Porcupine

    And heaven forfend – the Republican Party! Bush took almost 40% of Mass., – that’s 4 out of 10 who voted for him here, not some strange flat place like Kansas. Would THEY be welcome in Lydon Land?As I said on Mass Marrier, I am agitating for the slot of Town Drunk.I used to listen to The Connection, and listen to how Lydon used to cut off a caller, who was taking a question in a direction which was different to where Chris wanted the discussion to go. Only those with proper faculty lounge brie and wine mindset need apply – and he was rather fulsome with those.Would a group blog, where prominent people do hard work on a site where he can take the credit, really be any different?

  13. Neil

    Aye, Peter. I’d rassle you for the job but am afraid we’d both fall over in a heap. We can share–I’ll supply the Cossack and you do the hollerin…Lydon has passed that interrupting chicken routine to the On Point guy. Our time is short! Very briefly please! His legacy. And now radio nanny wants to expand his horizon to blog nanny.For all his talk of the commons, he doesn’t hide his snooty controlling urge very well. He’s a toff git who makes me want to hurl old tomatoes from the back row, and show him my backside. Meanwhile as has been pointed out there’s nothing stopping him from going ahead and building a site, and attracting those Harvard and ex-Globe worthies who will doubtless flock as till his bright idea came along, they had no place to gather, did they.

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