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.