Monday, October 06, 2014

Grits' obligatory ten-year anniversary post: Why are we here?

Today is the tenth anniversary of the first blog post on Grits for Breakfast, which itself subsumed a website on similar themes (hand-coded in HTML) that I'd operated since 1997. From Oct. 6, 2004 until now, Grits has published 7,975 blog posts which garnered 4.9 million visitors, 7.7 million page views and hosted upwards of 89,600 comments. More than 1,700 of you receive a daily email with links to the previous day's headlines (and if you don't, you can sign up in the right-hand column). So first things first, thanks for reading.

That said, at this milestone I should iterate exactly what this blog is and why I do it. In truth, Grits for Breakfast isn't really here for your benefit but mine. or it wouldn't still exist. Moreover, it would almost certainly exist whether it gets 2,000 readers per day or 20.

This blog serves two purposes for me as an advocate that justify maintaining it and neither of them involve maximizing readership or public-education goals. Instead, I use the blog as a clip file and a platform for developing and honing arguments for later use in policy making settings.

The clip file aspect was a life changer: Ten years ago, the office I'm writing in was lined with four-drawer filing cabinets filled with years' worth of clip files and stacks of newspapers waiting to be recycled. Today, my newspaper subscriptions are all online, reimbursed by this blog's contributors (thanks for that, btw). But every morning throughout the '90s and through the turn of the century I'd get up and retrieve four or more newspapers from the driveway, clipping out articles relevant to the issues I was working on (criminal-justice or otherwise), pasting them onto a piece of paper and scrawling a few notes by hand about what I thought was important to remind me why I'd saved that particular article.

Many blog posts on Grits are little more than went into the clip file - a link, footnote-able citation, an excerpt of money quotes from an article that may not be on the web a year later when I need it, and a few sentences saying why I think it's important, or in some cases, erroneous, linking to related information. I've eliminated four filing cabinets from my office (down to one) and using Google's Blogger software (though I've taken some techie crap for it) makes the platform and long-term storage free. As an added benefit, making my clip file public gives others who work on the issues access to the same resource. If I find it useful, the theory goes, others working on the topic will as well.

The other main use for the blog is developing, vetting, and promoting arguments surrounding criminal justice policy debates, whether aimed at legislative or other settings. Some blog posts amount to the equivalent of a letter to the editor or a constituent letter. I'll voice an opinion in a post then email the link to as many of the involved parties whose addresses I have access: politicians, their staff, agency folk, advocates, the reporter covering a story, whoever are the principals. Or, sometimes opinion leaders help out by passing the link around for me.

Such content may differ little from other letters pols or media types receive, but in their mind's eye they can't help wonder who else is reading it on the blog and its public nature gives the words just a bit more oomph. Plus, commenters help to develop, refine or even refute arguments, at their best serving as sort of an ad hoc focus group. That's one of the reasons over the years that I've become more of a stickler about deleting off-topic comments - they're simply not useful to me for the narrow purposes that motivate this blog. Oppositional comments, by contrast, are incredibly useful and Grits considers pointing out flaws or blind spots in my arguments a mitzvah. Better to confront a strong argument for the first time in a blog comment than later in front of a legislative panel.

To the extent readers find Grits informative, interesting, etc., that's an ancillary benefit. I'm glad you do and it's a happy coincidence that a medium which solved some of my own information gathering and processing needs is helpful to others as well. I'll continue to do it as long as I find it useful and, on the day it isn't, I'll quit.

In the meantime, thanks for stopping by.