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And With That, OpenLeft Closes Up Shop

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, February 8 2011

Last Friday, well-known progressive blogger Chris Bowers put up a post announcing that Open Left would be no more. There would be no more new blog posts, other than a round of goodbye notes. The archives would live on, but no more campaigns would be launched. No more comment threads would grow. It had been more than four years since Bowers and Matt Stoller spun off from the proto-blog MyDD, joining up with long-time Washington political consultant Mike Lux to create an experimental, aggressive, collaborative space for the political left to debate and shape the issues of the day. The news of OpenLeft's closure came abruptly, but that was partly by design. "Rather than have it limp along," explained Lux by phone on Friday, "we decided to shut it down."

The proximate clause for OpenLeft's pulling of the plug? Bowers had gotten another job, heading up a new email advocacy wing at the liberal blogging behemoth Daily Kos. OpenLeft might not have the high profile that Daily Kos does, but you can't tell the story of the rise of the online political left without it. Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of the 2009 book Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press, describes OpenLeft to me as "clearly one of the five or six most important sites in terms of the birth of the netroots," referring to a movement that heralded progressive group blogs as a powerful new form of political media. But in this, a moment in time where the once reliably liberal Huffington Post merged into of the most mainstream brands in America, AOL, the shuttering of one of best known political blogs on the Internet naturally raises questions: is political blogging done for, whatever "political blogging" might mean anymore?

Rising up from the burgeoning netroots in 2007, OpenLeft attempted to do something slightly novel for online politics -- use the blogging medium not simply to pontificate, but to make progressive politics more interactive, a la the Internet, couched in the history of the American left and guided by strategic thinking. When Stoller wrote an introductory "What is" back in July 2007, it was adorned with pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and AFL founding president George Meany.

"It's time to get over the idea that 'the left', liberals, progressives, or anyone who believes that power should be distributed and not concentrated in the hands of a few is a scary hippy," wrote Stoller. "We think that businesses -- like Google -- have built highly profitable organizations based on principles of sharing information and distributing power.  The genuine radical threat at this moment in history is coming from elites who believe that concentrating power, information, and wealth in their hands should be America's priority.  The response to this threat is a new era of left-wing activism, promoted by normal Americans, who have innovated with the tools we have."

"Our goal in the beginning was really to create a movement organization," says Lux, one that had as its prime audience "activists and insiders." As the site grew, much of the interest in it came from within Washington itself. Lux notes that generally a full quarter of the site's readers came from inside the Beltway. (A SiteMeter account linked to from the site shows an average of 8,000 daily visits across the board in the last twelve months.)

With an early focus on pointing out the failings of the Bush administration, Republicans, and "Bush Dog Democrats," over the years of its existence, OpenLeft grew into a brainy, policy obsessed netroots hub. The fact can get lost in retrospect, but those were the years when the online conversations happening in places like OpenLeft helped inject into the public's imagination the notion that that the grand old establishments of American life were flawed, and actually could be criticized. The netroots, said Boehlert, "really did change how people thought about the Bush administration and the media."

OpenLeft wasn't concerned with merely blogging, at least not the sense of just churning news. They helped lead campaigns -- against abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, in favor of linking John McCain's name to negative articles in Google search results. OpenLeft, and Stoller's work in particular, did an enormous amount to make the once esoteric concept of "net neutrality" something normal Americans might possibly be aware of. One effort collaborated with Senator Dick Durbin on "Legislation 2.0," an experiment in writing broadband legislation that brought together public interest groups and telecom lobbyists.

One other innovation over many other political blogs on the Internet had to do with money, as in, you could actually make money while blogging. And not mere beer money. The business end of OpenLeft, as well as the site's general management, was run through Lux's DC-based consulting shop Progressive Strategies. David Sirota, one of the lead writers on the site at its closing, demurs when I ask him to put a number to what he made from OpenLeft, but puts it another way. "OpenLeft was never the way I earned a living, but it was one of the couple of big pieces of the way I earned a living," says Sirota. "If I had four or five jobs that paid me what OpenLeft paid me, that would be enough."

Lux says that they eventually came to the conclusion that a successful model for a narrowly-tailored liberal blog would be to have it function as a hybrid outfit, including forming working relationships with outside organizations. There was advertising, says Bowers, but the site never drew the sort of traffic that would get it into high-paying cost-per-impression-based ad networks; besides, much of the advertising that they were able to pull in during the heat of the 2008 presidential race dried up once the election took place. And so, the site partnered with SEIU to rally (and fundraise) around the inclusion of a public option in the health care overhaul package being debate in the White House and on Capitol Hill, and it joined up with groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Living Liberally, and CREDO in campaigns around those group's core issues.

And in the end, concludes Lux, a sustainable way of funding the site just wasn't there. Bowers' work on OpenLeft was considered full-time, but he had to supplement that work with consulting gigs. Says Lux, "Chris was the heart and soul of the operation," and once he decided to take the job with Daily Kos, "it just didn't have enough money to keep going." That's because Bowers' willingness to grind wasn't easily replaceable. In his book, Boehlert captures Bowers joking in 2006 about what it takes to be a full-time progressive blogger. All you need, jokes Bowers, is no children nor any one else to support, no long-term ambitions, and no desire to do anything else with your time.

Getting a half-decade more blogging experience under his belt hasn't changed Bowers' view much. "In theory, someone else could have picked up where I left off," wrote Bowers in an email on Friday, "but it's a real slog with uncertain pay and an uncertain future -- not to mention potential conflicts of interest -- so I completely understand why no one did." He continues, "So, the only path forward for smaller, niche blogs is some combination of ad revenue, reader donations, and freelance work related to the blog. Or perhaps something else I was unable to think of."

(This being the political blogosphere, of course, there was a bit of partisan schadenfreude at OpenLeft's passing. "Irrelevant blog finds only way to become less relevant," tweeted Joshua Treviño, a long-time Republican consultant.)

The oft-heard critique of the left is that those with the dollars never seem to see the value in putting them towards shaping the media space. "What OpenLeft was doing in a grassroots way was what the big, highly-touted progressive donors should have been doing," says Sirota. "They trained people and they nurtured people." (Offered up one commentator when she or he read Bowers' post on OpenLeft's closing, Where the hell are our billionaires?) Sirota suggests that maybe what's the case is that stand-alone, small-scale blogs are a relic, but that there's a future in "multi-platform" efforts that involve either partnering with bigger media or political entities, or otherwise individual bloggers figuring out how to cobble together livings between their blog contributions and other gigs.

Anytime the question of the future of political blogging comes up, the elephant -- or at least, giant donkey -- in the room is Daily Kos, Bowers' new employer (and Lux, too, in a way -- he says he'll be doing some consulting for the site). Daily Kos chugs along, right at the moment rolling out a fourth, custom-built content management platform, keeping busy with doing highly-watched political polls, and even acquiring new properties. Just last night, the popular and long-standing election blog Swing State Project announced that it was being "beamed up" to Daily Kos, where it will function as Daily Kos Elections. Swing State's DavidNYC is becoming Daily Kos's political director, where he'll take over the site's polling arm. The site is growing into quite the organization. "There's sort of Daily Kos and then everything else," says Boehlert.

(This being mergers and acquisitions week on the Internet, another development worth noting: SoapBlox, the independent group blogging platform that powered OpenLeft and numerous other progressive blogs, announced that it had been acquired by Warecorp, "a web and software services company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota with development centers in Minsk, Belarus.")

That Daily Kos thought highly enough of Open Left's advocacy work to bring Bowers on full-time is, says Lux, a mark of Open Left's success. Several people who orbit around the OpenLeft universe make a related case -- that the site has been both contributor to and beneficiary of a largely successful push to bring liberalism back as part of the dominant American culture. Stoller's "scary hippie" who wants to open up politics to the masses doesn't work nearly as well as a political bogeymen as it did in 2007, not with Barack Obama in the White House and Rachel Maddow on the television dial.

"Matt Stoller went on to be a senior adviser to one of the most progressive members of Congress in years," says the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's Adam Green, referring to Stoller's work for the since-defeated Florida Democrat Rep. Alan Grayson, "and is now at MSNBC helping to mold the message that goes out to millions of people each week. Chris Bowers is the first online organizer for the Daily Kos community, a very exciting position that's based largely on the experimentation in this area that Chris did at OpenLeft. Adam Bink is going on to be a leader at the Courage Campaign, a very effective gay rights group in California."

In other words, to hear those involved in the site's four-year history tell it, American liberalism should only have more such 'failures' as OpenLeft.