No Power of the Penn

The fuzzy numbers are only the start of the problems with Penn's blogger "microtrend"

Hey, have you heard? America now has more professional bloggers than it has bartenders! Or firefighters! Or CEOs! Or rodeo clowns!

It’s true: the news comes from Proven Polling Expert Mark Penn, and it’s Mathematically Verified, and everything. Get out your pajamas, everyone: professional bloggers are officially America’s Newest Profession!

Penn, since his ouster from the Clinton campaign before the 2008 presidential election, has been occupying his time not only with PR “consulting,” but also with marketing his book, Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes, and—uh, relatedly—writing columns for the Wall Street Journal (under the heading of, uh, “Microtrends”) that engage in the time-honored practice of Stating the Obvious in a Somewhat Confusing Way, Usually with the Help of Vaguely Mathematical-Sounding Jargon, Thereby Making the Statement of the Obvious Seem Slightly Less Obvious than It Actually Is. (People try to save money in times of crisis! Value is “a new core value”! Consumers want information when making purchasing decisions! It can’t be totally self-evident if it’s dubbed a “microtrend”!)

So, yes. The latest of these profound Pennian revelations is that professional blogging is on the rise…and it’s a Legitimate Microtrend, too, not just a quirky hobby.

Writes Penn:

Paid bloggers fit just about every definition of a microtrend: Their ranks have grown dramatically over the years, blogging is an important social and cultural movement that people care passionately about, and the number of people doing it for at least some income is approaching 1% of American adults.

Throughout his piece, Penn engages in what an erstwhile client of his might recognize as “fuzzy math.” (For a breakdown of the mathematical, er, gray areas in Penn’s piece, see Scott Rosenberg’s detailed analysis…posted to, no less, an ad-free blog.)

But the numbers in question here—ironic though they may be, given Penn’s experience as a pollster—are the least of Penn’s problems. Because, on top of everything else, Penn (who, in his pre-polling days, was a Columbia Law student) has apparently forgotten the first lesson of Argument Making 101: define your terms. Penn dedicates seventeen grafs to discussing the proliferation of bloggers, the cultural impact of bloggers, the salaries of bloggers, the job satisfaction of bloggers, etc. But he neglects to tell us, somewhere in there, what the term “blogger” actually means.

Which would be fine, were Penn using the commonly accepted—and, not for nothing, obvious—definition of a “blogger”: A blog is a platform for content published to the Web; a blogger, therefore, is someone who publishes content to the Web. That’s it. While, sure, several of those someones certainly traffic in opinion, rather than reporting, the definition is independent of content: a blogger is a blogger no matter what he or she blogs. But Penn has a different definition, apparently—one that, though he never bothers to clarify it, underscores practically every sentence of his piece: to Penn, it seems, blogging equals opinion writing. (Microtrend alert: Some Pollsters Think It’s Still 1999!)

In short, Penn’s piece confuses platform with product. A blog is a stage, nothing more; in the collective, blogs have been the recipients of countless “what I had for breakfast” posts, to be sure, but they’ve also been the recipients of original reporting of the highest caliber. The bloggers proliferating among us (1 percent of the population!) include not only Perez Hilton and ScrambledEggsGirl22, but also Josh Marshall and Glenn Greenwald and Marc Ambinder and their legions of computer-wielding counterparts who engage, every day, in serious reporting and analysis.

Yet, per Penn:

In America today, there are almost as many people making their living as bloggers as there are lawyers. Already more Americans are making their primary income from posting their opinions than Americans working as computer programmers, firefighters or even bartenders.
From posting their opinions. Sheesh. It’s notable that, per a Penn profile in The Washington Post, Al Gore fired the Clintons’ go-to pollster in the early stages of the 2000 campaign precisely because the candidate’s senior advisers regarded “Penn as arrogant and controlling, someone who pushed the boundaries of his job by dispensing strategic advice rather than simply interpreting data.” Ten years later, if today’s column is any indication, we seem to be getting more of the same: lots of rhetoric, but precious little evidence to back it up.

Here’s a microtrend for you, Mr. Penn: newspaper columnists who insist on perpetuating the tired old stereotype of bloggers as reactive and parasitic and trivial—and who still contend, with so much evidence to the contrary, that bloggers can’t be journalists.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.