After “JournoList”

I have sort of mixed feelings about the demise of “JournoList,” an email list that I found somewhat entertaining, somewhat useful, somewhat annoying, and to a large extent the subject of unwarranted conspiracy theories. For example, David Frum in the context of an otherwise excellent post states that:

The idea that likeminded journalists would engage in formalized pre-discussions amongst ideologically like-minded people before publishing for the broad public is a formula for group-think. Genuinely private discussion via email is one thing. Coordination among colleagues: very different. Coordination seems to have been the purpose of JournoList from the start. It created “secret editors” to whom journalists privately reported, different from and undisclosed to their actual editors. That seems to me a genuinely sinister enterprise, a disservice to readers and corrupting of the participants in the list themselves.

This is just factually wrong, but of course it’s inherently difficult to persuade anyone that secret activities are non-nefarious. But I’ve been looking back a bit at what’s archived in my inbox and what you see lately is an effort to organize a happy hour in Dave Weigel honor, many threads about World Cup matches, Wimbledon matches, NBA Finals games, etc., and mostly a lot of what amounts to self-promotion. People sending out links to articles they’ve published or talks they’ve given, sometimes followed by a reply or two. We had a thread in which people speculated as to where Peter Orszag will end up when he leaves the White House.

This is the sort of thing that journalists like to talk about, but don’t like to write about in public, because it’s unprofessional to publish baseless speculation. Absent email lists those of us living in “the village” can talk about this kind of thing at the bar (or the mythical cocktail party), but the email list is a useful way for writers living in New York or the West Coast or at home with their kids to also listen in and chit chat.

Another common genre of posts was failed efforts to get an interesting discussion going. Someone recently wrote “I find that my own attitudes have hardened a bit regarding intergenerational equity and Medicare cost control issues after watching so many implacable seniors opposing HCR. Others feel the same?” That’s an interesting subject, in my opinion, but only one person replied.

More rarely, debate would really take off. As I alluded to here some of us had a long debate about whether middle class New Yorkers who own extremely expensive pieces of real estate really count as “rich.” Topics that traditionally divide liberals—trade, issues related to merit pay and charter schools, Israel—would often generate long threads.

Last but by no means least, you had requests for help. “Anyone have an email for Vanity fair columnist James Wolcott?” That was a quick one. A discussion got going recently about whether it made sense for writers to branch out into podcasts or video and what advice folks might have about that. Someone asked “there was one episode earlier this year when the D’s threatened that they were gonna roll out the cots and really make the R’s filibuster, and the R’s caved immediately. What was that about?” There was a question about whether anyone has any contacts at CSPAN.

If there’s anything nefarious about this (and there may be!) it’s more or less of a piece with the nefariousness of having any kind of social relationships with people who are also your professional peers/colleagues/competitors. There’s something to be said for the idea that a writer should know other writers through their work and their work alone. But of course political writers in DC are bound to know one another whether we have email lists or not. I thought the list served mostly to simply extend the circle somewhat to include people located elsewhere, and I think it’s those people who’ll end up missing it the most.