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Felix Salmon Tries to Make Sense of the Mortgage-Backed Market

Bad News from Bruce Bartlett

He's quitting the weekly-column business:

Print Article: This is the last of [my] columns. The world has changed a lot since 1995 and I've decided that there are better ways for me to express myself.

The Internet, in particular, has enormously changed the ability to get a message out.... Today, anyone with a computer and a modem can start a blog and, for all intents and purposes, be a columnist.

In the not-too-distant past, this was impossible. If you didn't write for a newspaper, it was very hard to get out timely commentary on topical subjects. But if you were any good, it wasn't too difficult to make a pretty good living as a columnist.... In those days, most major cities had several papers — at least one in the morning and another in the afternoon. Since editorial policies were one way papers competed, if one was liberal the other, usually the afternoon paper, tended to be conservative. But... most cities became one-newspaper towns... eliminating the conservative voice.... For a few years, once the competition was eliminated, newspapers were cash machines.... [But now] newspapers... [are] sharply cutting costs to maintain high profit margins.

One way they cut back is by reducing budgets for columnists.... Now it seems as if every paper is running the same few columnists — like David Broder from The Post and Tom Friedman from the New York Times. Their main attraction is that they mirror the conventional wisdom and seldom upset anyone....

Those who wanted more biting opinion gravitated to the Internet, where vast numbers of people offer commentary along every single point on the political spectrum. It became very easy to find writers expressing exactly one's own personal opinion about everything. Bloggers also have the advantages of no space constraints, an ability to post comments in real time, and to offer links to supporting documents and sources. Now they even have audio and video.

As a result, the demand for traditional column writing has pretty much dried up.... I don't mourn the old system. I am a great fan of bloggers and learn far more from them than I do from the Broders and Friedmans of the world, who have largely become irrelevant to serious political discussion....

However, I think there will always be a market for quality commentary and some day someone will figure out a better way to make money from it. In the meantime, I have decided to devote myself to writing books, where authors still have control over their output and can make better money. I will still write the occasional column, but this is the last one I plan to write on a weekly basis.

I offer thanks to all my readers and editors for their support.

This is genuinely too bad. Bruce Bartlett is a very smart and articulate person who is trying his best to get it right and who thinks differently from me on important issues. Such people are especially important to read.