Death by Blogging

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 7 2008 7:46 PM

Death by Blogging

The New York Times invents another trend.

Bloggers at work
Bloggers at work

The editors of the New York Times have cooked up a novel punishment for reporters who write stories that have no apparent basis in fact. They publish them on Page One of the Sunday paper, still the best-read edition of the week. On Easter Sunday, the Times Sanhedrin crucified Laurie Goodstein and Neela Banerjee by fronting "Obama's Talk Fuels Easter Sermons," a pious but self-evidently fraudulent feature (see "The Clairvoyant Times"). On April 6, the Times town elders clapped Matt Richtel into the pillory by tucking under the Page One fold his schadenfreude-tinged "In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop." Bloggers for the Columbia Journalism Review, Media Bistro, and elsewhere instantly retitled Richtel's story "Blogging Kills."

Give Richtel credit for admitting high up in the story that what follows is purest fancy. Newspaper reporters call these caveat-rich passages "to-be-sure grafs." Richtel's put me in mind of some library steps I once purchased by catalog. They arrived with a label warning that under no circumstances should I attempt to climb them. Here's Richtel's disclaimer:

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To be sure, there is no official diagnosis of death by blogging, and the premature demise of two people obviously does not qualify as an epidemic. There is also no certainty that the stress of the work contributed to their deaths. But friends and family of the deceased, and fellow information workers, say those deaths have them thinking about the dangers of their work style.

A less hearty hack would at this point conclude there is no story here and go fish for another. This one doesn't even provide the three examples traditionally deemed necessary to establish a bogus trend—unless you count a blogger named Om Malik who suffered a heart attack in December but, in an act of supreme inconsideration, survived.

The symptoms of toxic blogging, Richtel informs the concerned reader, include "sleep disorders," "exhaustion," and—heads I win, tails you lose—"weight loss or gain." The number affected is "unclear," but "surely several thousand and maybe even tens of thousands." Richtel, a salaried employee at the Times, is particularly flummoxed that bloggers are often paid based on how much they write and whether anyone reads them. He likens this to a "sales commission," a comparison that evokes Alec Baldwin chalking "ALWAYS BE CLOSING" onto a blackboard in the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross. ("First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado *. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired.") A less lurid but more accurate comparison would be to freelance writing, an occupation I've held from time to time. It is not, I promise you, a hazardous occupation, unless you report from a war zone.

Richtel strongly implies that bloggers drop dead because they work in their apartments or houses all day and never get out. Never mind that Russell Shaw, a 60-year-old tech blogger who provides 50 percent of Richtel's evidence that blogging kills, died while reporting on-scene at a conference 3,000 miles from his home and that "it's not clear what role stress played in his death." We never learn any circumstances surrounding the death of Marc Orchant, the 50-year-old tech blogger who provides Richtel's remaining evidentiary 50 percent, and Malik, the blogger who survived, disappears entirely from the story after his cameo appearance in the above-mentioned to-be-sure graf. Yes, of course, we should all get out of our houses and exercise once in a while. This is true of virtually anyone who works all day at a computer, at home or at work, and it's bound to be even more true of people who are on call around the clock—a group that includes doctors, policemen, utility repairman, and any number of other occupations.

But let's not kid ourselves that any white-collar work ranks high among dangerous professions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the country's most dangerous jobs are, in declining order: fisherman, pilot, logger, ironworker or steelworker, garbage collector, farmer, power lineman, roofer, driver, and agricultural worker. Construction workers drop dead at a rate of 10.8 per 100,000. People who work in the information industry (like bloggers) drop dead at a rate of 1.9 per 100,000 workers. That ought to give Richtel some sense of proportion. The information-biz fatality rate is lower even than the fatality rate for people who work in "professional or business services" (3.1 per 100,000 workers), a group that probably makes up the bulk of Times readers (and Slate readers, too). The information-industry fatality rate is also lowerthan the fatality rate for government workers (2.3 per 100,000 workers), another significant demographic group among Times and Slate readers. So you'd be wasting your time, dear reader, to feel sorry for the humble blogger. He'll be around to blog your funeral.

Correction, April 8, 2008: An earlier version of this column misspelled Eldorado. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.