Monday, January 2, 2012

Annual Report from the Conversable Economist: 2011

As 2012 begins, it seems useful to summarize--both for myself and for readers--what I'm doing on this blog and my perception of how it's working.

As regular readers know, my approach in this blog has been a little different. I'm not trying to react to headlines or the news cycle. I'm not linking to op-ed  pieces. Instead, my approach as the Conversable Economist is to point out something that I've read by economists that interested me. Most days I draw on a report or article I've read by an economist: from the Federal Reserve banks, the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability office and other U.S. government websites, the IMF and the World Bank, the U.S. and foreign think tanks, and from academic publications. My posts often includes some direct quotations and tables or figures. I'm typically posting once a day, five days a week--maybe an extra post or two some weeks. The posts are often fairly long, averaging about 1,000 words.

I imagine that Conversable Economist readers had an office down the hall from me. When heading off to lunch, or to pick up the mail, or heading off to the parking lot at the end of the day, we would ask if the other person had seen anything interesting that day, and be willing to listen a few minutes to the response. As explain in a post last September, I Want to Be Your Weak Tie, my goal is not to rehash the topic-du-jour of the blogosphere one more time, with my own dose of snarky. Instead, I'm aware that sitting at my desk as managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives gives me an eclectic reading list, and I'm trying to pass along some thoughts and insights that readers who don't have such peculiar jobs might not otherwise see.

Or in the more high-falutin' explanation I offer on my FAQs page, the "Conversable Economist" name is drawn from an essay by David Hume, who lamented the "separation of the learned from the conversable world." Hume wrote: “I cannot but consider myself as a kind of resident or ambassador from the dominions of learning to those of conversation, and shall think it my constant duty to promote a good correspondence betwixt these two states, which have so great a dependence on each other.”

Evaluating whether this blog is a "success" seems to involve both personal and external considerations.
On the personal side, I'm enjoying writing most of the posts. The blog is giving me an excuse that when I see a reference to a report or to a paper, I have reason to track it down. Over time, I'm building up a personal on-line library of what I've read and making it easier for myself to locate it. It's a lot easier to do a search on the blog for an article or a figure I remember seeing than it is to hunt around the shelves of my office where I may or may not have left a print-out or a photocopy for myself.

Externally, the number of pageviews seems to be growing steadily. I started the blog in late May, and in  November and December, I was averaging about 500 page-views per day, a total that both pleases me and leaves me dissatisfied. I've also gotten complimentary feedback from at least some readers, for whom what I'm trying to do clearly strikes a chord. I've heard from readers who appreciated having figures and tables posted in a jpeg format, so that it was easy to copy them over for Powerpoint slides and use in lectures. Perhaps the nicest comment was from an old friend of mind who wrote something like: "Your blog is like having a personal shopper at Niemann-Marcus. You collect the good stuff one wouldn't necessarily see and lay it out."

The main tradeoffs for the blog are a cost of time, to track items down and to write them up, and a modest cost in terms of stress--worrying at the start of a week what I'll do that week, or worrying near the start of a vacation whether I have enough items to post while I'm gone to fill out the week. I know the world won't end if I miss a day or three, now and again. But I take some modest pride in the fact that I've been able to stick to to my five-days-a-week schedule. My plan is to try the blog for about a year, and then evaluate how the costs of time weigh against the internal and external benefits.

If you have some words of encouragement or feedback or criticism about the website, whether as a regular or an occasional reader, I would be glad to hear from you. Are the posts fairly readable? Should I try to make them shorter, or perhaps divided into several shorter posts? (I'm not going to make the posts longer!) Is the inclusion of figures and tables useful or annoying? The e-mail address is <>.