He buys his pasta at Talluto’s. He’s loves the pho at Cafe Diem. He’s tweeted about the soda tax. He makes cheesesteak jokes about local sports teams. He’s even dropped a comment on a Philly.com article, once or twice.
Basically, Duncan Black is a Philly guy.
He’s also one of the most influential political bloggers in America.
In 2002, his writing triggered Trent Lott’s resignation as Senate Majority Leader. In 2006, an episode of hit NBC drama “The West Wing” featured a character based on him. (When the character was introduced to the guy running for president, he was described as “having almost as many readers as the Philadelphia Inquirer.”)
And yet, if you’ve never heard of Black before, it’s not surprising.
For one thing, he does all his work online, rarely letting it intersect with his personal life outside his Bella Vista rowhome. Second, even junkies who follow national policy discussions as closely as Beliebers pay attention to Justin’s fashion choices might not recognize Black’s name. At least not right away.
Because on the internet — to the blogosphere, to his 27.8k Twitter followers and to the multitudes who visit his personal site enough to regularly loft its daily pageviews over 100,000 — Black is known solely as “Atrios.”
‘Anyone can say anything they want’
Atrios came into existence in 2002, when Black, an economics professor with a PhD from Brown, decided to use it as his pseudonym and start a blog called Eschaton. (Eschaton is generally a reference to end-times theology, but Black pulled it specifically from the title of a complex “War Games”-like tennis exercise in David Foster Wallace’s dystopian novel Infinite Jest.)
The blog, which still looks just about the same as it did 14 years ago, running on a classic “Blogger” platform, is now Black’s main source of income. As in, blogging is the 44-year-old’s full-time job.
That wasn’t always the case. The blog started as a side project, a hobby, a way to riff on politics.
“I saw this new thing called ‘blogging,” he says. “It was almost — I don’t want to say ‘revolutionary,’ but it was actually considered a big deal that people could just self-publish on the internet and get an audience.”
“I remember I was at a conference once,” he continues, “where a man raised his hand and said, ‘You mean on the internet anybody can say anything they want to?’ As if this was disturbing.”
Social media as we know it didn’t exist; blogs were the way to express yourself online. But the idea that things people wrote on them — sans editors, outside the traditional journalistic avenues — could actually effect change? That hadn’t yet been established.
Until Atrios and a couple of his peers proved it by taking down Trent Lott.
Taking down a segregationist
The kerfluffle started when Black wrote a post highlighting a comment Lott made about how proud he was that the state he represented, Mississippi, had voted for centenarian colleague Strom Thurmond in the 1948 presidential election.
Candidate Thurmond’s main platform in that race? Keeping and strengthening racial segregation. Although that tidbit was glossed over by mainstream media, Black hammered it hard, along with Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. The New York Times caught wind of the bloggers’ detailed posts, and published a story about the gaffe. Lott stepped down.
All of a sudden, Black — or Atrios, rather, since he was anonymous at the time — became part of the national conversation.
“When I heard John Podhoretz talk about me on NPR, that was very strange,” Black says.
Eschaton’s readership soared. In 2004, Black decided to drop the anonymity.
“I never felt anyone was seriously threatening my anonymity, except maybe once,” he says, “but the blog was popular enough. I knew it wasn’t sustainable. (I knew) it would come out eventually, so I figured I’d just do it on my terms.”
The identity reveal was also connected with the fact that he’d decided to quit his job as an econ prof at Bryn Mawr. Somehow, he lost interest; teaching economics to 20-somethings can hardly match the thrill of being a provocateur on the global political stage.
To sustain him as he made the transition, he asked his audience for voluntary donations — “just enough to take me through the 2004 election” — and they responded in spades. Plus, it was right about then that online advertising began to take off, and the AdWords and affiliate links on his blog started funneling actual revenue.
Outside of some freelance consulting and occasional writing gigs (he’s a fellow at progressive think tank Media Matters), he hasn’t taken another job since. For the foreseeable future, blogging is the plan.
“What else was I going to do with my life?” he says with a shrug.
A loyal community
Plus, Black feels indebted to his audience.
“In a way, it’s hard to leave behind,” he admits, “because I do have a loyal community and I do feel responsible to each of them. Then to just one day say, ‘Ok, never mind, I’m going to get a job. I don’t have time to do this anymore’ would be abandoning that. I would feel bad.”
How loyal? Eschaton pulls in around 1,500 comments a day. Every day. And Black’s posts often aren’t any longer than a sentence offering perspective on a choice article quote and a link to its source. Or sometimes, no longer than a couple words. The community he’s built fills in the rest.
Take Monday night, the night of the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Around 5:45 p.m., Black kicked off the evening with a joke. “Official Eschaton Debate Drinking Game” had two lines of content:
“1) Open up a bottle of alcohol.
2) Drink it.”
It garnered 122 comments.
Then the debate itself began. Beneath the title “Debate Thread The First,” Black wrote: “I’m too old too liveblog this crap. You do it!” and 287 comments ensued. There was also a Debate Thread II (361 comments) and a third one, put up at 10 p.m., with a single word: “ow.” Comments? 771.
Though sometimes he pens longer commentary (“I occasionally commit acts of journalism”), for the most part Black keeps his posts short on purpose.
“I write for the people who read my blog every day,” he says. “I don’t need to restate my argument for the 50th time. They know where I’m coming from.”
Influencing the influencers
Who makes up that audience?
Black himself doesn’t know the exact demographics. “I guess I could find out if I could figure out how to get it from Google Analytics,” he says. However, he has done reader surveys, and is confident in saying commenters come from “all over the country.”
Eschaton’s following also includes plenty of heavy hitters, even if they don’t draw attention to themselves in the (mostly pseudonymous) comment section.
In 2012, the New York Times’ Paul Krugman published a shout out to Atrios as he celebrated the blog’s 10th anniversary, and later that year a San Francisco Chronicle columnist started her article on “Mitt Romney’s mysterious tax returns” by quoting something Black had blogged. Daily Kos, a liberal-leaning site that Alexa ranks as 426th most popular in the US, has pages and pages of posts tagged “Atrios.”
Then there’s Twitter, which is perfectly suited to Black’s terse writing style. He regularly tweets back and forth with influential voices, such as Glenn Greenwald (the journalist who broke the Edward Snowden story, 740k followers) and MSNBC host Chris Hayes (688k followers).
A Philly that takes care of its own
He also uses Twitter to keep up with what’s going on locally, from restaurant openings (this is Philly in 2016, after all) to politics.
Where his involvement in broad, national policy conversations is very public — like the trio of columns he penned in 2012 for USA Today on why it’s imperative to expand Social Security, which have been credited with making the idea acceptable — he mostly keeps mum on issues local to his chosen home. That doesn’t mean he lacks opinions on them.
“Philadelphia is wrestling with this idea of how much it wants to embrace being a city and how much it doesn’t, especially the residential neighborhoods,” Black says.
The recent renaissance, he opines, is the positive result of a concerted effort to attract tourists and visitors after decades of population decline — but that’s not what we should concentrate on anymore.
“I think the city sort of lost sight of the fact that a lot of people continue to live here and their lives matter too,” he says. “With the population starting to slowly grow, the city has to actually think, ‘Not everything we do should be oriented toward visitors.’ We actually need to think of the quality of life of residents. It’s something they should have done all along.”
Specifics he mentions: More trash cans. Parking policies that favor residents over tourists. A transportation system that’s more relevant to getting around the city rather than in and out of it.
Paying more attention to “the neighborhoods” is the campaign platform Mayor Jim Kenney rode into office. Is Black a fan?
“I don’t think (Kenney’s) been in office long enough to really pass judgement, but he at least said, ‘Yes, these issues should matter more.’”
On the soda tax, the economics PhD is split, but eventually comes out in favor — as long as “the money is spent on what it’s supposed to be spent on.”
“Sin taxes fall disproportionately on poor people,” Black says, but “the city is very limited in the range of taxation it can implement, due to state law. If the city wants to raise more money, what can it do? Better to tax soda than fresh fruit, for example.
“If city managers implement a quality pre-K program for our residents, I think it’s worth it.”