"Repetition, Commentary and Froth"
Wednesday's Senate hearing on "The Future of Journalism" had its tensions. Arianna Huffington told the subcommittee headed by John Kerry that citizen journalism is a powerful tool, and that this is the "Golden Age for news consumers." Huffington said that when she heard people from traditional media "describing news aggregators" as "parasites", it reminded her of the now-suffering Detroit Auto Industry selling gas-guzzling cars in the 1990's.
David Simon used a car analogy also, when he testified that the Baltimore Sun was making 37% of the profit it was 15 years ago. The paper was cutting the newsroom with all the foresight of the auto industry, he said, "manufacturing Chevy Vegas and Pacers and Gremlins without the slightest worry that mediocrity would be challenged by better-made cars from Germany or Japan." He said that "the very phrase 'citizen journalist' strikes my ear as Orwellian". Since "citizen-journalists" don't generally cover city hall and the police beats, he says, they add no more value to journalism than a citizen with a hose and "good intentions" contributes to firefighting.
"High-end journalism is dying in America", Simon said, new media is "the parasite slowly killing the host". The former journalist told the subcommittee that blogs "contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth". This endeared him to Huffington and attendee Marissa Mayer, Vice President of Google, I'm sure, not to mention the wider blogosphere.
The More O than I World
In the midst of this dagger throwing, John Kerry suggested that he really liked doing "round tables", and he wanted the panel attendees to talk among themselves. "Ask a question", then "rebut and come back", he encouraged. This format might deepen the discussion, he said, since certainly the participants wouldn't be so 'restrained' when talking to each other. But the invitees stuck to their monologues and talking points, and only answered questions from the subcommittee members. Both "new media" and "traditional media" deftly avoided the more probing questions from the subcommittee regarding issues like the fraction of "news" to "opinion", ad revenue allocation between aggregators versus news generators, and level of investment dedicated to covering local and investigative news.
Away from the intent questioning of the Senators, however, bloggers and papers do have more to say. Gawker's headline the next morning read "David Simon: Dead-Wrong Dinosaur". If he looked at the Gawker site, Simon would probably have rolled his eyes then rested his case, since the other Gawker headlines read, "Cow's Bid for Freedom Succeeds", "The Sexualization of Spock", "Obama Orders Burger With Elitist European Condiment", and "Joe the Plumber Is an Independent Douchebag".
But Gawker speaks for much of online media and its derision for traditional journalism -- if more bluntly. Oft quoted Dave Winer, who harbors no love for old school journalism, in fact he only manages to scrape any admiration for one journalist -- Sy Hersh. No sooner does he say that, then he poses that Hersh isn't a journalist at all: "Isn't academia the place for a person like Hersh? Isn't that what we want our tenured faculty to be doing -- digging for the truth, no matter where it leads or who is offended? That's what academic freedom is all about." Academia isn't burgeoning with employment opportunities, I'm not sure he's noticed. But I guess every idea is interesting when there's no solution on the table.
New journalism believes that the traditions and expertise of old journalism have no place in the democratic online world. Although ironically, David Simon's camera in The Wire tells the story from the view of the cops and the drug dealers (citizen journalists) with equal empathy. Online media and citizen journalists argue that this is its superior advantage, an idealized new democratic journalism which gives everyone a say -- drugdealers, cops, judges and addicts, because 'they can all blog right'? Citizen journalist proponents would challenge why some points of view should be weeded out. Who needs editors? Why should publishers judge what's news, package it up in a neat bundle as they see fit, the pez dispenser of information?
Of course this doesn't offer a lot of opportunity to many either. The on-line advertising model emphasizes content quantity. So Huffington Post encouraged laid-off workers to blog (for free) during the recession -- more quantity, more money (for her). And it's one thing to encourage Alec Baldwin to blog -- it's increases his branding reach and market value -- while it's quite another to ask the unemployed to write for free.
Models To Generate Breadlines
Except for Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), much of the panel 'loved the internet, don't get me wrong', but waxed most nostalgic about the good 'ole days of journalism. Cantwell seemed most in tune with online media, probably because she used to work for RealNetworks, a background most panel members don't have. The subcommittee echoed what many people see as the benefits of traditional journalism -- local news that covers city halls, police officers, and courts, plus some long form journalism. The panel anonymously wanted all of that -- but online, edited, and free -- why not?
To that end the Senate seemed to think the two sides should collaborate. How about deals between the old and the new -- for instance Amazon's Kindle and newspapers, like what the Huffington Post has done? James Moroney of the Dallas Morning News practically spat out his opinion of that deal:
"they want 70 percent of the subscriptions revenue. I get 30 percent, they get 70 percent. On top of that they have said we get the right to republish your intellectual property to any portable device....I get 30 percent and they get the right to license my content to any portable device--not just ones made by Amazon? That, to me, is not a model... Kindles are less than 1 percent penetration in the U.S. market. They're not a platform that's going to save newspapers in the near term."
Moroney is intent on "saving" newspapers. Mayer and Huffington are happy with the current model -- the more news becomes fractured, the stronger the business proposition for aggregation. Of course common goals between online and traditional journalism exist. Both sides reference the auto industry's decline, and say journalism is important. But everyone has a business to protect and everyone is challenged to own a healthy chunk of news, advertising, and audiences. The newspapers are vying with online media for limited ad revenue (is that true), and ad revenue is still (despite the revolutionary changes in the industry) the prevailing profit model.
If you're competing for "eyeballs", as online businesses do, you'll trend towards short content pieces a company will be happy to place advertisements on. Then the user will click, and see another ad, click and see an ad -- click, click, click,-- the shorter attention span the better. 2000 words may be fine, 1000 is better, but can you get it down under 200 characters -- 140? Readers don't have the patience for a 10,000 word article that extends the entire webpage, or 13 pages. Companies will not pay to advertise next to an article that criticizes anything that drives their business, including the public official that they're trying to win over. Try to earn online ad revenue if your content doesn't tie to a product. Page views are greatest when your subject is the gaudiest "news" sensation of the day, the nugget that appeals to the lowest common public denominator. If you're blogging about food or decorating or nifty gadgets to buy, great, if you're writing about public health, forget about earning revenue.
Bloggers have long said that their product is better than newspapers. And it is. Newspapers have consistently slid towards shorter sensational news that subjugate news to advertising. Online media does this way better than newspapers, fewer characters, faster, with ever higher output to input ratio. Simple and profitable. But is this the type of coverage that best analyzes, supports or deepens democracy?
I agree that this is a golden age of news for consumers -- sort of. There's plenty of great online news -- but what really gets read by the most people? You can find anything you want, explore all sides of the issue, and investigate anything. But how much longer will people keep writing for free, and what kind of interview access will they have (not much), and what happens, when there are no more newspaper archives to sift through, or when a corporation sends a take down notice for reporting? How quickly will censorship quell the internet? And once newspaper-like entities are all but gone -- then what? At this moment, HuffPo has ten full-time reporters in it's non-profit investigative news unit?
Future Looks Bright -- ?
Simon alone highlighted the role of "big-business" journalism's decline. He said that media owners began shrinking newsrooms when profits were very high and that non-local owners chose to realize profits rather than putting earnings back into the newrooms. He suggested a non-profit model and suggested that charging could work for newspapers. People pay for cable he said, because the content is better than free TV. I would debate this -- free TV used to be better and most cable content is still mostly awful -- but true, people pay.
In the current model which Huffington lauds, the aggregators will profit most when news is a burgeoning hodgepodge accessible only with search. The newspapermen interviewed by the Senate panel suggested "limited relaxation" of some of the anti-trust laws that would allow newspapers to cooperate and profit for both online and traditional media. This seemed to get the interest of legislators. But both Huffington and Google VP Marissa Mayer both quickly noted that internet aggregation was not to blame for sinking paper profits. Online media was still an evolving model they said (hinting that someday newspapers might see some return...) Of course, motions to relax anti-trust drew criticism from the online businesses.
Today, journalists seem at sea when asked about the future of journalism. At a recent meeting for investigative journalism one Pulitzer Prize winning
investigative journalist suggested that young journalists should seek employment from
organizations like Amnesty International who do in depth reporting. No one could answer the next obvious question: who would buy the journalism biased because of being "sponsored by Amnesty International"? Other esteemed journalists agreed that a new model was something for the next generation to worry about.
Obviously the industry is in flux. Alberto Ibarquen of the Knight Foundation told the Senate subcommittee that this resembled the time between the development of the Gutenberg Press and the enlightenment. Like then, he said, we were in a time of creativity and "experimentation", where you couldn't predict the future. His assessment
is familiar, since others, including Clay Shirky, have proposed the same thing.
If this is the revolution, as they say, it's entirely unclear what the future model will look like, a prospect that unnerves some in newspapers and media. Regardless, many bloggers, Rupert Murdoch, HuffPost, Google, and Ibarquen, whose organization funds creative journalism experiments, will get on with it. As Obama said in his encouraging talk to the White House Correspondents Association dinner: "A government without newspapers, a government without a tough and vibrant media of all sorts is not an option for the United States of America"