Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The End of Janus and Julian

Mark Bowden's Atlantic article on the Wall Street Journal sums it up with this phrase -- "In those fat and happy days." We got a subsidy to do what we wanted. We know those days are gone. But dealing with the days we have means we have to give up some of our self-definition as people up in the manor house who are not engaged in trade and are on a mission from Olympus. We have to be more ink-stained wretches again, regardless of whether that ink is digital. We need to work with the people who own our businesses to produce products that people will actually want to pay money to advertise in, at a sufficient level that it may, yes, MAY pay to also do the sort of work Mark Bowden and so many others have done.

Because we really in 2008 have no guarantee that anything is going to support serious journalism. There are lots of ideas for the future, but none of them has hit the "Sale" button on the cash register yet.

For example, Politico, the politics-based news organization founded in January 2007 specifically as a from-the-ground-up merger of print and online. As the Times wrote: "Politico’s round-the-clock online news reporting and analysis ... have made it a must-read for a large audience outside the Beltway. Politico.com averaged 2.5 million unique visitors a month in the first half of 2008, more than all but 13 American newspapers, according to Nielsen Online. ...

"([Such success does not] mean that online publications are translating page views into dollars. Politico still gets most of its revenue from ads in its printed newspaper, placed by interest groups hoping to influence the paper’s powerful readers.)" The "why" is not hard to see. How many of those 2.5 million unique visitors from across the nation are going to buy something based on an ad on Politico? They want red meat, and they want it free. They don't care if it makes no sense economically for Politico to give it to them free (it may, because it gives legitimacy to the print paper). It isn't about Politico. They'll take it from anyone who gives it to them free.

So perhaps the best thing is to do what people say they would pay for, so that we can do some of the stuff they would never pay for. (And then get them to pay for what they said they would pay for.) That is not pandering. That is serving journalism and the country as best you can in 2008, while acknowledging that it could be done more purely in 1988. (I want to say "better," but I don't want that argument again.) I believe that this is what the Zellots are trying to say amid the capitalizations and the f-- yous and the fact that they owe a lot more money than they should. I also may be the most stupid person in the room. Journalism is a terrific way to spend your life, but it never paid the bills and it never will. The bills get paid when someone wants to use journalism to make money or burnish their reputation.

But part of the new reality is recognizing that most of us are not Mark Bowden and are going to have much more mundane jobs than his career and talents have offered him. And that leads to the mismatch of expectations with occupation that Will Bunch so finely described in his American Journalism Review article. Just as television didn't lead to the end of radio but led to the end of Radio As We Had Known It -- the radio of Art Linkletter, the Green Hornet and NBC Monitor replaced over time with the radio of Alan Freed and Cousin Brucie, then the AM of Rush Limbaugh and the FM of Clear Channel -- most newspapers (regardless of their form) are being redefined into something less ambitious, more locally focused, more aimed at filling niches. Just as with radio, this is happening because the money for the old way is no longer there and so you have to figure out how to make money. But the redefinition of radio meant there was no longer much of a place in commercial radio for people who dreamed of following in the steps of Sylvester "Pat" Weaver or Henry Morgan or Ed Murrow. Their ambition went elsewhere, or it found its way to NPR. It wasn't their fault or Ed Murrow's fault. It was just the times.

The era when you could run a "national" newspaper from Philadelphia or Baltimore or Dallas, probably even from Los Angeles, is over. What's the point of sending someone from Philadelphia to cover the Midwest floods if you can get YouTube video, feeds from local TV stations, tweets from people watching the water rise, and stories from the Cedar Rapids Gazette on your home computer if you are really interested? And if you're not really interested, a wire story in the paper, a wire link on the Web page, or just 10 seconds on CNN are fine. But that makes the sort of career progression of a David Rohde -- who went from covering the Falls Township board for Inquirer Neighbors to uncovering the Srebenica massacre for The Christian Science Monitor within two years -- much harder to emulate. As Bunch says, "The entrenched job loop for ambitious journalists – sending college grads like Peace Corps Volunteers off to short-term stints in far-flung outposts, en route to isolated newsrooms that poorly cover a patchwork of neighborhoods and suburbs – isn't working for either news people or the communities that they cover." And at the moment we don't know what the new loop is, or even if there is one.

Those who remember the Internet 1.0 site NewsMAIT may remember that after a year, the advice given by employees of 1,325 of America's 1,350 daily newspapers to prospective employees was: STAY AWAY. My favorite was a person who worked for, I think, the Greeley Daily Tribune. Apparently the newspaper was located downwind from a feedlot, and the odor of bovine manure permeated the parking lot. The person who posted the "STAY AWAY" message made clear that it was a personal affront to him, a well-educated and highly trained college graduate with a presumed career at a metro daily in Manhattan or San Francisco (or at least Denver) in front of him, to have to endure this daily indignity. For the people for whom he was allegedly working and whom he hoped to leave behind, this was their town, though it smelled like a feedlot. That could have been a way to learn about and sympathize with the ordinary lives on whose behalf newspapers are supposed to speak. But it smelled bad and there were no good clubs. "I'm gettin' out of here, and if in the meantime they have problems -- unless they're going to get me a good clip, why should I care? Screw these morons. There's a reason they live out their lives in Greeley and I won't."

This all may mean that the Mark Bowdens and David Rohdes -- and David did a terrific job covering Falls Township -- take their considerable talents to another medium and newspapers ("newspapers" is a good word whether they have paper or not, just like "broadcast" works just fine as a verb for TV shown solely on cable channels) will go back to largely employing people who are comfortable as a career with doing city council, religion notes, county fair roundup with photos, and oh, an interesting feature or a big, probing local story, but you aren't going to be detached for eight weeks to work on it -- whether their work is done for print or on a local-local Web site or a niche magazine or all of the above. We can hope that we're lucky and can make enough money to be able to do serious stuff as well. But whatever these news operations are, they won't be focused on hiring and rewarding people who view covering the Lower Slobovia Borough Council as demeaning work to be passed off as quickly as possible. Those people now can start their own Web sites and appeal to the fellow disdainful.

>>And that's nearly all to be said about all that. The business climate for newspapers has deteriorated so badly in the last month that further criticism seems largely irrelevant. There may be little left to criticize very soon. In coming weeks, I will be spending more time with department stores and copy editing -- another endangered area, of course, for the same reasons -- if I don't end up having to look for a job. But a magazine arrived this weekend that brings one last point on this, to come.

>>If you, like me, loved "NBC Monitor," click here for a sound that will bring back memories:


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