Thursday, December 3, 2009

Anti-Utopia

Anyone who has read this blog during the nearly two years of its existence knows that one of its recurring themes has been: Many of the digiterati are utopians, and utopianism is not an answer for journalism.

The greatly admirable Earl Wilkison comes to this conclusion in his Nov. 25 post. And goes further, saying what I have thought but never quite said: "They" want "us" to fail. "Us" being "the news industry," even if you're old-fashioned like me and call it "the newspaper industry." (A lot of people, younger ones included, say that musical artists still release records.)

Earl writes:
"I no longer believe in the Digital Utopiasts who spread good cheer and always have a map about the new order of information architecture in their coat pocket.

"I think they serve a good purpose – stirring the pot, a parameter in the debate. Yet scratching below the surface of their Taliban-like rhetoric and passion, the straw man collapses when confronted with the real world of business plans.

"The Digital Utopiasts want the Bottom-Line Guys to fail so a new order can be imposed on how people consume information.

"The issue, for me, is that INMA members are employed by the Bottom-Line Guys....

"The Digital Utopiasts, while serving a useful purpose, essentially fuse a digital mindset with a journalism mindset. The journalism community is sometimes fine with the idea of newspapers failing because they assume their talents will be utilised by whatever new order replaces it. The Digital Utopiasts have a certainty about the future of media that, upon further review, is just a good guess and an intriguing alternative to today's information architecture – but nowhere near a business plan.

"They argue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ... and profits be damned. They're for democracy. They argue that all eyeballs are created equally. They argue that bigger is better, and the advertising will eventually catch up to this.

"Let's dispense with the myth that the Digital Utopiasts want to help the Bottom-Line Guys figure out the digital future."

I'm putting words in Earl's mouth here, but what he is saying of the Jeff Jarvises etc. is what I have felt: They do not want to see Gannett, Hearst, the Baton Rouge Advocate, whoever make the "transition" to the new digital world. Lots of them want Gannett to fail. (This is not true of the Ken Doctors, but is true of some former digital executives at newspaper companies who found themselves losers in the boardroom.) They want the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News to fail. They probably don't want the New York Times to fail, but they will talk down the newspaper business to anyone they can, saying they are the inevitable future, because at heart they believe that the Internet is God's own gift to finally remove the hands of publishers, copy editors, press deadlines, advertisers, press agents, promotion directors, news releases, cut to fit the hole, etc. from 'journalism' and create a truer journalism of: There's me and there's you. I pick up my lance, I get on my horse, I ride into battle, and I tell you the tale. You listen, we talk, we tell others. Somehow, advertisers will eventually say, oh yeah, we want to be part of that.

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. But somehow, that just never works out. And, of course, they're not all Digiterati. They have an amen corner of journalists who ran afoul of some editor or had a column killed or didn't get the beat they wanted and who dream of a true journalism in which only talent -- their talent, most assuredly -- will count.

But just as newspapers need to realize that online is not simply "print the newspaper without presses" but its own medium with its own requirements -- and, honestly, decide which of the myriad information businesses available today they want to be in, instead of thinking they have to be in all of them -- newspaper companies, news companies, whatever, need to realize that Digiterati, Online Utopians, what have you, are not in their business. They don't want to save our businesses. They don't even like our businesses. Hell, they don't even like businesses.

As Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton put it this week:

"We were promised that eyeballs meant advertising, clicks meant cash. Free costs too much. News is a business and we should not be afraid to say it."

Well, I could say I wasn't afraid to say it this spring. But I'm just glad people who are actually influential are now saying it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Journalism is to be gritty and blue collar. Most of the nay-sayers haven't run anything in their lives. I agree journalism is not supposed to usher in utopia. It is suppose to do just the opposite. For if we lived in utopia there would be no need for journalism. Right now, modern digital journalism is a solution in search of a problem. A vexing dilenma that one hasn't nor will ever find an answer for.

Danny L. McDaniel
Lafayette, Indiana