Wednesday, November 5, 2008

They May Really Just Not Like Us

Last week's post was occasioned by Marc Andreessen's claim in Portfolio that newspapers should just shut down the presses because Wall Street had decided that they were doomed and had so indicated by killing their stock prices. (Wall Street, of course, has also killed the stock prices of other businesses and industries over the years, some of which survive.) Alan Mutter notes here why a newspaper without a print component is at least at present an even weaker business that one with, and as Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg noted, the problem with Andreesen's argument is simply that newspaper companies are not Internet companies. They don't think like Internet companies and they don't act like them. (He did not make this argument approvingly.)

This weakness often given as part of the reason they are doing so badly, but to me part of the reason they are doing so badly is that they think they should be Internet companies when they aren't. That doesn't mean they shouldn't do a lot of stuff on the Internet; but Google is an Internet company and the New York Times is not. Amazon is an Internet company and Barnes & Noble isn't. Trying to be what you are not usually indicates a lack of confidence in what you are, which has been endemic to newspapers since Walter Cronkite moved to a half-hour Monday through Friday. Newspapers in their romantic little hearts want to be competing with other newspapers to scream "Extra!"

But since I encountered the site Newspaper Death Watch with its motto of "Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and the Rebirth of Journalism," I have realized that much of what newspapers face is an attack from many current or former journalists who really don't like newspapers anymore. They may have loved them growing up, they may have been pulled into the field because of them, they may keep a certain historical reverence for them. But they don't like them now, and it's not that they don't like just the corporate mismanagement.

They think journalism can be done better without newspapers -- the printed ones, to be sure, and in many cases without anything resembling newspapers as we know them. That's not the same as forecasting their decline. They actively want them to go away. They want to work for Internet companies, or they want newspapers to be transformed into Internet companies, or they want to make themselves into Internet companies. Not just because it's the wave of the future and all that, but because the Internet seems to free journalism from some of the restraints print reporters have always scuffed against. And because they do have their residual affection and respect for print newspapers and because they don't see a financially interesting business model rapidly appearing to replace them, they berate newspapers for not being what they are not, which is, simply journalism.

Journalism without print isn't dependent on press deadlines, so you can file a story when it's happening or when you want. You don't need to provide A matter or write four grafs of background that could be cut for space. Instead of spending five minutes trying to summarize someone's argument in one graf, you can say "As so and so said here..." and do a link. It doesn't seem to be as dependent on mass audiences. Because of that, it doesn't have to have the same "But others say" reflexivity, the same need to "balance" the story. It isn't dependent upon finding a centerpiece to anchor the page, meaning that you will have to cover something you don't want to just because it has art. It doesn't have that lag between when something happens and when the paper arrives, meaning that you never have to worry about your story having been upstaged by events. Your story never has to be held for space. You can write a story that seems incredibly significant but that you know will only interest 1,000 people. You can get applause (or boos) right away. And instead of having to think about something new to write about, you can write in response to what someone else said.

This is not to say that these things are bad or that all online journalism proponents support them all. But they are not necessarily good in and of themselves either, unless you want them.

Online journalism offers the dream that "I can finally tell the truth" without the mediation process involved in putting together a group effort aimed at a large audience. It is the dream of every high school journalist who wanted to take over the school paper and say what he and 10 of his friends knew was really going on, instead of the administration saying what they could publish. It's falling back on the view that censorship is not the heavy hand of official oppression but "any time anyone stops me from saying what I want to." I wrote it, so your refusal to publish it is censorship. What do you mean it sucks? Well, not any more.

Election night brought this home to me. More tomorrow. (There may be no length limitations online, but still, the reader's attention must be lagging here.)

No comments: