Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Nobody Said It'd Be Pretty

Remember when newspapers really did believe they could make a nearly seamless transition to being Web-oriented organizations? They thought they could just post stories on the Web, readers would follow, advertisers would follow, they could do what they did but avoid the costs of printing, ad revenue would grow in one place as it fell in another, and truth, justice, the American way and 20 percent margins would continue.

The new-media analysts who weren't condemning newspapers for not shutting off their presses in, oh, 1994 at least didn't see it that way. Some saw a generation of upheaval in which nothing might be as good as it had been. Inevitable, of course, and eventually it would be much better, they said, but for a while, not just business chaos, but an era in which journalism and media would not serve society as well as they had, while things sorted themselves out.

We're clearly there.

The Jay Leno contretemps does not directly involve news, of course, except for those who think that Simon Cowell's leaving "American Idol" is a bigger story because "Idol" has five times the audience of "Tonight" and no one under 50 cares about Leno. (Note to critics: Someone leaving a show but keeping his financial stake in it, and officially announcing it after unofficially announcing it a month before, is not as big news as a major media organization saying it had totally screwed up and being humiliated by its talent, regardless of how many people watch.)

I haven't read what the prophets of the coming age have had to say about this story, which I suspect they would interpret as: Who cares? Broadcast is doomed anyway. It'll all be streamed, Comcast will make NBC into a cable channel and eliminate the affiliates, so who cares about their stupid 11 p.m. news lead-ins? Of course, there's the question of whether GE used this whole Leno thing as a dodge to hold down costs to make NBC more attractive to a buyer, while knowing it wouldn't work in a programming sense. And the fact that NBC is now running around buying pilots shows that all those stories about how "drama is forevermore dead on the major networks" are a combination of new-media hype and love of the you're-in-the-cool-gang aspects of watching "Mad Men" and "Nurse Jackie." (Tell me again how many hours of original programming there are on cable services each week, and what the audience is compared with "CSI"? Doesn't make "CSI" a better show, but it still makes the network a viable business, just a smaller one.)

NBC's affiliates are 1) scared, 2) caught in the same maelstrom as newspapers, and 3) perhaps more politically connected and astute, as they have to have government licenses. NBC didn't respond to its own financial woes over Leno (it was so cheap, it was making money); the affiliates know that if they screamed loud enough, there could be hearing after hearing on GE's getting rid of the darn thing. The affiliates are interested in protecting their own "legacy" business the same way newspapers are interested in protecting their print revenues. Gosh, some newspapers even think they can win back classified ads. (Gosh, some of the newspapers I read actually have done so. What was down to a page of classifieds is back up to two or three.) Maybe the antennas will stop blinking at the same time the last press rolls to a stop, but people tend to protect what they have as long as it's worth something. The Leno mess shows that the affiliates still believe they have a business and are no more interested in killing it than newspaper publishers are. (Of course, as we know, they're all stupid.)

Tavi Gevinson is the talk of the fashion world, according to the Chicago Tribune. She's a 13-year-old who blogs from her bedroom. She finds that the Internet lets her escape her humdrum existence. Her "Style Rookie" has become the flavor of the year. Forget the Internet. How many variations of this story have we seen? (On the media side, Zines, Public Access Cable, Underground Newspapers. On the "precocious young teen" side -- endless.) The story has one of those "despite a lack of statistics, indications are that more and more" paragraphs in it: "Some in the industry suggest the young blogger could be more novelty than anything, but Harper's, Target, and others are betting on her." (How much of a bet? Probably a rounding error financially.)

Before this story, Tavi was getting 29,000 viewers each day. The story notes that some see the Balloon Boy in her story, but this is really Holden Caulfield -- a teen angst story, in which "the whispers and barbs from the fashion world remind her of middle school." One thing Tavi notes: "I never really liked writing before because at school I never got to write about what I like. With my blog, it's my thoughts, like my brain is being translated onto the computer." One doubts Tavi is going to take schoolwork more seriously now. (Of course, if you're deconstructing American education as well as media, you don't care. She should learn in her own way. Of course, it's wrong that everyone gets As, too. But when things sort themselves out...) If Tavi were 16, would this be part of the Death of Traditional Media, or would anyone notice?

Finally, Bob Costas' interview with Mark McGwire, which a terrific story in our paper elucidates the media issues presented. Tim Franklin, late of Chicago/Baltimore/Indianapolis/North Carolina -- this is the same Tim Franklin who sued over the Dale Earnhardt autopsy photos, in a world that now seems impossibly far away -- calls this an epochal moment from his perch as a media critic at Northwestern. Is it ethical of MLB to cover actual, real, like ISSUES in baseball, or good for society -- can the messenger be tainted -- all coupled with the fact that no one wants to call out Bob Costas as being not a professional journalist the same way they did with Connie Chung. (Of course there's still a boys' club, it's a different era, different issues. Still.) Unasked -- and sort of a broader question than this story -- is what MLB Network wouldn't cover. Publicity about Mark McGwire is "even bad publicity is publicity." MLB Network is going to be fine with some stories that show flaws in baseball, because they just keep the core audience interested. Would MLB Network run a negative story about Bud Selig or the antitrust exemption? But Franklin, bless him, says in a couple of sentences what nearly all of the endless debate over new vs. old media, including this blog, is about:

"To many people, information is information. The news source may not matter as much."

Next: The heady days of journalism professionalism.

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