Stop and listen

Driving through the Maine countryside today, I realized suddenly that it was time for Hal Crowther to weigh in on Something Important again. Hal used to do this weekly back when we were both several decades younger and living in North Carolina. I’m long gone, but Hal’s still there, putting out essays no less interesting but far less often.

Sure enough, my email tonight includes a note from a fellow ex-Carolinian, now living in Bangkok, pointing to Hal’s latest, Stop the presses: The future of the newspaper—without the paper. As usual, it’s strong coffee:

It’s hard to dispute that the newspaper is doomed in the long run, as an inefficient and wasteful medium that technology can easily improve upon. I’ve never argued that point, in spite of my personal feelings—certainly not on Sunday mornings as I peel off the two dozen junk sections crammed into my local paper, fill a garbage bag with them and wonder which shady grove of whispering pines was sacrificed to make the wretched things possible. Compared with audio-visual advertising, they’re also a primitive, low-yield way to deliver a commercial message.
But the key point of understanding is that while the newspaper is expendable, the tradition it represents and the information it supplies are not. The evolution from Gutenberg to Gates may be irreversible, but as new media replace old ones there’s no official passing of the torch of responsibility, no automatic transfer of the sacred trust the First Amendment placed upon the free press and its proprietors. In fact the handoff, such as it is, has been fumbled very badly. As newspapers are eviscerated, marginalized and abandoned, they leave a vacuum that nothing and no one is prepared to fill—a crisis on its way to becoming a tragedy. When railroads and riverboats began to go the way of the passenger pigeon, no one was harmed except the workforce and a few big investors who had failed to diversify. If professional journalism vanishes along with the newspapers, this thing we call a constitutional democracy becomes a banana republic.

Even if you don’t agree, read on. It’s killer writing. They don’t get any better. Dig:

The Tribune Company, the grasping conglomerate owner that strangled the Los Angeles Times, has been entertaining a buyout offer from an “angel,” Chicago real estate megabillionaire Sam Zell, who’s on record saying “there is no difference” between running a newspaper and managing any other for-profit business. If that isn’t irony enough, Zell’s nickname is “The Grave Dancer,” for his ability to spot moribund properties and exploit them profitably. How I’d relish the opportunity to lecture him on the difference between owning a newspaper and owning a mall. Carroll argues that these corporate leviathans are “genuinely perplexed” by journalists–“people in their midst who do not feel beholden, first and foremost, to the shareholder. What makes these people tick, they wonder. The job of any employee, as they see it, is to produce a good financial result, not to indulge in some dreamy form of do-gooding at company expense. … Our corporate superiors regard our beliefs as quaint, wasteful and increasingly tiresome.” If we believe Carroll, who ought to know, nothing we ever held sacred is safe from jungle capitalism and its harsh ideology, as we might have guessed from the awful mess the free market has made of American health care. Citing Carroll and Washington Post owner Donald Graham as his star witnesses, Baker comes to the radical conclusion that “free-market capitalism doesn’t really work very well in the newspaper business, and if rigorously applied, tends to destroy it.”
“Angels” who come to the rescue of shareholders smell a whole lot like vultures to me. And the vultures are circling. They may not grasp much of what it took to put this country together, but they have keen noses for carrion. If Zell is the Grave Dancer, “The Grave Digger” is a fitting nickname for Murdoch, that successful devourer of sick newspapers whose purchase of the Journal feels like one of the last big nails in our collective coffin. I picture Murdoch with dirt on his shovel and the WSJ lying there next to the hole he’s digging, not quite dead but very pale and breathing irregularly. Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to news in America was when Murdoch put the word “Fox” next to it. His gross pollution of the media mainstream in Australia, Great Britain and now the USA secures his place in history as an archenemy of the English language itself.
But the Dancer and the Digger are merely broad-shouldered, beady-eyed wealth magnets, crude engines designed by nature for the mindless multiplication of property. A world gone desperately awry gives them far more credit and attention than they deserve. If newspapers achieve extinction, along perhaps with “the news” as we knew it, only the liberals will blame Rupert Murdoch. He’s an end-game player. The newspaper industry stood with a foot in its grave long before Murdoch became an American citizen (for the sole purpose of circumventing the law that only an American citizen can own a television network).

Then he turns around and hits blogs too:

Let me put it this way: At any moment there are 40,000 stories out there claiming to be the gospel truth. Many of them are good as gold, presented by people with the best intentions; many are lies and distortions sponsored by people with the worst. Most are muddle and nonsense. It takes years of experience or constant immersion in the news cycles, or both, just to begin to sort them out. The most plausible, professional sources are often the most ruthless liars, and usually the most generously funded. Never in history has so much sinister talent, or so much money, been committed to creating, shaping, manipulating, dominating or suppressing the stories we hear or don’t hear. A blogging orthodontist with a genius IQ is no match at all for Karl Rove, Roger Ailes or Rupert Murdoch—believe me. It’s not even David vs. Goliath, it’s Goliath vs. Tinkerbell.

Worse, he quotes Andrew Keen. But I’m willing to let that go, because Crowther does the job Keen botched. That job was to challenge, and not merely to deride. Sez Hal,

In this time of public apathy, the Internet’s spirit impresses me more than its performance. When you show me how Web sites and blogs will generate enough revenue to feed, house and clothe the next generation of full-time truth hunters unashamed to call themselves journalists, I’ll shelve my skepticism and join the parade. Either way they’ll replace us, at least in the sense that they’ll be here when we are gone. And The End may be much nearer than clueless luddites like me can calculate. According to Joel Auchenbach of the Washington Post, a committed blogger, cyber-marketing technique—tracking page views or “eyeballs” minute-to-minute—is already corrupting editors hungry for readers. In the wired, market-driven newsroom, O.J. Simpson trumps global warming every time.

Well, crap was king in most newsrooms long before Don Henley wrote and sang Dirty Laundry. Really, is Rupert Murdoch any better or worse than William Randolph Hearst? But Hal’s right about every business model he trashes here. Including the one thanks to which countless bloggers have become no less obsessed with eyeballs than any other “journal” — traditional or otherwise — that lives mostly to serve ego and advertising. More importantly, he’s right that we haven’t found the business model that makes a living, and not just a cause, for full-time truth-hunters.

Difference is, I’m an optimist. One thing I want out of is jobs for journalists, all working directly for the readers who comprise the market for truth — and not just for the advertising money that always threatened to currupt journalism, whether or not it succeeded.

In fact, it was for this very purpose that I applied for a Knight News Challenge grant, just a few hours under the wire last week. We’ll see how that goes (I’ve heard nothing, and can’t tell if the online application even went through), but I do want to get us there.


  1. James Robertson’s avatar

    What he misses is pretty basic: all through the 19th century, we didn’t have the “professional” media he pines for. We had for profit partisan media that was honestly partisan – when early Americans picked up a journal, they understood the biases.

    There was a brief (and lamentable, IMHO) period of “professional, objective” journalism that is passing from the scene now. I’ll take the openly partisan model of the 19th century over the sanctimonious “eat your spinach” model represented by Crowther. The sooner he and his kind pass from the scene, the better.

  2. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    Unh-uh. Sorry, James. Those are no longer your choices. The Red Sox or Halloween. No substitutions.

    Working for the shareholder means getting you to click on as many pages as possible so we can show you their ads. Readers had a big appetite this weekend for stories about the Red Sox and Halloween. See where this is going?

    My own, view-from-the-trenches opinion is that newspapers should not be public companies, forced by Wall Street to deliver annual growth rates incompatible with the nature of their products. (How much annual growth in your clicking and reading time do you expect?) Privately held companies can sustain healthy, stable annual profits and invest in innovation. If they’re willing to go through some lean years in order to retool and get it right, they can.

    Kudos to those who are buying back their stock and taking the hit in the interest of the longterm survival of their journalism.

    (I blogged this earlier, in response to this post, but it belongs here too as part of the conversation.)

  3. francine hardaway’s avatar

    Funny, I wrote about this yesterday.

    Journalists will get paid when advertisers and online news sources get their model straight, and they will do that when forced (as in NOW.)

    And Crowther glamorizes journalism: newspapers were propaganda pieces in the beginning (18th century) just as blogs are now. Standards of journalism weren’t adhered to by the Thomas Paines of the world. They had a point of view.

  4. Roland’s avatar

    Crowther’s article is pro-professional journalism and anti-blogger. This is nothing more than an appeal to authority, a common logical fallacy. “Professional Journalism” is not that different from “Professional Prostitution.” Journalism, whether old-time yellow or current NeoCon, deserves to die. Citizens are by definition amateurs.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Roland, I’ll grant that Hal is old skool and hostile to blogging. But professional journalism at its best sustained civilization. Losing it might not kill us, but it will hurt.

    And Hal is a helluva writer. That matters too.

  6. robert ivan’s avatar

    The fundamental problem of newspapers on the internet – The Krugman Paradox -click on my name to learn more.

    Offline newspapers are f’ed. But what’s equally problematic is that I cannot find a single instance of a general info news site that is economically sustainable.

    Doc, i quote you in my “paradox” so you might want to check it out.


  7. DRK’s avatar

    The old school and new school appear to be in their final battle of who is going to dominate the future. I think if people with old school mentalities don’t change they will be left behind.

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