Readers can imagine that a book called Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done to Fix It is not a light, airy, cheerful read. (For one thing, the title is much too long, but that seems the case with all nonfiction these days.)
The author of that book, Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of Reason Magazine, excerpted one of his chapters:
It’s the losers, not the winners, who are writing the early historical drafts of this transformational media moment, while those actually making that history—the people formerly known as the audience, in critic Jay Rosen’s apt phrase—are treating their legacy interpreters not with kindness but contempt. So much misunderstanding and breathtakingly wrong-headed analysis tumbles forth from this one paradox. …
Imagine for a moment that the hurly-burly history of American retail was chronicled not by reporters and academics but by life-long employees of A&P, a largely forgotten supermarket chain that enjoyed a 75 percent market share as recently as the 1950s. How do you suppose an A&P Organization Man might portray the rise of discount super-retailer Wal-Mart, or organic foods-popularizer Whole Foods, let alone such newfangled Internet ventures as Peapod.com? Life looks a hell of a lot different from the perspective of a dinosaur slowly leaking power than it does to a fickle consumer happily gobbling up innovation wherever it shoots up.
That is largely where we find ourselves in the journalism conversation of 2012, with a dreary roll call of depressive statistics invariably from the behemoth’s point of view: newspaper job losses, ad-spending cutbacks, shuttered bureaus, plummeting stock prices, major-media bankruptcies. Never has there been more journalism produced or consumed, never has it been easier to find or create or curate news items, and yet this moment is being portrayed by self-interested insiders as a tale of decline and despair.
It is no insult to the hard work and good faith of either newspaper reporters or media-beat writers (and I’ve been both) to acknowledge that their conflict of interest in this story far exceeds that of, say,academic researchers who occasionally take corporate money, or politicians who pocket campaign donations from entities they help regulate, to name two perennial targets of newspaper editorial boards. We should not expect anything like impartial analysis from people whose very livelihoods—and those of their close friends—are directly threatened by their subject matter.
It is no insult to the hard work and good faith of either newspaper reporters or media-beat writers (and I’ve been both) to acknowledge that their conflict of interest in this story far exceeds that of, say, academic researchers who occasionally take corporate money, or politicians who pocket campaign donations from entities they help regulate, to name two perennial targets of newspaper editorial boards. We should not expect anything like impartial analysis from people whose very livelihoods—and those of their close friends—are directly threatened by their subject matter. …
To those of us whose career prospects did not depend on media behemoths or academic institutions, whose view was not colored by an over-arching fear of economic and political power concentrated in the hands of would-be 21st century media barons, the AOL–Time Warner merger, like all supposedly frightening media consolidations, was only as relevant as our comparatively minor consumption of the new conglomerate’s products. (I would invite every Ben Bagdikian fan reading this to keep a detailed diary of your media consumption for a full day, count up how many different corporations and human beings compiled the stuff you consumed, note which entities did not even exist in the 20th century, and then try ever again to say or write with a straight face the phrase “media monopoly.”) As I wrote when the merger was announced, “If this is the ‘new totalitarianism’…then we’re the freest slaves in the history of tyranny.”
Audience empowerment (to rescue a debased term) is not just about the ability for humans to send text messages or create ad hoc social networks free from government sanction, though both of those developments are revolutionary on their own. Nor is it chiefly about individuals creatively re-packaging the journalistic spade-work of deep-pocketed media institutions, though that, too, has been a remarkably beneficial, not detrimental, innovation (any newspaper journalists who claim otherwise should estimate their number of visits to sites edited by Jim Romenesko). No, the reality rarely broached in the media’s own drumbeat of doom is that members of the formerly captive audience are, on a daily basis, beating the professionals at their own game, in the process rendering hollow the claim that our democracy is imperiled when newspapers tremble.
Does it matter that most people telling us about the state of the media are, either through their professional conflicts of interest or career-long fixations, missing or severely underplaying the liberatory effects of the formerly captive audience becoming sophisticated and productive journalism consumers and creators? Unfortunately, yes. If Steven Brill wants to convince newspapers to throw their content behind paywalls, that’s his (and their) business. (And, as an editor of a magazine that puts all its content up for free, it’s my business, too—hurry up, Brill!) Ditto for newspaper columnists who want to further alienate their dwindling readerships by accusing them of undermining democracy when they read stuff for free. If nothing else, this blame-the-consumer routine is some of the best evidence yet for how an entitled, monopolist-style mentality crept into the worldview of a profession once noted for its cutthroat sense of competition. Instead of begging the audience to stay, the old guard is trying to charge them a steep exit fee.
But the problem here is that the legacy-centric view is bleeding into the sausage-making of public policy. The A&P Organization Men aren’t just spinning their own industrial decline and confusing it with the fate of democracy, they’re actively advising the Federal Trade Commission on how laws might be rewritten to punish news aggregators—from Google to individual bloggers—whose work is perceived to hurt them. Dollars from every single taxpaying American may be redistributed to an industry that until very recently was among the most profitable in U.S. history. And like the last round of newspaper protectionism—the Newspaper Protection Act of 1970—any rulemaking or legislation that comes out of this process will almost axiomatically reward deep-pocketed incumbents at the direct expense of new entrants, all in an effort to delay the inevitable.
In 2006, remarking on the suddenly troubled fates of the formerly indestructible duopolist film processor Eastman Kodak, The Wall Street Journal’s William M. Bulkeley put the problem succinctly: “Photography and publishing companies shouldn’t be surprised when digital technology upends their industries. After all, their business success relied on forcing customers to buy things they didn’t want.” The customers have moved away from yesterday’s news bundle, and from the mentality that fetishizes it, but instead of abandoning news they’ve dived into the production process with both feet. Instead of blaming them for ruining the past, we should be thanking them for inventing the future. And above all, we should do nothing to get in their way.
One of the comment threads expands on this:
I would say that a big part of this is that most journalists are natural-born employees, and that warps their overall worldview.
The idea that someone could build an audience is completely alien to them. To a natural-born employee, the way you get an audience is by winning all the right prizes at school, and then a big hand reaches down from the sky and picks you up and places you in a position where you have an audience.
If those giant, pre-existing audiences aren’t around any more, or are declining precipitously, the big hand might not come one day.
These are the same sort of people who write articles saying that book writing is dying, when more people are selling books to readers than ever before. If the giant hand didn’t do it, it didn’t happen.
That might be an unintended explanation of the tendency of journalists to be anti-business. Business people not only take risks, as opposed to “employees,” but business people are also concerned about what their customers think, possibly behind only their bottom lines. Old-style journalists would not only consider that sucking up to the boss, but pandering to your audience; it was described to me more than once as the difference between what readers want to know and what readers need to know.
The need for the information newspapers contain isn’t going to go away. The form will change. The same can be said about radio and TV news. I’ve predicted for a few years (which means I will eventually be proven correct, right?) that we’re going to see the merging of newspapers, radio and TV into an Internet-based source of information in the news consumer’s preferred format — text, print, graphics, audio or video — for the consumer’s preferred media device. (Which is something Journal Communications could do right now with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and WTMJ radio and TV.) That would rejoin what the Federal Communications Commission forced asunder; the owner of The Post~Crescent in Appleton (in its pre-Gannett and pre-Thomson days) also owned WLUK-TV, the Green Bay Press–Gazette owned a radio station (I believe what now is WNFL radio), The Capital Times in Madison started WIBA radio, and WISC-TV in Madison used to own what now is WTDY radio.
The barriers to entry to the media are now as low as they have ever been, however. I need no license for this blog. The cost to produce this blog, other than my time, is the cost of our Internet connection, the annual cost of the domain name, and the cost of the electricity that powers this laptop and our modem and router. (The latter of which is much less than what a newspaper that owns a printing press or a radio station pays for its electricity, let alone a TV station.) My cellphone has a passable audio recorder and camera if I wanted to add audio and video here, or I could use my son’s iPod:
Of course, you can’t buy credibility, which is what a commenter on Welch’s piece called the “legacy media,” has, or had. You can, however, lose credibility, which is what the “legacy media” is busy doing these days. That’s a lot of good work to be wasted, but if you’re not willing to keep up with the times in the less important areas (as in how you deliver your information), and you haven’t figured out the importance of your work’s integrity, your work in the more important areas (what information you deliver) will be delivered to a shrinking audience.
The reason I chose this headline is that the School of Journalism bachelor’s degree we UW students earned in the late 1980s prepared us well to work in the news media, but not to be managers in the media, and not to be media entrepreneurs. (I’ve seen enough sales managers in the media to know that the most important word in the title “sales manager” is “manager,” not “sales.”) Anyone in business can tell you the difficult part of being in business is not providing the products or services for which the business exists; it’s performing the business functions central to any business, regardless of its products or services.
Where is the media going? Twenty-five years ago, few people had heard of the Internet, and Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay had two daily newspapers each. Twenty-five years from now? Try predicting two years from now.