Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Old school, new school

Two recent articles shed some light onto two much-discussed areas of the literary industry. The first was a Farhad Manjoo piece at Salon called “All the News Stuff That’s Fit to Print,” which discussed how newspapers are trying to keep up with the turning technological tide, starting with a paper target in the form of a twentysomething college student who, predictably, comes off as a bimbo:

Brown gets her news from three main sources, and each gives her a general impression of what's happening in the world. She watches "The Daily Show," which she says provides "a good grasp of what's going on." She occasionally reads the Sun-Times, Chicago's smaller competitor to the Tribune, which she likes for its size. And she frequently picks up RedEye, the free, daily commuter paper published by the Tribune and aimed at young people in Chicago.

Shaking your head at this kind of thing gets you nowhere. But, alas, newspapers have it in their head that the secret to financial success is capturing the attention of the 18-24 crowd, those fickle youngsters with lots of disposable income lying around, but they don’t seem to grasp that the advent of online communication has rendered their own product essentially extinct; by the time the printed edition hits the newsstands, its online counterpart always has more information to offer. Plus, there’s the whole notion that news has to be entertaining, which to me seems a contradiction in terms. Dumbing down the news and making it palatable to MTVites doesn’t do anyone any favors in the long run, especially when breathless tabloid reporting on celebrity escapades is seen as newsworthy.

Which is where the second article comes in. A Trevor Butterworth article at the Financial Times called “Time For The Last Post” discusses the burgeoning blogosphere, kicking off with an account of one of the strangest Vanity Fair photoshoots ever:

On a winter-cold morning last autumn, before the leaves could summon up the energy to burn and fall, the barbarians entered the gate. A group of feisty young writers, known only to millions of readers by their blog names - Gawker, Gizmodo, Wonkette and Defamer - were in a soigne studio in New York’s Chelsea district to be photographed for the February issue of Vanity Fair magazine. They represented the cream of Gawker Media - a mini-empire of clever, gossip-driven blogs launched in 2003 by Nick Denton, a former reporter for the Financial Times. But they were also emissaries from the blogging hordes, a raffish army of citizen journalists bent on overthrowing the old guard of the US media.

Tabloids are always going to be popular; everyone loves a star, but everyone loves watching a star fall even more. We’re quick to place whom we see as extraordinary on the pedestal of celebrity, but when, inevitably, someone steps out of their designated lane and acts like, you know, a regular human being, the tabloids are there to help the fall from grace along. Bloggers such as the above make this their stock in trade, and it’s fallacious to treat them as anything resembling serious journalists; popularity is not a yardstick to measure merit by. But Butterworth does go on to make a salient point:

But as with any revolution, we must ask whether we are being sold a naked emperor. Is blogging really an information revolution? Is it about to drive the mainstream news media into oblivion? Or is it just another crock of virtual gold - a meretricious equivalent of all those noisy internet start-ups that were going to build a brave “new economy” a few years ago? Shouldn’t we just be a tiny bit sceptical of another information revolution following on so fast from the last one - especially as this time round no one is even pretending to be getting rich? Isn’t the problem of the media right now that we barely have time to read a newspaper, let alone traverse the thoughts of a million bloggers?

He’s right; the sheer enormity of the information that’s available now makes most people’s brains short-circuit. But here’s the key: people seek out the information that’s important to them, whatever it is. This seeking of knowledge depends largely on your upbringing, your habits, and your conditioning. I grew up without the dubious benefit of ready access to cable television, which probably has a lot to do with my own partiality towards the written word, but I also grew up in a family that was comprised of college professors, lawyers and journalists; it was a family that was very conscious of the collision between politics, art and business. My own habits and tastes developed as a result of this atmosphere, so, people like me aren’t really the newspapers’ concern; it’s the people who grew up not reading, not talking about the world around them, and not having their thoughts and ideas discussed and challenged that are the ideal target. And unfortunately, simplistic and reductive techniques are usually the only way to reach a large amount of people.

According to Manjoo’s Salon piece, essentially the only thing keeping newspapers from putting serious effort into developing an online-only operation is the lack of a solid business model; money still has to be made. I don’t think the Internet will remain as free as it is now; online advertising, for example, has evolved from an occasional annoyance to an overwhelming eyesore to a ubiquitous, invisible standard, all within the space of a few years. The press was once seen as the people’s only voice; the so-called blogosphere is holding that mantle at the moment, but it’s not going to stay that way forever. In a capitalistic society, there’s no power greater than that of the bottom line.

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