The dog days of journalism’s civil war

Perhaps it was fitting that as soon as I began reading Antony Beevor’s splendid history of the Spanish Civil War did journalism’s internecine conflict flare up again.

I don’t get the impression that Malcolm Gladwell is a print-über-alles partisan, but his skewering of the thesis of Chris Anderson’s new book, “Free,” has engendered a vigorous response from the author as well as Web marketing major domo Seth Godin. In turn, Godin’s response has been called into question by a young Web marketing ace.

The problem I have is that I like all of these individuals and their arguments, to a degree. I’ve generally refrained from the free vs. paid content wars because frankly so much of all this goes way over my head. I’m not business-savvy (yet!) but I am trying to figure out how to make a living as a newbie entrepreneurial journalist and that’s enough of a challenge. I follow this issue to help my understanding of the emerging media environment I inhabit, but I’ve really tried hard not to take sides in all this.

Yet that’s what I’ve inadvertently done after seeing that a former colleague is head-over-heels in favor of threats from newspapers to sue Web sites for copyright infringement for the brazen act of linking. My former colleague (neither does he work at my former newspaper) sounded gleeful in his admonition to “Take Back the Streets!”

Now I have a lot of respect for this individual; he is a fine journalist and author and a very decent guy who is genuinely concerned about the fate of his profession. (And an admission from Anderson that he lifted material for his book from Wikipedia — a scourge among print partisans — surely has them emboldened in their assertions about the general thievery that takes place on the Web.)

But a “man the barricades” mindset not only is counterproductive to the profession; it denies the inevitable march of technology’s effect on journalism, all the media fields and many other industries as well. I’m beyond being weary of this line of thinking; it’s really pissing me off.

How much more hollowing out of newsrooms do we have to witness to understand that the business model of print is unsustainable? How many more talented people like my former colleague (thankfully he’s still employed at a newspaper) will be shown the door for them to understand that desperate maneuvers, ostensibly to “protect” their work, are designed to save antiquated corporate structures and revenue streams, not the jobs of workaday journalists?

I’ve been occasionally sentimental at times about wanting to hold on to what I’ve known as a journalist. I still love print and at least try to pick up the Sunday paper along with subscriptions to several magazines. I cannot read with deep immersion online and probably never will. Like Nick Carr, I worry about the cognitive effects of lengthy periods of time spent online. And the obnoxious rantings of certain techno-utopians border on the asinine when they don’t cross it.

But clinging to the past and resisting the future are deadly notions for journalists. Seeing others in my line of work just give up has helped me to shed some layers of fear — and self-doubt — I didn’t know were there. I’m driven by the fear of being stagnant.

Someone who’s sharpened my understanding of what it means to be a journalist in the 21st century nailed it in a blog post today explaining how “technology is always the great cultural motivator.” These are the people that all of us in journalism need to read, listen to and learn from, instead of being consumed by what he aptly calls “the inertia of lamentations.”

More than anything else, I really wish all of these people who claim they want to save journalism could find a way to just get along.


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