Readings: Massing, nichepapers, “Free” bashing

On Fridays I like to serve up some long-form material on digital media, suitable for weekend reading. As always, journalism on the Web is a hot topic, and particularly Chris Anderson’s snippy interview this week that has even a few online evangelists a bit incredulous.

Good news about news on the Web: At The New York Review of Books, longtime political journalist Michael Massing offers a prodigious assessment of the evolution of news into a print/Web hybrid. He points out the Internet’s shortcomings — including it being “a hothouse for rumors, distortions, and fabrications.” But after examining the work of Andrew Sullivan and Talking Points Memo, among other pioneering political bloggers and news sites, Massing likes much of what he sees happening online:

“The practice of journalism, far from being leeched by the Web, is being reinvented there, with a variety of fascinating experiments in the gathering, presentation, and delivery of news. And unless the editors and executives at our top papers begin to take note, they will hasten their own demise.”

Massing admits all this is unsettling, and remains concerned about how good journalism will be funded. But his lucid, empirical argument is a refreshing alternative to the either/or shouting into caverns of the digital divide.

Niches as news institutions: Web media entrepreneur Umair Haique, writing on the Harvard Business School blog, goes beyond railing against old media tendencies to charge for online news. “The Nichepaper Manifesto” argues in favor of news structured into distinct, dynamic and inviting ways for readers to interact and respond — via a curating method he calls “commentage.” And he claims that the “superior economics” of this idealized model will be the foundation for the future of news:

“Nichepapers do meaningful stuff that matters the most. The great failing of 20th century news is that monopoly power became a substitute for meaningful value creation. At root, that’s the lesson that newspapers are learning the hard way.”

However, Haique doesn’t address the economics of how this news is to be created and which is at the root of the raging debate over “Free.”

Hate to interrupt your triumphalism: Blogging superstar Cory Doctorow’s takedown of “Free” is more devastating than Malcolm Gladwell’s. Doctorow’s not a defensive print journalist but an author who has posted his new science fiction novel online for free. Ultimately he can’t embrace Anderson’s thesis because of what he leaves out:

“Also missing in Free is the frank admission that for many of the practitioners threatened by digital technology, the future is bleak.

“For while it is true that Madonna and many other established artists have found a future that embraces copying, there will also be many writers, musicians, actors, directors, game designers and others for whom the internet will probably spell doom. And for every creator who loses her livelihood because she is unsuited to the digital future, there will be many more intermediaries – editors, executives, salespeople, clerks, engineers, teamsters and printers – who will also be rendered jobless by technology.

“It is possible to be compassionate about those peoples’ fortunes – just as it is possible to mourn the passing of mom-and-pop bookstores, the collapse of poetry as a viable commercial concern, the worldwide decline of radio serials, the waning of the knife-sharpening trade, and a million other bygone human activities – while still not apologising for the future.”

Come on, just say the “J” word: In a contentious interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, an annoyed Anderson insisted he doesn’t use the words “journalism” and “media” any more. The same for “news.” In fact, he proclaims that “the words of the last century don’t have meaning.” Because there’s no need to rely on time-honored sources or methods to find out what’s happening in the world:

“It comes to me, which is really quite common these days. More and more people are choosing social filters for their news rather than professional filters. We’re tuning out television news, we’re tuning out newspapers. And we still hear about the important stuff, it’s just that it’s not like this drumbeat of bad news. It’s news that matters. I figure by the time something gets to me it’s been vetted by those I trust. So the stupid stuff that doesn’t matter is not going to get to me.”

His “journalism as hobby” line naturally has some old print tribes up in arms. But general readers ripped into Anderson when he chirped about how much he gets his news from Twitter, and sounding like someone who thinks milk comes from the supermarket instead of the farm.

“Oh dear, Chris, get back on the planet:” Roy Greenslade, media writer of The Guardian, admonishes Anderson for his semantic stubbornness:

“I count myself as a passionate advocate for new ways of practising journalism. But I do believe there is something called journalism. I do believe we there is still something called news.”

After rave reviews of “The Long Tail” (which I read and liked), the response to “Free” has been mixed from the start. I think he’s largely correct in assessing how individuals are consuming and sharing news, and that journalism increasingly may be left to hobbyists. But I was surprised by his smugness and agitation when challenged to back up his claims. Then again, new media gurus aren’t used to having their views challenged.

I haven’t read Anderson’s new book (it’s not “Free,” but a hefty $26.99), so I’ll reserve a more complete critique for later. For now, he smacks of an old media pontificator who doesn’t like being upbraided, even in the slightest.

And Anderson’s embrace of a postmodernish verbal relativism — which goes beyond mere vocabulary — leaves me stone cold. Words do have meaning, and how they’re used matters even more.

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2 thoughts on “Readings: Massing, nichepapers, “Free” bashing

  1. What’s increasingly irritating to me about the Anderson/Jarvis camp is that these are guys who’ve made FORTUNES in old media and can afford to stand at a safe distance and contemplate the carnage (while capitalizing on it, naturally). It’s doubtful they’ll ever have to enter this fray themselves.

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  2. Heaven knows I’ve had differences with Jarvis — especially his disdain for workaday journalists that Ron Rosenbaum addressed and his eagerness to see print die. But in fairness to him, he has been involved in quite a number of startups and other initiatives to remake journalism on the Web. That latest is this one, and as a nascent entrepreneurial journalist this sounds like a very good idea.

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