Newspapers need to worry about the best and the worst of the blogosphere
Like the long-gone typesetters, today's newspaper guild members believe that their job is somehow their "property," and that no amateur can step in to perform their difficult and arduous tasks. On one level, they're right. John Q. Blogger can't fly to Baghdad or Bosnia and do the work of a John F. Burns. But what a lot of guild members miss is that not everybody wants to read John F. Burns, not everybody who wants to read about Baghdad is going to demand coverage of the quality he produces, and not everybody wants Baghdad coverage, period. If you loosely define journalism as words and graphics about current events deliverable on tight deadline to a mass audience, the price of entry into the craft has dropped to a few hundred dollars. Hell, I can remember renting an IBM Selectric for $100 a month in the late 1970s just to make my freelance articles look more "professional" to my editors.
So, when newspaper reporters bellyache about shoot-from-the-hip bloggers who don't fully investigate the paper trail before writing a story or double-check their facts before posting, they're telling a valuable truth. Bad bloggers are almost as bad as bad journalists. But the prospect of a million amateurs doing something akin to their job unsettles the guild, making it feel like Maytag's factory rats whose jobs were poached by low-paid Chinese labor.
It's not just the best of the blogosphere drawing away big audiences that the guild need worry about. If Chris Anderson's Long Tail intuitions are right, the worst of the blogosphere—if it's big enough—presents just as much (or more) competition. Michael Kinsley made me laugh a decade ago when he argued against Web populists replacing professional writers, saying that when he goes to a restaurant, he wants the chef to cook his entree, not the guy sitting at the next table. I'm not laughing anymore: When there are millions of aspiring chefs in the room willing to make your dinner for free, a least a hundred of them are likely to deal a good meal. Mainstream publishers no longer have a lock on the means of production, making the future of reading and viewing anybody's game. To submit a tortured analogy, it's like the Roman Catholic church after Gutenberg. Soon, everyone starts thinking he's a priest.
I'm not about to predict what the collapsing cost of media creation will ultimately do to the news business, if only because my track record at prophesy is terrible. But this much I know: The newspaper guild (again, reporters, editors, publishers) can't compete by adding a few blogs here, blogging up coverage over there, and setting up "comment" sections. If newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters don't produce spectacular news coverage no blogger can match, they have no right to survive.
"Not Just Another Column About Blogging: What newspaper history says about newspaper future," by Jack Shafer, Slate, January 28, 2006
- "Read All About It! Newspapers Lose Web War," an interview of Prof. Clark Gilbert by Sean Silverthorne, HBS Working Knowledge, January 28, 2002
- "The 8-Step Cure for Old Fartism," by Jon Katz, hotwired, November 4, 1997
- "The End of Legacy Media (Newspapers, Magazines, Books, TV Networks)," by Jakob Nielsen, Alertbox, August 23, 1998
- "Niche Masters Who Can Kill You," by Randy Cassingham, Presented to The Online News Summit II held in Washington, DC, May 19, 1998
- "Why newspapers are in trouble," by Guy Kawasaki, Forbes, February 9, 1998
"New York enobles the smallest task"
James Lileks describes Manhattan:
you do feel like a Man of the World sometimes when you’re poking through the produce at Smiler’s or Dean and Delucca. The big city growling outside, the unpredictable clientele, the stolid storekeeper, the mix of chaos and order, the skyscraper lights, the smear of dusk in the indistinct distance – New York enobles the smallest task. I never feel more cosmopolitan than when I’m getting supplies at this grocery in the Roosevelt Hotel or the thin typical joint across from the Millennium, right up to the moment when they tell me I owe them $36.93 for muffins and a beer. There’s just a buzz in these places, be it ten PM or 8 AM. The city is full of juice and it spills into every shop. A steam table with fried rice and Knickerbocker beer and Danish candy and fresh oranges and big Rice Krispee bars in Saran Wrap and the great calamitous kaleidoscope of Manhattan just yards away.
"Let's Take a Ride and Run with the Dogs Tonight," James Lileks, August 31, 2005