Went last night to a talk at the New York Public Library celebrating Slate’s 10th Birthday, featuring Michael Kinsley, Malcolm Gladwell, Arianna Huffington, Jacob Weisberg, and Norm Pearlstine. Given the topic, “online media and the future of journalism,” it was one of those blogged-to-death deals. I’m slow to the punch, my friend Trebor Scholz wrote about it, as did David Cohn, David Hirschman, Dylan Stableford, a rat, probably a dozen others, and some pictures from Will. You can listen to the whole thing as an mp3 if you so desire. I really don’t have much to add. But if you think that means I’m not posting, you are new to blogging. As Weisberg noted, blogs are really good at talking about something even when there is nothing new to say.
Paper vs. Mecha-Godzilla
All the wrap-ups linked above have the some quotes. This is a group of people who live and breathe soundbites. Yes, Huffington noting that the argument over “paper vs. online” has the feel of the Ginger or Mary Ann bar-room debates and “it’s 2006, can’t we just have a threeway,” is eminently quotable, but doesn’t get you very far. Malcolm Gladwell rolling out the old chestnut of “what if printing had just been invented,” likewise is a kick in the side of the head for an audience that has already been kicked that way a lot. The first part of the discussion revolved around this “will there be paper in 10 years,” which–to me at least–is the dumbest question ever, and has already been done to death anyway. Predicting the future is a bad business to be in, but I’ll lay even money against anyone willing that in a decade we will still be buying newspapers and magazines on regular old dead trees.
Pearlstine especially wanted to know what the economic model would be. Several times, he brought up the importance of the shift in advertising from agglomerated audiences to search-based ads. I think folks are incorrectly shying away from the importance of this, assuming that it is merely the concern of dot-com entrepreneurs and old media CEOs, but it is of vital interest to anyone who wants to know the long-term direction of online media. The growth of the mass media was certainly predicated, in part, on technological advances, but if not for the mass production and mass advertising, there would never have been an economic model that allows for mass media. Without a networked model of advertising, or some other business model, there isn’t any way to know how online media will change our media environment. The technologies have already shifted, as have some of the social expectations, but the money question is still up in the air. The panel seemed to keep coming back to the rather prosaic questions of the technologies of printing and distribution by mail, but there were some interesting observations beyond this.
Weisberg noted that the iPod, in large part because of its rapid penetration, has changed the way the industry and the audience engage music. He suggested that what we were waiting for was the “iPod of reading.” Andy Bowers piped in from the audience to suggest that the iPod of reading might end up being… the iPod. I have a feeling that we identify the iPod as revolutionary in some way because it is the most proximate view of iTunes–an economic model that is new(ish) and seems to work, despite a lot of controversy over how it handles intellectual property rights.
Huffington suggested that the New York Times was making a mistake in putting its best stuff behind walls. If it’s not linkable, it doesn’t matter. This feeds into the larger question of who pays for content–where does the money come from. Again, it will be interesting to see what the Times does with the MyTimes project. I was surprised that no one brought up the BBC, which has gotten a huge push in US readership, I suspect, in part because they are so friendly to linkers.
At one point, they called out a survey: how many of the audience, of several hundred, read a newspaper daily (in its traditional on-paper format). Nearly every one of the hundreds of audience members raised their hand. How many did not: perhaps five or ten, including myself. They took this in stride, but I was shocked. At the Hyperlinked Society conference a couple of weeks ago I was speaking with someone (sorry, don’t remember who it was) who noted that he was teaching journalism students who had never read a newspaper, and didn’t know what to make of it. I found the reaction in this audience to be staggering. Kinsley, however, noted that a Rice professor (no name given) had suggested to him at one point that the question of paper would be “solved actuarially.” If this room was any indication, though, that seems like it is a fairly remote solution. I was by no means the youngest person in the room.
Blogging is… different
Several times the discussants circled around to the idea that writing for the web is different, in part because web audiences are different. Huffington argued that web audiences expect and require interactive content, and some feeling of conversation. They also are obsessive about following a story in the news. A front page story may show up and drop off the traditional newspaper in one day–but bloggers will keep at that story until some conclusion is reached.
Weisberg suggested that writers needed to start writing for new media: using hyperlinks, exploiting the potential of the medium. This is not only what readers want, it is what they expect. Journalists of the old school–of the J-school!–still write for their print audience (which, by the way, we have already established were the people in this room). That their articles happened to show up on the web was an afterthought. That needs to change. That articles eventually find their way into the printed newspaper should be the afterthought; the focus should be on the web. There is a need, in Huffington’s words, to find people “able to swim in these new waters.” And these people are not coming out of the J-schools right now. The internet has “broken down the barriers to entry” for doing journalism (Weisman).
And now for something completely Denton
Several people asked questions. Nick Denton challenged Huffington on whether she was a comment whore. I am sure he put it more nicely. Basically, the question was whether she (like he) carefully analyzed server logs and found out what people commented on and liked and concentrated on those items. I think this is really a good question (it’s one I’ve been very interested in of late), and Huffington acknowledged it as such. She said something about how it was important to maintain integrity, but there was certainly some interest in maintaining interest. That balance is a really important one for any medium, for any journalist. Is it pandering to listen to your audience? It’s certainly not a good thing if you are listening to your advertisers, but in some ways, your advertisers shape who you listen to. In the mass media era, advertisers required a mass audience, and a mass audience was only obtainable through least objectionable reporting, or “objectivity,” or “balance,” depending on who you ask. In an era of networked media, the contrary seems true: you don’t reach audiences without being objectionable. If you look at “dugg” or “slashdotted” or other flash croweded posts, it is unlikely that they will be non-controversial. Attention whoring works because people are paying. Which reminds me, I need to get AdWords back up on my site.
I’ve passed over a lot. There were mentions of bloggers picking at the carcass of the New York Times and counter-claims that the New York Times is less than the paragon it might have once been, especially given their extremely weak–possibly complicit–reporting on the build-up to the Iraq war. This was a group at home in front of an audience, who also has spent some time at the front lines, and it was an interesting discussion for it. Just wish they could have done it backwards–they spent a bit of time wading through truisms before starting to touch on the meatier questions.