Saturday, October 22, 2005

Weeping for the Lost Cause

The advent of the Internet Age, and its attendant explosion of online media sources and blogs, has shaken the journalism priesthood to its core. Having enjoyed a monopoly on the "public discourse" of the nation for several decades, only to see it crack and crumble since the late Nineties, many are pining for the days when they could shape the national debate and tell people what to think about the topics they chose to present. You see a lot of older media types lash out at the internet in the same way Frank Sinatra once lashed out at Elvis Presley and rock'n'roll.

It is now what it was then: People used to power not being able to handle the shifting sands beneath them and getting angry about it.

It was particularly saddening to me to see John Branston of the Memphis Flyer fall into this category. John has tremendous potential, especially in the new media environment, to "talk truth to power." He clearly works hard and know a lot more than he writes. The old media format, with its self-imposed rules and need to protect itself, pretty clearly constrains him. I had high hopes that one day Branston would throw off the shackles of his oppressor and cut loose, but upon reading this lament for a lost age, I understand some things about his writing a bit better.

Let's go through this whole thing, shall we?
Newspapers are in trouble. From New York to Memphis to Los Angeles, they're losing advertisers and readers and cutting their budgets and their staffs.
What's your point here? This is what happens any time an industry undergoes transformation. It happened in the steel industry, it's happening in the auto and airline industries, it happened after the tech boom bubble burst, and now it's happening to you. Rather than whine, look at their resposnes and learn from them.
The problem, we have decided, is the Internet. Young people spend way more time on computers than they do holding newspapers. So newspapers are putting their content on line and trying to figure out how to get advertisers and even readers to pay for it.
You skipped a step here:television. Newspapers move at the speed of the printing press. Once upon a time, they would print multiple editions throughout the day to keep up with unfolding events.

Then came television, which could bring events to you live, as they happened, or shortly thereafter. The speed of response is what changed, but newspapers still had an edge in that they could devote a lot more time to details and analysis than television ever could. Television adapted by bringing in the talking head, to do analysis on the spot.

The internet simply ups the speed of response cycle by another order of magnitude. It also allows any number of experts and analysts to enter the argument. You no longer have to depend on impressing a reporter or television producer in order to get into the debate. You can insert yourself.

Readers need only find and choose whatever aggregator sites they like (as Flyer editor Bruce Van Wyngarden recently pointed out) in order to get access to those opinions. Places like FreeRepublic, Daily Kos, Instapundit, Democratic Underground, Slashdot are but a few; you can likely add quite a few more places to this list of top-tier sites that pull news bubbling up from lower down in the Internet.

That's how it works now. We no longer have to depend on newspapers or television news to notice these things and present them to us. Dozens of sites scour the daily scene constantly. If something interesting shows up, it gets picked up by more and more sites until the story reaches critical mass. If you tap into just a few of the right sources, then you too get your own access. You can decide what to look for and read, rather than depending on someone else to decide for you.

Or decide against you. Talk radio became a phenomenon for two simple reasons: a large group of people felt they had no voice in the nation, or local, debate. They felt their opinions were shut out, derided and denigrated, and that the people charged with giving them the news of the day were also inserting their opinions of those events into the news, but not allowing differing opinions to do the same.

Talk radio also let people talk for themselves, ask their own questions, and set their own agendas. It bypassed the filters of the major news and media sources -- the mainstream media -- to allow through what wasn't heard before. Sure, a lot of it was just people talking about other people, gossip and rumor, but that's the very fabric that a community is woven from.

Where before only a relative handful of people controlled the choice of fabric and had their hands on the controls of the spinning looms, now anyone who could get to the Internet was a weaver. New marketplaces sprang up so like-minded people could find each other. New channels of information flow were carved. The landscape changed.
The funny thing is, if the printed newspaper had been invented as an improvement to the online newspaper, people would recognize its advantages.
Sorry, John, no wishful thinking allowed. The online newspaper, or the public forum, or the blog, came afterward. And people did recognise its advantages immediately. Hence the revolution.
Such as:

Newspapers respect your privacy. When you read a newspaper online you get pop-up ads and cookies that tell strangers where you go and what your interests are. What you read in the paper is your own damn business.
Except that its the newspaper themselves who insert the pop-ups and cookies! Blame yourself.

John neglects, although he just may not know, that there is a simple solution to this problem anyway. Just use the Firefox browser. It has all sorts of tools in it that effectively block pop-ups and other advertising, control what cookies are set, and otherwise give you just the kind of power you'd want. Very easy; very effective. People who go online should use Firefox the same way we use the remote on our televisions, the locks on our cars and bikes, the headphones on our iPods.
The printed newspaper is a perfect information delivery system. It is ideally suited to taking to bed, the kitchen, the coffee shop, or the bathroom. You can pick and choose what to read and when to read it. You can tear out articles and ads you want to save or give to someone or leave on your dresser or in your pants pocket.
Once upon a time, you could only read the printed paper if you had daylight, or enough candles.

OK, as a lifelong lover of reading, I have to give John a bit of the benefit here. There is something definitely appealling on a basic tactile level about a book or paper. But I suspect that's largely a matter of cultural training and a lifetime of regular use. The laptop and the e-book aren't there yet, but I doubt it will take hundreds of years for technology to catch up and adapt as it did with printed papers and lightbulbs.

As for "picking and choosing," what does John think the hyperlink and the navbar are? That they don't perform as we'd like is a lot less to do with the design and a whole lot more to do with the implementation. Go to most newspaper sites (especially the Flyer and the Commercial Appeal and you'll find advertising crowding out most of the navigational aids, which tend to be crammed into odd spaces.

Clear organisation helps. After all these years, the CA website's organisation still doesn't align with the printed version. A story I find in the "Great Memphis" section of the printed version may be God knows where online. I know, because I've tried to find stories dozens of times only to give up in frustration.

Of course, there's implementation too. There are lots of tools web developers can use, but you have to actually use them, day in and day out for them to work. The hover-text which appears when you place your cursor over a particular phrase or link is one example. It seems to be too annoying and extra work for most website operators to use regularly. Most news sites just don't seem to take full advantage of what's possible.
Anyone who tells you they're reading a newspaper on a cell phone is lying. At most, they're glancing at headlines. It's hard enough to read a newspaper on a laptop computer screen much less a desktop. You can take a laptop to the bathroom, but that's uncouth. Bathrooms and newspapers, on the other hand, were made for each other.
Please. Early cars were a real hassle to drive, I'm sure; and horses made much greater sense and ease for most. But technology caught up, the landscape was changed, and the culture changed by with and by it. I think today very few people would trade their cars for a horse and buggy.

John is looking backwards, rather than looking forwards. Always a deadly sign.

As for "glancing at headlines," I suspect that's what most people are doing with his paper. Why else could USA Today be so popular? It's why we take papers to the bathroom. We don't have to make a big committment of time and attention to what we're reading. We can skim and jump all we want as we take care of our real business.

As for laptops vs newspapers? It's only a question of design, which will come soon enough. Although... the other most common bathroom reading (at least for men) is the skin mag. I really don't want to have to think about those design issues.
If you don't have broadband, it takes a long time to load stories, and there is always the possibility that your computer will crash or lock up, especially if the story has a lot of pictures. Newspapers get wet but they don't crash. I can only remember two times in the last 24 years when my daily newspaper was not delivered to my driveway or front door.
Again, John is trying to create a false problem here. The only reason online newspapers take so long to download and cause crashes is because of the people who design and implement them! Sites that have lots of flashy graphics, moving graphics, lots of images, lots of calls to other sites that serve up ads, and bad table design are the problem. It can be easily fixed, too, with good design and an awareness of what kind of computers their customers might be using.

Laying out a page on a powerful, muscular computer -- lots of processing power, graphics cards -- hooked up to fat T-1 lines is easy. Being mindful of the many in your customer base who are using older computers on dialup is harder. I can't tell you how many times I had to give up on waiting for the CA site to finish loading before I started using tools like Flashblock and Adblock in my Firefox browser. Now, it's manageable.

Same for television news sites that demand their readers have a particular and recently updated version of some video software, rather than offering platform-independent software in more than one flavor. For example, I had to give up on WMC/5 because they always only use Microsoft Windows Media Player for their video. It had to be a particular version. They had no choice for Real Media or Quicktime users. So, I didn't bother with them.

Bad design. Their problem, and not mine.
The newspapers you carry around or leave on your coffee table or desk make a statement about the kind of person you are. A computer or BlackBerry makes a statement about what you can buy.
Newspaper as status object? This is John's compelling reason to have a print newspaper? His argument is specious anyway, since anything you buy, or choose to buy, is a statement of who you are.
You can read a newspaper and talk about it with the people you live with as a morning ritual. It's a communal experience. Gazing at a computer is a personal experience.
So is watching television, which he again neglects to mention. Bias? John? Nah, I'm sure.

Besides, everyone has to first have their "personal" experience with the paper before they can then share in the "communal" experience, no? Television morning show watching is an automatic group experience, which everyone in the family can share -- or not -- as they wish.

Did John just argue that newspapers help build families? How very family-values of him. Watch out for the People's Committee on Proper Thought coming your way.

This next paragraph is such a howler, I have to take it line by line.
The printed newspaper is morally superior to the computer.
John is really going to argue the morality of technology? His cause is surely lost.
General circulation newspapers don't have porno in them.
But your paper does, John. Lots of it. Used to have lots of swearing in it, too.

Do you really want to get into the censorship that daily newspapers practice? Because that's exactly what it is. Practicing censorship to pander to advertisers afraid of complaints from customers who see their ads next to porn in their papers. Selecting who can buy ad space, and where those ads can be placed -- and denying ads or articles based on perceived content -- is censorship.

Go ahead John. Submit a story some time with detailed, graphic descriptions of violence or sexuality. See if it gets published. Insist the descriptions are vital to the story, and the story is vital to the public's right to know. See how far you get. Or submit a story that names names and details the political shenanigans you know about. Will it see print? That's censorship. And your paper practices it, buddy.
You have a better chance of influencing your children to read, stay informed, and think about current events with a newspaper than a computer.
What research is that based on? A child has to see someone in their household using a paper before they'll be interesting in using it themselves. And in Memphis, only around a third of the community read the CA and the Flyer combined.

Newspapers are highly selective and enormously self-referential in terms of the media environment. The CA still is haphazard about giving URLs in stories, and amazingly enough neither of the two major papers routinely include URLs that work as hyperlinks in their online stories! Fall into the CA or Flyer websites and you don't get referred out again; fall into most other online news sites, or blogs, and there are a plethora of links to other places.

One of the hallmarks of the blogosphere is linking to original sources. Most bloggers will include a link to the story they are talking about, and will generally link to documents they are referring to. Not so with the CA. I have complained endlessly that they don't have copies of indictments linked to stories they do on criminals and politicians. (They sporadically do it now.) When Mayor Herenton gave his famous Inauguaration / New Year's speech two years ago, NOT ONE LOCAL MEDIA OUTLET with a website bothered to have a transcript of the speech. And the CA, which had an audio copy of the speech, only hosted it and linked it after much abuse from Half-Bakered.

These are easy things, if time consuming, to do. And yet, television news and newspapers routinely don't do it. They filter the events they report, rather than both give reports and provide raw information for viewers and readers to check for themselves. It's a major part of why the internet is becoming a popular source.
The fact that the news is not about them is exactly the point -- there's a big world out there, kid, and it ain't all about you and your friends.
Except that the main daily is going in precisely that direction -- stories and pictures about their readers, flattering and pandering to them so they'll buy copies.
Newspapers have good manners. If you want to pester the crap out of your friends by telling them what you're reading or what some pretentious columnist is thinking even though they don't care, you have to buy several copies or print them on a copier and hand them out. By the time you do that you're out a few bucks and several minutes and your friends are probably off the hook. With a computer and e-mail, they don't have a chance.
What? This borders on the incoherent while also being somewhat delusional. Haven't you heard of the "delete" key, John? Or the email filter that sends certain email from certain folks unseen into the Trash folder?

While you're at it, call the television news stations and tell them to quit copying stories from the daily paper and then flogging them in my face. And tell your colleagues at the Flyer to quit mining the daily for fodder, too. Do your own damn work. Practice what you preach.
Newspapers are a bargain. That's especially true of this one, which is free, but it's also true of The Commercial Appeal, which is getting better, and The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, which have more information in them each day than most books. Those two newspapers charge for online content, as well they should. Value for value. Full access to The New York Times costs about $50 a year. A year of AOL and its idiotic promotions and features costs about $300.
The CA is getting better? Are we reading the same thing? Local news coverage is shrinking. State coverage is now almost non-existent. National stories are passed along from the New York Times and the Washington Post unexamined, but riddled with bias and error (witness Katrina coverage).

Besides, this is apples and oranges stuff. If I buy a CA subscription, I only get the narrow view of the world they choose to present. If I buy a subscription to AOL, or an even cheaper connection elsewhere, I can read every paper in every city in this country and most others around the world; plus I have unlimited access to whole libraries and institutions of knowledge from the beginning of time and every corner of the universe. You tell me which is cheaper and better value for money.

This last paragraph is another howler, so again we'll go line by line.
Finally, printed newspapers support working journalists.
Does John lament all the now-unemployed auto workers? Or would he rather pay a few thousand more for a car to bring them back? For that, I don't hear him crying for the buggy and buggy whip manufacturers, the stable builders, the horse breeders who all went under with the invention and popularisation of the car.

John is not arguing for something, but against change.
So what?, you say. Well, somebody has to gather information by going to meetings and interesting places and events and talking to people with different points of view.
The day is very soon to come when people will set up a camera at events like public meetings and just turn them on. The video will be stored online, accessible to anyone at any time. Others will then sift those videos for the important parts and bring them to attention. Other sites will bring attention to the sifters, and word will spread. Storage is dirt cheap and getting cheaper. Only cheap and widespread broadband is holding this back. But you look to nations like South Korea, where broadband is the norm, and this is what's happening.

Look at groups like Friends for our Riverfront. They used to have to beg for attention from the television news and newspapers. If they were lucky, they got a mention. If they didn't conflict with the news agenda, they might get favorable mention. Now, they have their own website, where they can get out their message in detail, unfiltered or unmediated. They can attend the important meetings with cameras and recorders, then present them online. They will, in essence, do more as interested amateurs than any professional media organisation ever will.
Somebody has to pay for that, and so far online advertising doesn't come close.
Early days, my friend. I doubt that anyone in the early days of cars foresaw the huge tire industry, or the interstate system. Instead, they likely complained about crappy roads and rough rides. It took visionaries to find and seize the opportunities, not carpers.

Part of the problem is technological, in that, once digitised, information is endlessly replicable, able to be copied, shared and spread for little or nothing. Newspapers take expensive printing presses to create. Websites only require a $200 dollar computer, or even a borrowed one. Once created, or digitised, information flows wherever it is sent.

But wherever there are eyeballs, there will be advertising, so I'm sure someone will figure this out soon enough. OhMyNews in Korea "employs" an army (nearly one thousand) of volunteer reporters to fill their site daily with news from everywhere -- from the hyperlocal to the international. It is a huge success. WKRN/2 in Nashville has just upturned the standard news paradigm to join the digital revolution by giving all their staff high-quality vidcams and laptops with editing software. More folks will be on the streets every day, looking for news.
Opinions and blogs and summaries of other people's work may be interesting, but they're not news. So go buy a paper.
Except that a huge percentage of the Flyer is nothing but someone's opinion! Reviews of books, music, movies, travel, restaurants, plays. All opinion. The new upfront section is stuff from columnists that are as much opinion as reporting. Mow your own lawn first, John, before telling others to.

The CA also runs a lot of opinion stuff, or things like sports, advertising and advice columns that's not news. There are also more feature writing articles that read like Oprah or Dateline NBC than real "reporting." More and more "articles" are just rewritten press releases or even articles written by promotional agencies and PR reps themselves and printed unaltered or unexamined! Is that what you're touting, John?

I should again point out that bloggers and most news comment sites link back to the original stories at their papers' websites. Half-Bakered routinely does this for Commercial Appeal and Flyer stories. Given that I'm read by people all over the state and nation, and that many of my readers take as truth that I "read the Memphis papers so you don't have to," I am actually adding to their readership! Blogs boost circulation, at least online.

On the other hand, the newspapers have rarely helped me. Whenever Half-Bakered gets mentioned, it's far more common that no URL is included. I can then see a lot of referrals in my logs from search engines. But even then, in my biggest newsprint story, where Jackson Baker called Half-Bakered the "best temporarily discontinued blog in Memphis" I only got a couple of dozen hits. Compare that to a mention from Bill Hobbs, where I can get up to a hundred, or even Instapundit, where I have gotten thousands! The flow is overwhelmingly one way -- from online to paper, and not the reverse. What does that tell you about the news appetites of our respective audiences?

John, you are just lamenting a fading industry that you aspired and trained to join in its heyday. You are a lot like the sons of steelworkers, expecting to have a lifelong job that paid all the bills and took care of your kids, only to have your world turned upside down when change happened.

Change is inevitable. Instead of crying for a past that isn't returning, figure out how to navigate the path opening up before you. Cancel the caterer for your pity party.

Get off your horse and go talk with the guy driving the Model T. It's in your best interest.

INSTANT UPDATE: Yes, I do realise that there are a few items in there that should be hyperlinked. The irony and hypocrisy is not lost on me. It took a lot longer to write this than I expected. I may go back later and fix it.

No comments: