Not Just Another Column About Blogging
What newspaper history says about newspaper future.
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 prophecy 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.
But instead of improving their product by deploying technology bloggers can't afford (yet), newspapers are devolving. Many are cutting staff. Daily newspapers are growing smaller and uglier, with no paper looking anywhere near as lovely as Joseph Pulitzer's New York Worldfrom the late 1800s. Comic strips have gotten so tiny you need a magnifying glass to read them. I'm fine with newspapers cutting back on stock tables, but they aren't adding something new to the package. Most newspapers claim they've shrunk their dimensions to combat steep increases in newsprint prices, but that's a lie.
What else do I want? I want a daily newspaper that looks as good as Vogue but smells like a cinnamon bun instead of perfume. I want smarter newspaper headlines. I want a Mike Royko in every daily newspaper. I want editorials signed by people, so I know who to yell at. I want newspapers to restore editorial cartoonists to their place of honor instead of eliminating them. To broaden the answer, I want the newsmagazines to give me a better reason to read them than remixes of the last four days' news cycle, and I want them to look like Harry N. Abrams' coffee-table books.
I want Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to straighten out the production problems at the Washington-area plant that prints the New York Times so it arrives on my doorstep more reliably. I also want more for my Times subscription than TimesSelect and its stingy 100 "free" searches a month from the archives, its News Tracker, and the paper's columnists.
And that's just for starters. If my fellow guild members want to save their jobs, they'd best meet my needs.
Afterthought: It should go without saying that the creative destruction Mr. Craig Newmark has wrought on the newspaper industry's $15 billion classified ad market with his good idea and a cluster of cheap computer servers illustrates the sort of dislocations in store for the editorial side of publications.
I'd also like a rare steak, a baked potato, and a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Does salad come with that? Send your newspaper wants and needs to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't tell me what you don't want. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)