Friday, March 15th, 2013

We Should Have Killed These Internet Pioneers Back In the 1990s

Nothin g like atypweriterFrom time to time, The Awl offers its space to everyday citizens with something to say.

I am a newspaperman. Before my freelancing days, my business card had the name of my paper, and under that it said my own name, and then: "Staff Writer." These days, I'm barely getting by as a freelancer, and my business card has a little graphic of a quill by my name.

I often think about how different the media landscape would be if newspapers had invested in killing off the "Web content" people once they became a clear danger to journalism.

Assassination is a nasty business, and I am against it. Still, you don't hear anyone crying over killed tumor cells when a patient is treated for cancer. Instead, people say "Thanks" to the doctors. Perhaps we would be saying "Thanks" to the newspaper publishers who were tough enough to confront a threat that would eventually destroy our industry.

As we hear of yet another newspaper closure this week, it's hard not to think about where journalism would be if all these blogging pioneers and online entrepreneurs had been painlessly poisoned or strangled before readers and advertisers were bamboozled into thinking digital was the next big thing. I have done some research and it appears that the first of these "newspaper killers" appeared in the wake of 9/11. (Coincidence?)

We were all fed a lot of false hopes when all this started, 10 years ago. A consultant came to our newsroom and told us how exciting it would be to use digital tools. We could even search for court records online, right from our desks! Of course the courthouse in my mid-sized market did not have a website until after the paper itself went out of business in 2009.

What did occur is that we were all asked to write more articles for the same money. I always had good productivity and averaged three or four articles per week, plus sometimes a feature for the Sunday paper. But once we entered the digital age, I was also expected to do blogs each weekday.

"Just some light thoughts, a little something extra," the new website editor told us. Yes, the new website editor was the age of my daughter in college, but being a journalist means keeping an open mind. I tried to dash off some quick thoughts for the daily blogs. And then they complained that it did not have content for Google editors to put on their website.

I asked the website editor, "Am I working for Google or for the Tri-City Herald?"

He just laughed and said I didn't understand. Well, I understand now: All of these people should have been killed a long time ago. The chain that owned my paper had a double-digit profit margin in the 1990s. There are a lot of unemployed military veterans, mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq, and these folks really don't know how to do much more than kill people. Why did we not quietly organize these veterans to save our papers and the communities?

Why, today I found an article in the paper saying that GroupOn, a successful coupon service that allows people to print out newspaper-style coupons, would save our local papers. The headline was, "GroupOn: Can It Save Journalism?" I think we can all agree it did not save journalism.

Now I hear from my daughter that there are other new websites supposedly made to save journalism. She showed me one where she applied for an internship. It is all "buzz this" and "buzz that" with photographs of diarrhea accidents and hurt animals. Who is reading this garbage? Certainly not anyone looking for news on the town council or whether that new Multi Purpose Room at the middle school is ever going to be completed. Another thing is I cannot even find the advertisements on these new websites. They are all mixed up, so a "news story" is a display ad, but the display ad is not about the product. The pictures are nearly identical whether it is an ad or editorial: mostly singers with their cleavage in your face.

The newspaper in Boston may have only been a free weekly, but at this point all papers are worth saving. The problem is that we're too late. Now the website consultants are a whole industry unto themselves. But this would not be the case had they been quietly taken out a decade ago.

The job of a journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It is too bad we let our guard down and let these metrosexuals stomp all over the heart of our democracy.

Photo by Gualtiero Boffi via Shutterstock.

24 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#1,720)

If only drones had been invented ten years sooner. Perhaps if there were some way to send a heartless killing robot back in time to fix this problem before it even began….

ericdeamer (#945)

Would it be gauche to ask what particular inside-the-media-bubble kerfuffle or stupid column or whatever this is referring to? Also, is it bad that I find this character totally sympathetic and relatable and agree with his argument?

libmas (#231)

@ericdeamer I know, right? Remember when people made fun of USA Today for dumbing down the news? Also, I think he's referring to yesterday's news that the Boston Phoenix is shutting down.

@libmas We're just going to run this piece every day, but in reverse time, so it's published retroactively since day one.

libmas (#231)

@Choire Sicha@facebook Sorry, I'm a little twitchy here – my business card still looks like his used to, and the Phoenix was one of three weeklies besides mine with over 100K circulation.

jolie (#16)

@ericdeamer: Since I forced myself to apologize after a comment on the last one of these brought out my inner bitch (SPOLER: It's not hard to do!) I mean this nicely and as a service to you: the tags on these sorts of things are generally an important part of the experience.

ericdeamer (#945)

@jolie oh cool thanks. I always forget that. And I actually did know about the Boston Phoenix thing so I feel smart!

SkinnyNerd (#224,784)

I love this guy (even though he is not real – even though he is).

Lou Grant?

Max Clarke (#3,635)

"Perhaps we would be saying 'Thanks' to the newspaper publishers who were tough enough to confront a threat that would eventually destroy our industry."

Wait, this guy thinks that newspaper publishers AREN'T the ones who destroyed the industry?

jolie (#16)

(No joke, when I saw this thing shared on Facebook I thought it was going to be a LW/OC that included, like, Anil Dash, Heather Armstrong and Choire Sicha.)

Moff (#28)

I have said it before and will say it again, speaking as someone who was in j-school right when the internet started to go mainstream:

Newspapers knew it was coming. And they convinced themselves that things would magically be OK.

jolie (#16)

@Moff Newspapers are much like Detroit, in this way.

libmas (#231)

@jolie Does that mean the government will bail us out?

Clay Shirky@twitter (#241,483)

@libmas No.

You fired all your blue collar workers already, so everybody else losing their jobs won't affect the employment numbers much, nor will it move the needle on voter appreciation, since newspapers aren't geographically concentrated like the auto industry, and since much of the general public has a diffuse but easily activated hatred of "the media".

And +1 to Moff. Newspapers saw the web coming a mile off.

What they didn't understand was that the American people have never paid full freight for the reporting done in our name, while advertisers have never been partners in the enterprise. They were just paying for a timeshare on the presses and trucks.

And once the web came along and no one needed either presses or trucks anymore, well, off go the advertisers, while the public is all like "No fucking way am I paying for the news", except for about 3% of them.

gc (#242,418)

Q. The first of these "newspaper killers" appeared in the wake of 9/11. (Coincidence?)

A. 9/11 changed it all. Do not blame those who hopped in to fill in the gap, trying to get the news out as quickly as possible, for better timely responses. The need to keep tight control on news outlets in times of war on the other hand turn people in other directions to look for alternative sources of news. Yes, too bad some are just trying to profit from web contents retrieved from other people's works, but they are not the reason why news media have been getting the blows and dents.

@gc Speaking of diarrhea accidents.

Remy Marathe (#242,419)

I cannot tell you how moving it was for me to scroll through these comments and not see a single "That's how things are now, move on" or "Google is saving the world, you just don't get it". Please tell me that some of you are younger than 50.

jolie (#16)

@Remy Marathe We're all younger than 50. (Actually? Maybe not Balk & Choire anymore? Who can keep track.) It's just that … well? I could tell you, but then I'd have to apologize to you.

scrooge (#2,697)

@Remy Marathe Aha! A Wheelchair Assassin? Just what the author ordered.

P.J. Morse (#232,627)

@Remy Marathe I'm younger than 50. And I feel bad because I was a blogger after 9/11, and I'm the sort who contributed to the end of journalism. I changed careers, though, because modern journalism isn't even good to a lowly blogger.

I seriously want to smack this guy's web editor, who asked for "a little something extra." BS. If the editor asks for something extra, the writer should get paid for it. Grrr … It's still work, whether it's on the web or in print. Journalism is now all about "a little something extra" …

jolie (#16)

@P.J. Morse Just a friendly note to let you know that "this guy" and "this guy's web editor" are not actually people who exist.

Related: The Awl might want to consider doing away with this series, since the current readership seems unable to understand its intent.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

Satirical, but to the point of trolling, so I don't know.
Over 50. Way over. I stopped reading newspapers around 1980, threw out (literally) the TV. The less you see and hear about what they want you to think, the better off you'll be. Maybe. Possibly people would pay for news if it was actually news. (That is, facts they didn't already know.) Grump grump.

Barry Grant (#239,287)

My only hope is that some new whatzit will come along and destroy know-nothing bloggers, in the same way that Amazon dispatched Barnes & Noble, after B&N dispatched so many local booksellers.

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