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

Nothin g like atypweriter From 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.