David Carr's delightfully sadistic evisceration of Sam Zell and the toxic-waste disaster that is today's Tribune Company left me ranting loudly from the kitchen while my wife tried to work in our home office. “Why do you still get so worked up about media?” she asked. “Why do you even bother?”
A fair question, to which I finally developed a two-part answer late in the day: 1. Because apparently I'm still not "over" media, or at least my belief in what media could be; and 2. Because the future of our society is just too damned important to consign its fate forever to the Zells of the world.
Of course, if the problem were only the Zells out there, the solution would be a lot easier. The truth of the matter is that the biggest obstacles to meaningful reform include many of the most well-meaning “good-guys” in the New Media game. Facing opposition from your enemies is bracing. It's the dysfunctional enabling behavior of your friends that really knocks you off your bar stool.
So let's re-state some simple truths as plainly as possible in the sharp autumn light of 2010, and take it from there.
- News-media “innovations” that don't present a sustainable and fundamentally different approach to our traditional advertising-subsidized valuation of information are not innovations. Doesn't matter who endorses them. Doesn't matter who funds them. They are status quo failures waiting to happen, and no matter how clever, they are doomed by sensitivity to initial conditions.
- Twenty-first century American democracy is in sorry shape largely because its new realities cannot be effectively mediated or communicated by mid-20th century press theories. And if you want to change that, the place to begin isn't on the campaign bus, or the newsroom, but in software and finance. We need a new theory of the press that makes use of advanced informational tools, and we need a funding system that produces value beyond the rates advertisers pay to rent your attention. Anything short of that has already been compromised.
- The foundational condition of the information economy used to be scarcity. Today it is glut. You cannot solve the problems of glut by making more stuff, or by making cheaper stuff.
- If your primary mode of communication for news and important information is narrative, then the sum of the value you create will never be anything but transient, subjective and ephemeral. Its quality and craft may create marginal value in terms of attention, but this is no longer a good business model. You can get more attention with pictures of naked celebrities, and without an alternative to traditional news media economics, this is eventually what you'll be reduced to publishing.
- If you wish to establish a bright line between a “professional” press and everybody else who creates and conducts journalism, then you must create specific standards. “Professionalism” and “integrity” are not specifications. They are goals. And if today's journalists want to be treated like professionals, they must stop equivocating and accept a standards-based approach. There is no way forward without professional standards of process, presentation, transparency and feedback.
- The institutions that have represented the alleged values of the traditional press since the mid-20th century are no longer credible guardians of our trust. With few exceptions, they are funded by for-profit media corporations, and as we continue to learn from the The Great Paywall Debacle of 2009-10, they have been more than willing to fix the facts around their masters' desired outcomes.
- Academia is in even worse shape than the industry, if that's possible. The collapse of the Old Media economy exposed the dirty secret of journalism schools, which is that they've never been anything but efficient mills for producing entry-level reporters and copy editors. There is no intellectual basis for journalism as an academic subject at most colleges and universities, just the demands of employers. Now that "the old verities" are leaking oil, our J Schools are in a quorum-sensing panic. As a result, our professors are trying to position themselves as “on the cutting edge,” while taking great pains to avoid appearing too “out there.” In other words, our academic emperors have been revealed as naked, and are now attempting to clothe themselves by holding imaginary fashion shows.
Why did anyone from the news media give Zell the benefit of the doubt? Because we are standing on an eroding beach, and anyone or anything that appears to have a solid position looks good in comparison. Giving arrogant outsiders with money a chance to remake the Tribune Company seemed reasonable to corporate-funded editors and publishers and foundations and bloggers and professors, because all of them, whether they admit it or not, earn their paychecks directly or indirectly off the largess of corporations that exist to satisfy stockholders. Any continuing relationship they hold to the First Amendment is purely coincidental.
We are past the point of happy endings, beyond the hope of half measures, and we know too much now to keep accepting the smugly reasonable advice of the Old Order's deeply conflicted spokespeople.
It's time to stop talking about saving the news media, reforming the news media, or even politely waiting for these old companies to die a dignified death. It is 2010, and we have come not to praise these evil little empires, but to blow them the fuck up.
Tick, tick, tick...
Attention critics. Before you declare that this piece doesn't offer any solutions, go here. The truth is, nobody in the industry gives a damn about any solution that requires fundamental change.
Oct. 8 note: Mark Coddington at Nieman Lab called this post "quite the righteous-anger-fueled rant." Well, it's not a "rant." In media world, you call any form of persuasive speech you want to diminish a "rant." And for the record, I don't call myself a "new media analyst." I call myself a bike mechanic. And the reason I fix bikes for a living so that I don't have to be beholden to the whims, posturing and popularity contests that pass for "new media analysis" these days. The problem is, once you've recognized that it's over, where is there to go? And so they blather on, covering the decomposition of this decaying corpse as if it might just bound up and start doing something interesting at any moment.