Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A response to Alex Jones, author of "Losing the News".

I just listened to "Fresh Air" from yesterday, August 18, 2009. In that episode Alex Jones, a small newspaper owner and Pulitzer Prize winning reporter is featured. He was on the show to promote his new book "Losing the News." The idea behind his book is that within the next few years, unless something drastic is done, The News as we know it will cease to exist. It will be replaced by a field of opinion-based commentary, with no objectivity in sight. My question: "What's wrong with that?"
Many commentators and industry pundits these days are fretting over the loss of the "News Industry" and laying the blame at the feet of the Internet. These people believe that the Internet has 'taken' their paying customers away. That's simply not true. After all, no new market can form where the old one is doing its job. No, the internet simply presented the opportunity for the new market to provide what the old media refused to (or didn't want to) for decades. What, then did the internet provide? Why is the internet taking over the business of distributing news?
I'd like to start somewhere besides the old and tired argument of it's FREE, but since that's almost impossible, I'll just debunk that argument as I address three examples -- much like Mr. Jones does in his book. Let's take a look at "The Wall Street Journal", a reporter and investigator of financial news; "The Huffington Post", an aggregator of already reported news with commentary (who recently added an investigative branch); and "The Onion", a creator and aggregator of original fictitious news, with commentary. Each of these outlets represent one of Mr. Jones arguments, and their success belies any argument. To be fair, he admits that Pay Walls are not the answer. He uses the already tired cliche of "The genie is out of the bottle on that one." And he freely admits that he doesn't know how to prevent the dismal future of news which so many see on the horizon. Well, and here's my chance to dredge up a bad cliche, far be it from me to assume that I can out think a news paper owner, and Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, but I know exactly what the News Industry needs to stay solvent. I think that Mr. Jones may too, but doesn't want to admit it. As Shunryu Suzuki put it: “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." So What is the answer? A few quick examples will point us right to it.
First the rise and fall, and rise? of the blog. In the mid 1990's the blog was hands-down the most popular way to get information on the web. Blogs first began to eat away at the mainstream media from day one. From political and lifestyle blogs to classified ads, every form of media was under attack by this new form of news aggregation. They became popular because they were everything that the talking heads on TV weren't. They were politically polarized, opinionated and approachable. No one ever really met or talked to the bloggers at "Drudge" or "KOS", so really, they could be your neighbors. Once comments became the norm, the traditional news media seemed to be old and stodgy, handing out the only acceptable truth from on-high, never to be questioned. But the blog began to fail... (But, Jason you said it was coming back!) Trust me, I'm going somewhere with this, and if you follow, I think you see the same answer I did, in the same way.
We'll come back to the internet in just a moment, but it is very important to note that while the bloggers were fully ignoring the mainstream media, (All of it remember -- from music and movies, to TV and news declined in the past decade) the mainstream media noticed something was amiss. Panic set in. Hirings, firings, re-hirings! Then, amidst all the panic, the idea that news needed to be masked in objectivity began to fall away. News networks began to take sides, slowly at first, and later, without regard to the consequences. Ratings began to soar again. People wanted to see their reporters red-faced with anger over the same issues they held dear. It was (*sigh*) The Beginning Of The End.
Meanwhile back at the Internet: The popularity of the blog has fallen to an all-time low. The early bloggers who chided the Live Journal users were now themselves the target of ridicule. "Oh! You've got a blog? So what's your cat's name?" But those days are coming to an end. Blogs lost popularity to the social web because people could spend less time reading other's opinion and more time telling everyone about their own. Blogs became passe because most people realized that no one cared what they had to say. The social web, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter led people to believe that that all of those followers and friends were actually reading what you write. -- Sorry kid, Calacanis really doesn't care that you have ten iBook 12-inchers ready to go in case of emergency. And out of the fringes of the tech world, the weekly blog post is starting to take hold once again. Any douche with an iPhone a G1 can use twitteroid and have the appearance of being connected to their fans, but more and more the demand of attention is swaying back towards waiting for that one glowing post from 'your friend' that fills in the blanks left by: "OK, am back with organic tomato. I'll have to burn this shirt. also, what is best detergent for smell of burnt flesh?"
OK, so what's the moral of this story? I promised you an answer -- Here it is. What has been the failure of all successful ventures since the dawn of man? Moderation. A happy medium. Mr. Jones, remember him, seems to be on the right track. He has seen the success of Hyper-Local. Those ultimate news geeks who act as the CSPAN for Hackensack New Jersey. But he dismisses the likes of O'Reilly and Olberman who take the facts they like and use them to beat the opposition over the head. The happy medium, and the answer, is the type of thing you get with Colbert and Stewart. They are funny, adhere to a strict form of integrity and are immensely entertaining. Every state could have a Colbert or Stewart, (or some actually-right-leaning-ne'er-do-well) every city an Onion -- with a boring "Actual News" section. Or vice/versa if you prefer. We are given a perfect example from this week's politics on health care reform:
I can scream at the top of my lungs all day that the White House and Congress haven't passed a reform bill, and no one will listen. But if I say that they haven't passed a bill, and it's Rush Limbuagh's fault, It'll open a can of angry bees.
I'll finish with what I think is the most expansive and soul-searching statement that the News Industry could ever hear, and I'm proud to say that its uttered here first. It comes down to this: Information is free. Objectivity is overpriced. The Business of the News is no longer just to present us with the information, it is to entertain us with the facts.

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