Absolution? Hell, no

sarducciovalThe good Reverend David Carr grants us absolution. “So whose fault is it?” he asks after chronicling the excommunication of newspapers and magazines from media companies casting off their old, print ancestors to starve and die. “No one’s,” Carr decrees.

Not so fast, preacher. It is our fault. Who else could be at fault? We journalists, publishers, and journalism schools have turned out to be irresponsible stewards of journalism. We squandered our trust and our cash flow. This was was our institution to nurture and protect and Carr says it’s all but dead.

Wait a minute, Father David. That depends on what you define as our institution. He sees it as print. Well, hell, I’ve spent years now begging my journalistic coreligionists to stop defining themselves by their medium — by their means of production and distribution — otherwise they’d all end up just where they are today: the baby swirling down the drain with the holy water.

But there was good news for media companies this weekend, wasn’t there? BuzzFeed got a $50 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz. I thought venture capitalists didn’t invest in content because it has cooties, no? But its new board member, Chris Dixon, says that’s because BuzzFeed’s not a media company. “We think of BuzzFeed as more of a technology company.”

cat baptismWell, hold on, you moneychanger in the temple, you (and mind you, sir, we’re glad to have you here; please make yourself at home). BuzzFeed is still a mass media company because it still operates by mass-media economics based on volume: the more people it can tempt into its harem with the siren call of its cats, the more people it can serve to advertisers (no matter what it calls its advertising). It is a last-gasp, clever (some might say cynical) exploitation of those old-media ways, grabbing the last dollars from the cold, dead hands of Carr’s congregation. It is the newest old-media company.

But I have faith that BuzzFeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti, can invent his way out of this — that’s why Andreessen Horowitz is not nuts to invest in him. He can use the cash flow the old ways bring him to invent something new. But he hasn’t yet. And that’s the point: There’s still time. Old media companies still have cash flow they, too, should be using to reinvent themselves.

But Brother Carr has renounced his vows right from inside the old scriptorium. Fucking Gutenberg. “Nothing is wrong in a fundamental sense,” he writes. “A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time. Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.” Or how about asking Netflix?

No, market forces are not an excuse for fatalism and ultimately suicide. Market forces are an opportunity for — forgive me, for I do know I’m getting carried away with this religion thing — resurrection. There is still time as no one has yet challenged all our old-media assumptions about content and print and reinvented journalism as what it should be.

I’ve warned you that I’m about done with a 55,000-word tome about that reinvention. I’ll give you the tl;dr now: Journalism needs to rebuild itself as a service to individuals and communities, which requires having relationships with them as people, not a mass, helping them reach their own goals in new ways — not just with content — and sustaining this work with business models built on value over volume.

That’s not what newspapers — even the digital-first among them — are yet. That’s not what BuzzFeed or Huffington Post or Business Insider or Vox is … yet. I don’t know what that is yet (thus my tome is no prophecy) but I suggest a few paths to the promised land.

At the end of his eulogy, Carr writes: “It’s a measure of the basic problem that many people haven’t cared or noticed as their hometown newspapers have reduced staffing, days of circulation, delivery and coverage. Will they notice or care when those newspapers go away altogether? I’m not optimistic about that.” Ah, but it’s a poor shepherd who blames his sheep.

So I’ll end this as good sermons should, with a charge to the congregation: Go forth and figure it out, people. Stop whining. Stop looking for excuses and forgiveness. Stop giving up. Your flock needs informing. Go find new ways to do that. And I don’t want to see your prodigal asses back in these pews until you do. That goes for us in the seminary, too.


  • Allen

    It’s always too early to quit, they say. Many thanks for the reminder.

  • joshjude

    Someone should check out U.S. News. They’re an 80-year-old media company, but seem to be doing just fine. Looks like they’re hiring people all the time. What are they doing differently?

  • makebate

    This exhortation for finding a new audience assumes that 1) said audience cares more about news than what Kimye had for dinner, and 2) they will pay for this information. None of that is a given. “Journalism” or its modern facsimile is quickly devolving into bullet-pointed lists, easy-to-get cop news, restaurant reviews and slideshows of comely young people examining their navels by the pool. Is that the higher calling of journalism?

    • First, we never paid for our journalism; it was always subsidized. Second, the reason, again, that we end up with traffic whoring is because we’re still chasing volume — mass media — as a model rather than value — service.

  • JasonL

    Advertising is broken on the web. A radio station with a cume of 500,000 people can do quite nicely, but 500,000 uniques on a site can’t drive the same ad revenue because advertisers don’t value it the same. Between ad fraud, bots, automated aggregation, and aggregator theft of heads and first lines in stories, you need gobs and gobs of uniques to get the same customer responsive energy to ads that radio, TV and print have. Citizen journalism, open source reporting, cool new apps, etc. don’t do anything to make the ads work better for the advertiser. In a way it’s like trying to run a construction business in the mafia run part of town. You can try to figure out nifty techniques to drum up more business to make up for what you lose to payments to the mafia… or you can get rid of the mafia. Until there’s a crackdown on ad fraud, until Google, Yahoo and other aggregators are forced to have to pay royalties for using heads and first lines, and until ISPs cooperate and crack down on piracy, the news will come up short driving revenue.

    • Yes, what I argue is wrong is that we’re trying to replicate mass-media models in an entirely new medium that doesn’t do mass.

      • JasonL

        We seem to be talking about two different things. Many years ago a sales manager at a radio station once told me, “if music programmers (people on the content side) ran sales, media would die very quickly.” Meaning, that content people say everything’s working, purely when people are attracted to the content; sales people say it works when the station can help an advertiser sell a car.” I see you, Gillmor, Rosen and others to be very big on the attraction side of the equation. I don’t see a lot of discussion on how new news media models are going to sell cars. That’s the real question. I think it’s an absolutely huge assumption that casual speech, which is the content of social media, can be commercialized like it can be with prepared presentations. No matter how personal and interactive, Jeff, this comments section in your blog is never going to sell a car. Which is one reason why ESPN gave up on managing it’s large and passionate comments platform and brought in Facebook. Couldn’t monetize it. Until artificial intelligence is invented so that ads are placed in front of me whenever I have a need for the product, the entirely new medium isn’t exactly new.

        • Well, we can sure get a lot closer to pitching the right car to the right person (if not at the right time) than we can with mass media. We haven’t even begun to try yet.

  • KilianMetcalf

    Shouldn’t a responsible person give credit for the image of Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello) somewhere on the page? I wonder if he had permission to use this image?

    • Kilian: I linked to his site from the image.

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