Posts about curmudgeons

The church of the curmudgeon

Chris Hedges gives a sermon from his high-church pulpit decrying the devil internet. It’s not worth the effort to fisk but it is notable for bringing together every claptrap curmudgeonly cliche imaginable. As a museum piece, it is notable. But it is also wrong in so may ways. He says:

The decline of newspapers is about the rise of the corporate state, the loss of civic and public responsibility on the part of much of our entrepreneurial class and the intellectual poverty of our post-literate world, a world where information is conveyed primarily through rapidly moving images rather than print. All these forces have combined to strangle newspapers.

Oh, ferchrissakes. The decline of newspapers is about the irresponsible management of newspapers that did not take advantage of new opportunities and recognize new realities until it was too damned late. The corporate state he decries is exactly what is now suffering for its sins; see the billions in stock-market value lost. Post-literate? We’re reading more than ever. And I wonder whether rapidly moving images are somehow worse than merely moving images. To hell with talkies.

Sadly, he doesn’t stop:

The Internet will not save newspapers. So far, the really big advertisers have stayed away, either unsure of how to use the Internet or suspicious that it can’t match the viewer attention of older media.

That’s patently untrue and as out-of-date as everything else Hedges says. Big advertisers are all over the internet, but in a post-scarcity economy, they no longer have to pay the monopolistic prices of newspaper companies. You’d think Hedges might celebrate that, except that then he’d have to decide whom he hates more: news companies or the marketing companies that have supported them. Will the internet save newspapers? I don’t care. It’s journalism that matters to me. And the internet is doing wonders for journalism.

We live under the happy illusion that we can transfer news-gathering to the Internet.

Well, he’s right about the happy part. News alerady has come to the internet, where it is faster, more complete, more global, with more voices. Oh, why am I bothering? Oh, just one more:

Bloggers, unlike most established reporters, rarely admit errors.

I hope he corrects that gross and false generalization. But I doubt he will. Damned reporters.

A cure for curmudgeons

(recovered post; comments lost)

Yesterday, I was on a panel with Terry Heaton at the Public Radio News Directors’ annual confab in Washington. Topic: blogging. Terry and I were almost through with opening tap dances when a hotheaded curmudgeon in the third row interrupted — which is fine; we like conversation — to go on the attack and save the world from these horrible blog people. He spat out all the usual lines, including how terribly busy he is being a news director (his italics) and how this is such a nonsense and a bother. My favorite sputtering: “I have a job. Do you have jobs?”

To which the proper response should have been, “Go fug yourself.” But I didn’t say that. Nor did I complain about how rude it was of him to attack us when we took two days out of our lives and came to Washington — for free — to talk about this topic at their invitation. I’m tough. I can take it. This is hardly the first time I’ve heard everything he had to say (but he seemed so proud, as if he’d just thought it up himself; the only thing he didn’t say was that he didn’t want a citizen surgeon, either).

However, I also did not patiently respond to all his cliches. I have decided I’m not going to waste my time anymore with lazy, rude, self-important, self-delusional, intellectually dishonest, closed-minded curmudgeons who bark against the full moon of change. It has all been said before. I see no reason to waste my time, nor that of everyone else in the room. My new policy has been that I’m going to fight curmudgeonliness with curmudgeonliness. I told this fool that f he didn’t want to see the opportunities to do things in new ways, fine.

And then we proceeded with a very nice discussion of practical questions about blogging in news organizations, a discussion that continued later in the day. Everyone else I heard wanted to explore these new opportunities and had plenty of questions and doubts to deal with — as well they should — as well as experience to share; they welcomed change or at least know they couldn’t scare it away.

Meanwhile, the curmudgeon acted like a child sent to the corner and refused to look forward at the panel for the rest of the event. My goal was to get us past the growling as soon as possible and onto a substantive discussion. That is, I think, how to deal with curmudgeons. You can always find reasons not to do things. Then fine, don’t do them. Far more interesting and useful is to explore what might happen if you do them.

I did the same thing a week ago when I was called by a couple of consultants and one of them issued the usual yes-buts, such as, “Well, have you looked at the home page of YouTube, huh?” I said he was wasting my time — especially since I was, again, talking for free.

You see, the problem with curmudgeons and complainers is that its so easy for them hijack any discussion. For not to deal with their very grave concerns is to make you look careless. That’s the rhetorical trick: “You could be wrong, it could go wrong, answer me that!” And if you don’t? “Aha!”

Well, the hour is far too late and the state of the industry far, far too desperate to waste time with these sideshows. They had their time and the objections needed to be addressed in that time. But I haven’t heard fresh objections in a few years. What I want to hear instead is fresh ideas; we must have more of those.

So my advice is to set the ground rules for events and conversations such as these and stick to them. It might have helped the recent Australian-American Future of Media Summit that apparently descended into curmudgeonliness and “endless bloody whinging. Whinging about how journalism has standards and bloggers are all ‘just’ writing whatever they think.” Stilgherrian complains and then journalist Jonathan Este complains about the complaining. And then here’s one more. [links via a Jay Rosen tweet].

What a waste of time, of which there is so little to waste.

: LATER: Jay Rosen declared the war over in 2005 but he tweets: “I’ve since realized that they are each other’s ideal ‘other.’”

: MORE: I’m bringing this exchange with Jay Rosen out from the comments. He wrote:

Personally, I think the campaign to discredit and marginalize the curmudgeons is going just fine; and I do not intend to stop writing about them. As I’ve said before, the curmudgeon is a newsroom type, and the newsroom’s romance with this type has been a disaster. It is within the power of any living breathing thinking journalist not to conform to this type, not to “be” a curmudgeon. But when people do step into that role and go high curmudgeon on you, the performance should be discredited in any way that works. Could be smiling politely and reciting facts, or arguing back, or ignoring the provocation and moving on.

You have to persist, not only through the encounters like the one you write about here, but also through all the mini-lectures from all the well-meaning and usually quite intelligent, informed people who do the he said she said can’t we all get along the truth must be somewhere in the middle what extremists on both sides overlook we need to be more civil can’t we get beyond this now what a tired debate thing at you.

And I responded:

But, Jay, I’m not sure I do have to persist.

In campaign terms, Obama stopped arguing with Clinton when he knew she was vanquished. The question is: are the curmudgeon’s vanquished? Well, not while they’re in charge, perhaps. But they’re in charge of sinking ships and they’re helping sink them.

I suppose what you’re saying is that we should — we even have a duty to — grab their hands off the wheel and save the boat. What I’m saying is that I’m not at all sure that is worth the time and effort (and frustration) anymore.

Personally, this is why I left the corporation and went to teach and why I started a class in entrepreneurial journalism — to effect change outside these curmudgeon-run organizations. I also talk with and help organizations that are past the rule of the curmudgeons (starting with the Guardian). I find that more productive and ultimately helpful to the cause we’re both trying to serve than still taking the time to deal with the curmudgeons.

No, I think the time has come to abandon them to die. I’ll turn the hose and its precious water away from them to plants, new or old, that have a chance to survive. It’s triage time. Curmudgeons get tags on their toes.

Twilight of the curmudgeons

(this is a restored post; comments lost)

Jay Rosen has been worrying about curmudgeons. I’ve developed a different attitude. I try to just ignore them and if I can’t, I yell at them. The other day, I was on the phone with a few consultants who were getting free advice, gladly given, but when I heard the fourth curmudgeons’ cry — this one: “Well, look at what’s on the home page of YouTube” — I finally had it and replied: You’re wasting my time. If you use that as your excuse to ignore the power and potential of YouTube and video then that’s your fault. Grrr. I do believe that the day of the curmudgeons is over. Their stewardship of the future has failed. Get out of the way.

But curmudgeons still do damage, of course. Vickey Williams at Medill’s Readership Institute says the force out young people, who take their new ways and innovations with them.

My work on changing culture in newsrooms shows that young journalists intend to leave because the pace of change is too slow. (Report here). They are turned off by the tendency of veteran journalists to argue down new ideas, cling to old ways, and avoid risks. As Readership Institute research has shown, those are outcomes of newspaper people’s tendencies to be oppositional, perfectionist and conventional.

I’ve seen the generational friction play out dozens of times as younger voices get shut down by veterans who fall back on ingrained behaviors. In one case, younger staff worked for weeks to develop and launch a blog on the paper’s Web site with a youthful perspective on the local scene. At the next staff meeting, most veterans said they hadn’t noticed and a few admitted never having looked at the paper’s Web site at all.

I’ll quibble on one point: It’s not about age. I’ve also seen plenty of young people who, having arrived in the castle, want to pull up the draw bridge behind them. I know lots of fellow graybeards who are eager bomb-throwers. I will also disagree with some of her advice, telling the veterans to help young people: “Offer cues on things like the importance of appropriate dress and that one well-considered memo can be more valuable than numerous emails.” You wouldn’t say that at Google.

I agree heartily with Williams that these institutions should teach innovators — I’ll call them that instead of young people — business “so they can make the business case for their ideas.” That’s why I teach entrepreneurial journalism. But I shuddered at this: “Engage them in meaningful ways — in problem-solving sessions, cross-departmental task forces, high-profile projects, post-mortems.” Those are the places where ideas go to die. Maybe instead they should be given the rope and resources to start new businesses.

Williams’ overall point is right and important: Curmudgeons do damage by killing change and those who bring it.

Carr’s dreams

Curmudgeonly contrarian Nick Carr picks his head up and comes to the defense of TimeSelect — after it is dead and buried — but misses some obvious economic realities. Carr quotes a Financial Times columnist who quotes a University of Chicago study (warning: a PDF filled with formulae) that points to the Washington Post and argues that the paper and its online site were not complementary but competitive and so the Post should have tried (as the Times did) to get money out of its online audience while the getting was good.

But this ignores the essential economic fact here that newspapers are no longer monopolies. With the internet, they gained new competitors the world around and lost the pricing power that their monopoly over production and distribution gave them. So it’s foolish to judge the Post or Times in isolation as if they could demand and get money from consumers who can now go to plenty of other sources.

Carr et al also ignore the economic reality of Google and the link becoming the new means of media distribution. If you hide your stuff, it cannot be found. And so long as you are hidden, your competitors will grab that distribution and marketshare from you.

Fred Wilson quotes a commenter on Carr’s blog, SidneyV, who instructs:

In periods of fundamental technological change & discontinuity, leaving money on the table may well be a smart strategy. . . . Sam Walton (whose descendants collectively are now the richest people in the world) pointedly refused to price the goods at the “going rate”, which a Harvard Business School prof of that time would have considered stupid. So Times would have been better off if they had recognized it at that time. At least they are smart enough to recognize it now. . . .

BTW, in late 80’s, Larry Ellison, nobody’s fool as a businessman, enunciated it thusly: in early markets, maximize marketshare, not profits. NY Times should have become *the* go-to place for news & views online. They always had the breadth & depth of content. The fact that they let a whole lot of other sources jump ahead speaks volumes of their failure of vision.

Carr thinks the Times left money on the table by taking down the wall. I think they burned money by putting it up. And once again, nowhere have I seen a decent financial analysis of the cost of TimesSelect: the cost of marketing to acquire subscribers and cope with churn, the cost of customer service, the cost of ad revenue lost, the cost of traffic lost to other sections and advertising lost there as a result. Clearly, the Times made that analysis and tore down the wall.

Matthew Ingram also rebuts the study Carr so dearly wishes to rely upon, first quoting the its conclusion regarding the Post: “Removing the [news website] from the market entirely would increase readership of [the newspaper] by 27,000 readers per day, or 1.5 per cent.” To which Matthew responds:

He therefore concludes that the Post has lost $5.5-million in newspaper revenue as a result of providing its news online for free. Does that make any sense? It might to an economist, but I would argue his thesis fails the reasonability test. If the washingtonpost.com website were to disappear or be locked behind a pay wall tomorrow, does anyone really think that 27,000 people would suddenly go out and start reading the paper edition?

Gentzkow clearly does. I think they would be more likely to just go elsewhere for their news, such as Google News or Yahoo News or MSNBC or CNN. It might be tempting — and make for a much simpler business case — to argue that a product like the Post competes primarily with its own website, and vice versa, but I don’t think that is the way things work.

Rob Hyndman also points out to Carr and company that lots of the people formerly known as readers like using the internet and wouldn’t it be foolish for a newspaper such as the Post or the Times to push them to competitors by putting up a pay wall?

Note finally Alex Patriquin’s analysis at Compete.com of NY Times op-ed audience since they took down that wall: “…[T]he Opinion section has more than doubled unique visitors, while the overall NYTimes.com site has grown by roughly 10% in the same period.”

Carr accuses of me being a member of the free-content hallelujah chorus who, he says, “take as a personal affront any attempt to charge for ‘content’ online.”

But Carr misinterprets me and projects a motive on me that is not there. I’m not saying necessarily that I want content to be free; hell, I’m a writer for a living and if I could be paid for my writing — and paid more than I am — I’d be delighted.

Instead, I am saying that content is free and companies like the New York Times and writers like me (and my students) as well as Carr had damned well better figure out how to work with that essential economic reality. Wishing that you could charge as if you were still a monopoly protected by the size of the gas tank of your nearest competitor’s trucks is foolhardy and dangerous. Carr’s analysis is as wistful as it is incomplete, sloppy, and hazardous.

And — this is what blows Carr’s mind — one response to this new networked economic reality is to view other media sources — your paper, the other guy’s news web site, your writing readers’ blogs — not as competitors but as complementary sources that enable you to do what you do best (and get the maximum value you can for that via advertising) and link to the rest (saving you the expense of inefficiency that news media still carries from its legacy today). One response to competition everywhere is to open up to collaboration, enabling you to identify and exploit your greatest value in a new economic reality.

Carrmudgeonbot

I missed this the other day from Brian Oberkirch:

Maybe someone will have some free time over the weekend and bang out a Nick Carr bot that will automagically scan TechMeme and gin up a post that says “Nuh Uh,” and then goes on to use blog technology to make an outrageous, attention-getting statement about how the blogmobs make outrageous, attention-getting statements….

Attack of the Carrmudgeons

A subculture of curmudeons is growing, ironically, in the blogosphere, the very medium they fear and dismiss. Nicholas Carr fancies himself the king of the curmudgeons. I’ll add Andrew Keen to the list. And that’s not just because they’ve both gone after me this week: Carr here (I returned fire here) and Keen here. They’re both worked up because I dared to suggest that book publishing needs updating.

It must not be easy being a curmudeon. You have to wake up every morning and find something to be against, something old to defend, and something new to ignore. Lots of commenters on Carr’s blog said he ran out of targets when he declared Wikipedia dead. Said one:

I think you’re overdoing your contrarian behaviour and seriously risk coming through as an attention-craver. Your analysis is very destructive and offers no suggestion for improvement – moreover it does not make for interesting, witty or even provocative reading.

So there. Keen — after having blown up with a business in the web bubble — now vaguely warns against the “grave cultural consequences” of the web and blogs and all this voodoo we do. He declares that he is “exposing Web 2.0 as Communism 2.0″ with “unfashionably conservative thoughts about media, culture and technology.” (See the end of this post for another reference to the web as communism from someone who occasionally tries to play the curmudeon but who fails because he’s too open-minded, passionate, and eager for conversation to maintain the sneering, squinting growl of the dreaded ‘mudgeon for long.)

Now you might say that we’re the same, since I’m declaring books, newspapers, and networks dead or dying every other day. But I think the difference is that I am calling for not just the preservation but the expansion of writing, journalism, and entertainment into new realms: new forms, new audiences, new opportunities. Do I get carried away with my enthusiasm? Guilty, with glee.

Curmudgeons defend orthodoxy, power, and tradition. Carr rails against the democratization of media and defends the elite of paid critics and pundits. Keen goes so far as to rail against progress. I’ve been fascinated to see the curmudgeons come out of their dusty attics in the ongoing discussion here about books arguing that they don’t need no stinkin’ progress. Of course, I’ve seen the same atttitude in newspapers, where so many feared, resisted, and even attacked change — but that is now changing as journalists, like TV networks and producers, realize that resisting change is futile. Growling at the approaching glacier won’t make it melt. Just ask the dinosaurs.