Posts about curmudgeons

It is our fault

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post issues a resounding apologia for journalists in the American Journalism Review, arguing that the fall of newspapers isn’t their fault. Then Roy Greenslade leaps up with a resounding hear! hear! They echo a defense earlier this year from Adrian Monck (who had decreed, “The crops did not fail because we offended the gods”).

Though I respect these three men, I must call bullshit.

The fall of journalism is, indeed, journalists’ fault.

It is our fault that we did not see the change coming soon enough and ready our craft for the transition. It is our fault that we did not see and exploit — hell, we resisted — all the opportunities new media and new relationships with the public presented. It is our fault that we did not give adequate stewardship to journalism and left the business to the business people. It is our fault that we lost readers and squandered trust. It is our fault that we sat back and expected to be supported in the manner to which we had become accustomed by some unknown princely patron. Responsibility and blame are indeed ours.

Farhi’s rationalization on behalf of his fellow journalists makes many bad assumptions and blind turns and Greenslade only follows him down those alleys, piping in with (my emphases follow) an “unhesitating answer” of no to accusations of journalistic guilt. “There cannot be any doubt that journalists themselves … cannot be held responsible for either the financial woes of the industry nor for the public turning its back on the ‘products’ that contain their work.” He piles on: “They are blameless.” They have “no reason to feel guilty…. It isn’t our fault…. The truth is that we are being assailed by revolutionary technological forces completely outside of our control…. We journalists are not [his emphasis] paying the price for our own (alleged) failures…. you are not the cause of the current calamity.”

The hack doth protest too much.

Farhi assumes that a newspaper is a well-defined product that is no longer supported by classified and retail advertisers and that’s not our fault. He acknowledges that newspapers should be updating their sites, adding Twitter, social networking, Google Maps, and more video. But he ignores the greater need and opportunity to rethink and reinvent journalism itself.

The internet does not just present a few glittery toys. It presents the circumstances to change our relationship with the public, to work collaboratively in networks, to find new efficiencies thanks to the link, to rethink how we cover and present news. No, the essence of the problem is that we thought the internet represented just a new gadget and not a fundamental change in society, the economy, and thus journalism.

By maintaining the newspaper and its newsroom as essentially static entities, Farhi also makes the common and dangerous assumption that their budgets are also fixed: They are what they are because they always have been and so that’s what they need to be. So it’s not their fault that they need to be supported at that level. But newsrooms are terribly inefficient and too many of their expenses were fueled by ego. We bear business responsibility. That is why I am teaching business in a journalism school, so we can be better stewards.

Farhi glosses over — in an unjournalistic way, I’m afraid — the state of the business and its relationship with its public. He brags that almost 50 million Americans still buy papers and so, he argues, readership is not the issue. But circulation is down more than 14 percent since 1970 and since then population has risen by 50 percent, so the adjusted loss is 74 percent. If steady, circulation should be 92 million today. Penetration is roughly half what it was: a mere 17 percent vs. 30 percent. I’d say our relationship with readers is a problem — in more ways than one: A Gallup survey says 52 percent of Americans do not trust news media, up from 30 percent in 1972. Are the two tied? Of course, they are. Who’s responsible for that?

“The critics have it exactly backward,” Farhi says. “Journalists and journalism are the victims, not the cause, of the industry’s shaken state.” Victims? As Farhi says to the critics, “Oh, please.”

Victimhood is an irresponsible abdication of responsibility, a surrender. He might as well declare newspapers dead: Oh, well, we did our best, but everybody around us fucked up and so they’re going to go away now. How dare they do this to us?

My purpose in rebutting Farhi and Greenslade is not to beat up journalists but instead to empower them. The reason to take responsibility for the fall of journalism is to take responsibility for the fate of journalism. Who’s going to try to save it if not for journalists? We are indeed responsible for the future of journalism and we have about one minute to grab that bull by its horns.

(This is why I am holding a conference at CUNY on new business models for news. There is not a minute to waste.)


What are the objections that are constantly thrown in your face when you try to talk about new opportunities on the internet?

I’m thinking of writing my Guardian column this week responding to some because I’m tired of having to answer the same complaints over and over. I sometimes despair at being able to advance the discussion about the opportunities of the connected age, as someone in the room will inevitably say: “Yes, but there are inaccuracies on the internet.” Or: “Most people watch junk.” Or: “There are no standards.”

It happened last night as I gave my first presentation based on my book to a group of scary smart foundation grantees doing great work in areas from housing to science to women’s health to taxation. I was asked to speculate on what Googley charities would be like and we discussed themes including transparency and openness, acting as a platform and network, and new roles in a linked ecology of news and information. I’ll grant that their circumstances are different from those of companies and other institutions because they deal in often controversial and sometimes sensitive areas and their goal is often to influence not the population but policymakers (though I’m still enough of a cockeyed democrat to hope the population is who should influence the policymakers). Halfway through, those same old objections arose. I take it as personal failure that I’m sometimes not able to keep the discussion headed toward the future and find us spinning wheels in the present or, worse, sliding backwards.


And then I got email for a panel discussion at NYU on Oct. 21 called Crossing the Line, which asks these questions: “Are there any ethics on the web?” “Should bloggers be held to journalistic standards?” “Who makes the rules — the media, the courts or YOU?”


The implied answers, of course: The web has no ethics… Bloggers have no standards…. The wrong people are making the rules (if there are any).

To hash over these weightless questions they have nothing but the products of big, old media: David Carr of the NY Times, Liz Smith of the NY Post, Jim Kelley of Time, Judge Andrew Napolitano of Fox News, and Sherrese Smith, counsel for WPNI.

Mind you, just across campus, NYU has at least two of the country’s greatest thinkers on the internet and its implications for society, Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky. But they’re not on that panel. New York is thick with great practitioners of new ways on the internet, but they’re not there.

Same old questions/objections/complaints/fears. Where is the talk of new opportunities in our new reality?

So please share the questions/complaints you hear all the time and how you answer them. Then instead of repeating ourselves in the future, we can just hand the curmudgeons and worriers a link.

: LATER: Here are the complaints I’m working with now.

* There’s junk on the internet.
* Most people watch junk.
* Anyone can say anything on the internet.
* There are inaccuracies on the internet.
* Wikipedia has mistakes.
* We need a seal of approval for internet content.
* Bloggers aren’t journalists.
* The internet has no ethics.

Any others you hear?

I’m writing my responses in the column.

Curmudgeonliness, with a twist

BlogNetNews pointed me to the curmudgeonly ending way, way down in Jody Rosen’s rather obsessive dogging of some freesheet hack’s gross acts of plagiarism:

But perhaps the Bulletin is merely on-trend—or even ahead of its time. The Drudge Report, the Huffington Post, and Real Clear Politics have made names and money by sifting through RSS feeds; Tina Brown and Barry Diller are preparing the launch of their own news aggregator. Mike Ladyman and company may simply be bringing guerilla-style 21st-century content aggregation to 20th-century print media: publishing the Napster of newspapers.

So he equates wholesale plagiarism with linking. Whew, that’s somebody who sure doesn’t understand the link economy.

Jody, I confess to a brazen act of theft: I linked to you. Twice. Shame on me.

But here’s curmudgeonliness with a reverse twist Jonathan Isaby, outgoing political diarist of the Telegraph, complains to the Press Gazette that all this constant demand for news, news, news from the “ulta-pressured environment” of the 24-hour, multimedia newsroom means reporters just don’t have time to sift through the record of Parliament and find news. So his response: He’s leaving to go work for … a blog.

: UPDATE: I got email from Jody Rosen saying that he was being ironic, making a joke about the paper’s “unorthodox ‘aggregation’ practices.” Hmmm. I didn’t hear it. One of us needs to adjust our ironometer. I’ll tweak mine up a bit. And I’m relieved that Slate won’t be launching a jihad on Google News. I also got Rosen’s gender wrong, which really makes me look like the loser. So I’ll skulk off now, growling like a curmudgeon.

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.