David Lazarus writes a column in the Chronicle (less than affectionately referred to as “the Comical”) that I generally enjoy. I’ve exchanged email with him on several occasions and find him to be engaging and rational, which makes one of his recent columns all the more puzzling. In “So Who Will Get the Story” Lazarus argues against much of the criticism about the journalism profession by suggesting that the pros produce content that has value because it’s, well, written by professional journalists.
“Why would I ever pay to read a column like yours when I could just as easily read someone’s blog?” Moran asked. “Your writing is no better, your content is no more original, than the content produced for free every day by amateurs.”
I responded that, the quality of my writing notwithstanding, my ideas were shaped by having personally interviewed a half-dozen experts in journalism, technology and copyright law — each of whom took the time to speak with me because I represent a fairly well-known newspaper.
I don’t mean to single out the above two paragraphs as representative of the entire column because Lazarus goes on to make a lot of points that even the harshest critics of newspapers would agree with.
There are two aspects to newspaper media that people in the newspaper business would rather not talk about. The first is that the quality of writing and original research for that matter in many of the top blogs is far superior to newspapers. For example, look at Powerline’s recent coverage of a mini-controversy brewed up by a local reporter over the investiture ceremony for U.S. Attorney Paulose in Minnesota and you will find a well written and well researched piece that thoroughly eviscerates the reporter who did the original story.
Interested in any coverage of important legal decisions, do you really need the NYTimes when the Volokh Conspiracy not only gets the facts right but gives you the perspective of a respected law professor as well? I’ve learned more about the Supreme Court and recent decisions from the SCOTUS Blog than I ever did from a newspaper.
For whatever reason I got to thinking about Lazarus’ column, the one I started out this post with, when I read this article, also in the Chronicle, about how people aren’t going to food critics for restaurant reviews anymore.
“I do think the traditional critic still has the most singular influence, but the playing field has been leveled significantly with sites such as Chowhound, Yelp, Citysearch and even Zagat,” he said. “No longer does the newspaper have a lock on the information. It keeps us all on our toes.”
I don’t look in newspaper reviews for authoritative reviews on where I should go to dinner, as a great many people apparently don’t either. When I want to look at hotel reviews I look at TripAdvisor for the same reason, I want a review from someone who is like me, even if I really don’t know they are like me. Perhaps it’s the first person authority coming through from a review written by someone who isn’t paid, at least as far as I know, to write it.
The observation about reviews “going citizen” crosses many segments. Movie critics are another category that I think should be focusing on polishing up their resume. This summers top blockbuster movies all started with crappy reviews by movie critics, two of the biggest being 300 and Ghost Rider. I didn’t see either movie BTW, but the only movie theatre I’ve been in recent years was to take my son to see Happy Feet after Marc Canter couldn’t stop talking about it… so I guess that is actually further proof that word of mouth eclipses professional critics.
So let me close this post up before I end up rambling too far into the weeds, but the second thing about newspapers declining business is that not only do they have a quality control issue, and a content selection issue (the aforementioned food and movie critics sections) but they have the obvious business model issues that are derived from a shrinking (read dying off) readership and an advertising model that is ill-equipped to move online.
Infoworld, the long time tech industry trade piece, announced recently that they are giving up print for online only. Quite honestly I think this is just about the same thing as saying “going out of business” because I have yet to see a print media business move online while trying to retain their existing business model absent the cost of manufacturing and distributing print.
I commented recently on one of the Irregulars threads that print treats advertising as something that they either need to force feed readers or trick them into clicking on. Advertising can have great value provided it’s in the context of something you actually want, and exhibit number 1 is Google’s sponsored search links, which can be really handy when you are looking for something specific.
Advertising needs to evolve to be interactive and engaging, going beyond simply telling me something to providing utility to something I need to do. Washington Mutual should be sponsoring housingmaps.com and building in mortgage calculators and other online tools that DO SOMETHING FOR ME instead of making me go somewhere (by clicking). Mashups will one day make awesome marketing and advertising vehicles.
Newspapers are dying, that much is pretty clear and we’ll see a great many of them disappear or get blown up in order to be remade. In all honesty, I don’t think most people will notice or be worse off in the end because there has been underway a broad-based redistribution of the responsibility for reporting on the current events, offering perspective, and engaging the citizenry and it’s all been on the back of the amazing thing that the Internet is.
UPDATE: It occured to me shortly after hitting post on this that I should add a comment about the fact that journalism isn’t itself flawed but rather the business of journalism as it currently exists. I have a great many friends who are writers by trade and they are an impressive lot with instincts and discipline that escape most bloggers, so the notion that everything is going citizen just doesn’t hold up. It’s more subtle than that, there is a fundamental distribution model shift coupled with an economic shift on top of a generational shift that is redefining how people get information.