Incredibly, "Old Media" Thinking Still Exists
Usually, when you see "new media" people criticizing "old media" people, it's as banal and silly as it sounds. The "new media" people -- Jeff Jarvis, just to name one -- actually sound more throwbacky and clueless than the "old media" people once did when they were calling the Internet a passing fad and describing bloggers as writing from "their parents' basement."
The clueless "old media" holdout is mostly a fictional character at this point -- a straw man for people like Jarvis to set fire to when they needs a villain for yet another reliably facile argument. After all, pretty much every "old media" organ is online now. But the kind of thinking that was rampant a decade or so ago still pops up now and again. One newspaper veteran actually used the "parents' basement" line last month, apparently without irony.
Two things have stirred such sentiments again in recent days, after it was announced that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was going to buy the Washington Post, and after we learned that Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, helped finance a book about journalism ethics.
But Bezos is from the Internet! That's bad, right? That he will soon own one of America's most significant newspapers means that the Internet has won. And -- heaven forfend! -- Newmark is the man who singlehandedly destroyed the newspaper business, and whose site once ran ads from whores. How dare he weigh in on journalism ethics?
This is no joke. People are actually saying stuff like this. The New York Times' Nick Wingfield decided that Bezos and Newmark, along with Google's awarding of journalism fellowships and some other examples, show that "the tycoons who have led the digital revolution are giving traditional print outlets a hand."
Which, maybe. But the whole thing is set up as "new media" people on one side and "old media" people on the other. Wingfield also makes the common mistake of associating "traditional" with the medium of ink-on-paper, and characterizing "digital" as being the opposite of "traditional." Altogether the wrong way to think about this stuff. The Internet is where everything gets published -- whether it's "traditional" journalism or not depends on the journalism itself, not the medium. And anyway, neither Bezos nor Newmark are really "tech" moguls
But why are they and Google taking these actions? "Call it a sense of obligation," Wingfield concludes. "Or responsibility. Or maybe there is even a twinge of guilt. Helping print journalism adapt to a changed era is becoming a cause du jour among the technology elite."
I choose not to call it any of those things, and if there is "guilt" (which there isn't), it's misplaced. None of these people are responsible for the downfall of newspapers. That happened mainly because the rise of the Internet unbundled all the various products newspapers once sold all in the same package: news, comics, advice columns, classified ads, horoscopes, etc. And the Internet upended the advertising industry. But the people and companies who exploited the Internet aren't responsible for the technology behind it or for economic upheaval it has created -- for all kinds of industries, not just newspapers.
Wingfield quotes a tweet from Les Hinton, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal: "So ironic," Hinton wrote, that the Post "should be consumed by a pioneer of the industry that almost destroyed it."
What a weird reaction. First, what could "consumed" possibly mean? I'm not sure, but it doesn't sound good. Bezos is buying the paper, that's all. And what could "ironic" possibly mean? Bezos until now has never had anything to do with journalism or the newspaper industry. And when Hinton says "industry," what does he mean? Amazon is in a bunch of businesses, but it's mainly a retailer. Does Hinton believe the retail industry has "almost destroyed" the newspaper business?
No, he means "the Internet industry," which isn't even actually a thing. Nevertheless, lots of people on both sides of the "old media/new media" divide (which also isn't even actually a thing) tend to believe that the "Internet industry" has upended the newspaper business. This seems to be a desperate attempt to hold individual people and companies to account for a complex web of social, economic, and technological forces. We're all responsible.
Even Craigslist, directly responsible though it was for newspapers losing their cash-cow classified ads, was merely a natural outgrowth of the rise of the Internet. If Craig Newmark hadn't created Craigslist, someone else would have. Newspapers might have slowed their own demise by making better use of the Internet for classified ads, but they famously muffed it, while Craigslist grew and grew. But it would have happened anyway. The domination of Craigslist wasn't anyone's fault. It just happened, and Newmark just happened to be the person who made it happen. But the table was set for him by those aforementioned economic and technological forces.
But to Alec MacGillis, Newmark is downright immoral, or at least unethical, for having started Craigslist. In a copy'n'paste for the New Republic, MacGillis, a senior editor there, quotes a bunch of stuff about how Craigslist ads are often free of charge, and how the site once ran ads from whores. Referring to the book Newmark financed, McGillis wrote:
Ethics for journalists! How wonderful. Are those ethics different than the ones that allow one to make $36 million per year on prostitution ads, thereby making it easier to give away for free the classified listings that were a major source of newspaper revenue? Just checking.
It's hard to imagine a nuttier reaction. Newmark didn't set out to wreck the newspaper business, any more than Francis Brewer set out to wreck the whale-oil business when he sought uses for the dark liquid he discovered oozing from the ground in 1851 Pennsylvania. What would MacGillis have preferred? A national law banning free, online classified ads? As for the whore ads, alternative newspapers had been running those for many years before Newmark came along, so spare me the pearl-clutching.
That Newmark created Craigslist has no bearing on his interest in journalism ethics. We don't know precisely what Bezos has in mind for the Post, but we can be absolutely confident that he's not buying the paper out of "guilt." If that were the case, he'd be buying Barnes & Noble.
Technology changes markets and remakes industries. It disrupts people's lives. It enables convenience and spurs progress. It creates wealth and poverty. It makes some things better, and other things worse. It is neither God nor Satan, but for whatever reason, lots of people tend to treat it as one or the other.