If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Ridicule ‘Em

September 6, 2009

Last Friday, Chicago Tonight’s Week in Review held a discussion of media types that quickly became a gang-up on the blog guy. The representatives of WBEZ, Chicago Tribune and the Daily Herald quickly hauled out what are now hoary, misinformed arguments: Not that many people really read blogs anyway; The quality of writing on blogs isn’t that good; and Blogs aren’t real journalism. Watch for yourself:

A quick disclaimer: I’m friends with the “blog guy”, Marcus Gilmer from Chicagoist.com, and I was a one-time writer for said blog. 

There are too many faulty analysis spouted by the traditional media guys: Chicagoist’s 40k daily hits don’t compete with Trib’s 3M daily hits; blogs aren’t charging readers, thus they don’t have a strong readership; blogs (and thus new media) are just opinion pieces, with no real news. The Tribune is profitable, so newspapers are fine (what about the Sun Times?).


Anyone who has spent a lot of time thinking about the disassembling of the media business will quickly recognize the problem with this panel: Gilmer, Steve Johnson, former media critic for the Tribune, Ted Cox, media critic for the Daily Herald and Wally Podrazik, media critic for WBEZ. Lots of people that talk about the “quality of journalism” but nobody that works on the business of media. It would be like asking a bunch of restaurant reviewers to talk about the financial future of the Olive Garden. They’ll all rail about the quality of the endless breadsticks, but none of them can tell you why it brings the customers in.

We’ve seen this movie before. The folks who have been carrying the cross of “real journalism” for their 25-30 year career are alarmed at the lack of “quality”. For example Steve Johnson on a breaking story: “I would rather wait until the next morning until the person with skill and perspective has been able to report the story.” Really? I’d like to know as many details as I can get, as soon as I can get it. That’s the basic meaning of “news”.

The main problem with this panel is that it is once again another panel of people who are largely disconnected from the real business of media. Reporters and most editors are the line workers of the media business. For the most part they don’t determine what kind of product is sold, at what price or how it is marketed. Navel-gazing discussions by media critics ignores the basic precept of the news business: 

But the papers weren’t selling the news. They were selling ads and charging a lot of money for them because of one thing only: They held an informal monopoly on a societal convention whereby they deposited those ads–around which they wrapped some reporting, some of it serious, some of it fluff–on subscribers’ driveways. 

– Bill Wyman, Five Key Reasons Why Newspapers Are Failing

Every discussion on the future of media needs to begin with that truth. Then, they need to recognize that blogs and new media are a tremendously disruptive force upon that monopoly. But new media is not wildly successful because it is “unworthy” or unwanted, it is because without the old media’s one-time distribution monopoly, they lack the ability to charge old media’s once usurious rates. 
The first leg of newspapers’ three-legged stool, classified advertising, has already been knocked out: Craigslist performed a quick mercy killing on classifieds. Now blogs and new media are attempting a death by a thousand cuts on display advertising. Advertisers, seeing the steady decline in newspaper readership as well as the increase in available advertising mediums, are shifting their ad buys and demanding lower prices.
Others have written much better polemics on the future of profitable news media. I’d just like to point out that old media should stop razzing new media and start thinking about how they are going to replace their own declining revenue streams.