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What's Black and White and Dead All Over?

Notes on journalism's past, present, and future prompted in part by a meeting held recently in Chicago.

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My favorite idea that came out of the Chicago Journalism Town Hall, held at the Allegro recently with about 350 in attendance, was beautiful in its simplicity. I am ashamed that I cannot recall who said it, but it was this: It would be stupid to buy a newspaper. The Trib? The Sun-Times? Hell, the Reader and its fellow papers?

Do the math. If you buy the Creative Loafing chain, which owns the Reader, you get Rolodexes, a bunch of dated computers, dated software, and a name. Essentially you're buying a logo, a URL, some archived content, and a giant fucking IOU.

So, sayeth this smart person: it's much cheaper to let them die and hire the people, who have the knowledge and the contacts and who actually represent the name. (If you want to be all Web 2.0 about it, call the new thing the Rdr or the Twib, though I guess you won't have to italicize it. We do not put on airs in the glorious future.)

Death is the most common term you'll find reading over the various, cough, postmortems of the event. But as our own Michael Miner puts it: "If there was a consensus at the end of the Chicago Journalism Town Hall Sunday, it's that journalism, in some fashion, will always be with us. However, something—God knows exactly what—is either slouching or bounding toward Bethlehem to be born."

In other words: journalism isn't dying. (Journalists are dying, of course, but even I don't blame the Huffington Post for that.) The institutions are dying. That's it. We've isolated the problem!

Journalists (I will irresponsibly use this as a synonym for "people who work in broadcast or print," even though we're all kind of journalists, which I will get to later) blame the bloggers (ditto, for people who work online). Bloggers blame the journalists. Everyone blames the economy, and management. Was it Ben Goldberger in the Blog with the Aggregator? Or was it Eric Zorn in the Newspaper with the Inverted Pyramid, or Sam Zell in the Boardroom with the ESOP?

Part I: Management

Feel free to blame them. I do. They don't care what you think and will make more money than you regardless of how much money they leveraged on your career. Forget it, Jake.

Part II: Bloggers

The open hostility on the panel and in the audience toward Ben Goldberger, from Huffington Post Chicago, tickled the dark little void where my heart should be, until even I felt sorry for him, maybe because it was partly my doing, thanks to the ruckus I raised about the site copping our concert previews (he's not a crook, son, he's just a shook one: he got laid off back in the day IIRC, so have some sympathy), but it obscured some important questions that were poorly addressed, and I'm not sure whether it was out of ignorance or the format. Either way, get wise—this is sort of what was being talked about in my fantasy Chicago Journalism Town Hall:

(1) Should people write for free?

There's a fair amount of resentment about this, but there really isn't anything you can do about it. James Warren will write for free, and he used to be managing editor at the Trib! You are not going to stuff that genie back in the bottle. That's how the Reader started, by the way, so in some ways I am living off the spilled blood of 70s civic idealists who may not be that far removed from the traitors at ChuffPo.

The tension comes from something unspoken: some of these people writing for free are better at writing than many of the people who are paid to write. Back in the dark ages Richard Roeper was the only conduit for the typical Sun-Times subscriber who wanted SOP meandering about pop culture but didn't need so much that he or she needed to also pay for Entertainment Weekly and Us, and that was a smart economic decision on both sides.

Now anyone with a computer can read those, and thousands of other professional and amateur equivalents. You can also use Twitter and it's kind of like reading a Richard Roeper column (you can even follow Richard Roeper on Twitter, but it's less interesting than most Twitter feeds).

Look at it economically: the value of Richard Roeper, star columnist, has declined due to market forces. There are a lot of people offering the same or better service. The Roeper Bubble has burst.

And I don't mean to pick on Richard Roeper. Well, actually I do, but there are more grave examples. Take David Brooks. The New York Times, a while back, thought people might want to pay to read David Brooks, and then they thought otherwise. Here's the thing about him: he's a journalist who writes about economics and politics. This is in fact what most journalists are: they are journalists, by training, who have trained to write about specific areas of expertise. On the other hand, Brad DeLong is an economist who writes. (If Brad DeLong is too liberal for you, there are more conservative economists who write, too.)

It turns out writing is the easier thing to learn. It is the less valuable commodity.

Most journalists are loath to admit this, because it means being part of the Roeper Bubble. A lot of the people newspapers pay to write are not just competing against people who write for free, they are competing against people who write better than they do, and those people are compelled to write because they are experts, which they are paid to be.

More simply: journalists have historically been paid by newspapers to call up experts and talk to them (I have done this many times), and to then relay that information back to the reader. Now many of those experts write. For readers. It saves the experts time, and usually a lot of stupid questions (I have asked those many times).

This does not of course mean that journalists are useless, only that some of them are, and only fairly recently. Keep reading. I am not anywhere close to done.

(2) What is aggregation and why are journalists so angry about it?

When I hear the word aggregation, I reach for my revolver.

(Fun fact: this construction is usually attributed to Hermann Goering, but it actually comes from an early Third Reich-era play, and the action is better translated "release the safety on." I am aggregating this fact from Richard J. Evans's The Coming of the Third Reich.)

Let me see if I can make this simple: aggregation means taking things that are on the Web and linking to them. There are lots of ways you can do it, and they make different people angry in different ways depending on their birthdate/job/temperament. While I am falling well short of a complete taxonomy of aggregation, here are a couple very important models, which are not, obviously, mutually exclusive. And if you think this is too basic, you were not at the Chicago Journalism Town Hall.

The blog model: A person puts up a link and that person says something about it. This is what I do on my Chicago Reader blog, Chicagoland, usually. That's what I did when I posted this piece there originally. People went to the Town Hall and wrote things that I linked to, in part because I wanted to write a showy think piece instead of a postmortem (suckers; this is not unrelated to why journalists hate bloggers, by the way) and in part because those other people had interesting things to say that I want to comment on. This is how most blogs work.

The social aggregation model: This applies to Digg and Reddit, not to mention the estimable local startup the Windy Citizen. People submit links to sites, and then other people vote on what links are the most important and interesting, which leads to social communities gathering around these sites and their specific hivemind tastes, and then they get into bizarre inside-baseball fights about who has too much power to decide if a link is really important. Journalists and PR people are beating themselves up and spending mad payola so the anonymous yahoos at Digg will vote their stories up and send them a flood of traffic. People spend their lives doing this, creating lists (Diggnation likes lists) and photo galleries (ditto) to get crack hits of traffic. It's just a new version of the same old journalism stunts. Beware, however: there is some debate as to whether the traffic from such sites is worth anything. Digg users tend to be less engaged than a more organically developed audience. A spike in national traffic doesn't mean anything to local advertisers looking for regular, local readers.

The aggregation/blog hybrid: Original content on one side, aggregation on the other. Huffington Post does this. Gapers Block does this. Talking Points Memo does this.

So what's the big deal? Is it "theft"?

Let's keep it simple and look specifically at lightning rod HuffPo and its local expression, Chuffpo, since there seems to be so much animosity directed their way (this is in part a class thing, like most things are), and in part because their model is instructively controversial.

On the left side there is a blog. Aside from the complaint about people who write for free, most people have come to accept that there are bloggers who write for free and quote things and link to them.

On the right side there are headlines. Here's where it gets tricky so pay attention and hopefully I won't have to explain this ever again. If you click on the headline, you go to another site—fine. That site benefits from the link. If you click on "Quick Read," you get a short excerpt of the article that the headline goes to, with an ad. If you click on "comment" you get that piece of the article with a comment box. People are pissed about this.

Perhaps rightfully. Damn fair-use kiddies think it's their right, as Americans, to take "fair use excerpts" and do whatever they want with them. And they may be right, I am not a lawyer, and we'll really only know the answer once such cases go to court, which they haven't (the New York Times wimped out recently on such a suit). But read up on fair use. You are allowed to use excerpts, but the principle of fair use describes certain terms under which you are allowed to use them. The very basics are a four-part analysis: the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Like I said, I'm not a lawyer. But consider the four-part test in relation to ethics. HuffPo's "Quick Read" is for commercial purposes, obviously. The nature ...let's skip that. Amount and substantiality—the amount isn't much, but in the traditional journalist's inverted pyramid, the first couple paragraphs are very, very substantial.

Part four deserves more consideration. This is a very complicated issue. Aggregators and their ilk will tell you that they drive traffic to your site. They are correct about this. So maybe they make you money. But they also sell ads, and compete for eyeballs. So maybe they take your money.

I don't know what the "effect of the use upon the potential market" is, and I bet you don't either. But I do know it is cheaper for HuffPo to copy those couple paragraphs and use them to draw traffic and comments than it is for a publication to pay someone to generate them (I also know that "Quick Read" kind of looks like "Fuck You" if you squint).

So: why do I think bloggers should get away with that? Why is the left side of HuffPo fine and the right side questionable? Because people should be able to write about things. They should have the right to use them for: "purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching." The person blogging about news things at HuffPo is doing something unique, whether that person is insightful or an idiot. There's societal value to both. It's a tremendously important freedom and it's why the blogosphere is so rich. On the other hand, just slapping up a quote above a comments section—which, odds are, the other site has as well—feels cheap (and, technically, is cheap, that's the business model).

And let us not forget how those HuffPo comments pages tie into search-engine optimization. The panel at the town hall really could have used someone with SEO expertise. TribCo is wisely throwing lots of money at SEO (which is just as important to all this as the journalists are—my grandfather was a pressman, so I grew up with love for the people whose hard work allows the words to be read). This may seem overly detailed, but trust me: SEO is hugely important to this hypothetical future of journalism and it is key to the HuffPo model.

A while back, Gawker's Valleywag blog found the most egregious example of SEO juicing I've ever seen—a page of tags waiting for a nude picture of Ashley Dupre (the prostitute who brought down Eliot Spitzer). It's useful because, shorn of content, and I mean content in the broadest possible sense, you can see how it works.

In short, SEO means making your site more friendly to Google and other search engines, but mostly Google. Or more specifically, Google's search algorithm. Which is obviously a closely guarded business secret, but you can try different things to reverse-engineer it. Here's a good example: when I heard police were searching the home of James Lewis, suspected of but never charged with the 1982 Tylenol murders, in Boston in February, I remembered that the Reader had a very good old piece on Lewis by Joy Bergmann. It's available in our archives, but they're not spidered by Google, long story. So, even though our archives are free, I made a new page for it. I made the URL chicagoreader.com/tylenol_killings and the page title "Chicago Reader | James Lewis | Tylenol Killings" because putting keywords in your URL and page title boosts your rank on the pages that come up when someone does a search. I also linked the story from Wikipedia—Wikipedia has "no-follows" links, which means that adding a link doesn't boost your search rank (which keeps the site more honest), but it does mean that people might read it, and thus link to it, and thus boost your page rank further.

When I googled "james lewis tylenol" Bergmann's Reader piece was the fifth link. That was pretty good. Now, the day the news broke about the search, the Huffington Post's little AP blurb was ranked higher than the far superior Sun-Times story, in part, I suspect, because HuffPo is very, very clever about search-engine optimization. If you've ever wondered why HuffPo has huge, seemingly redundant sets of tags above every story, for instance, it's that they make the site more Google-friendly. That's why we shit a brick when we found they were swiping concert previews. The previews weren't visible on Chuffpo if you started out on the homepage, but if you searched for, say, "bon iver vic," as you might if you knew Bon Iver was playing the Vic that week, the Chuffpo pages containing our preview showed up above our own.

We do get inbound traffic from such links. But think about what goes into producing a Bon Iver concert preview at the Reader. The freelance fee is one thing, but there are also the costs of editing, and maintaining a stable of writers, and the general momentum of being an institution that does those things. We do get traffic from such links, and they also drive up our search engine rankings, but that works both ways, and their overhead for replicating content, even in part, is much lower, which allows them to build a very large site, by which I mean lots of search-relevant pages, at a comparatively lower cost.

Like I said, I have no idea what the market effect of what I think is an ethically questionable interpretation of "fair use" might be. We may benefit from their practices. But it is much more complicated than "they give us traffic and boost our search rank." So when some fair-use kiddie asks "Where's the Tribune or Sun-Times version of Chicago Huffington Post? What's keeping you from being the ultimate local aggregator?" I'd answer nothing, but it ought to be done right . . .

(Again, no one on the panel managed to bring up the importance of SEO. Bears repeating.)

If someone is going to use pieces of our work, I'd feel better knowing that person is actually interested in the work as opposed to working up SEO.

Part III: Journalists

What went wrong? Is something wrong?

(Let's leave aside for the moment the economic viability of "real" journalism, whatever that is, and assume that whatever America wants and/or needs, we'll be able to pay for.)

Forget the distinction between "bloggers" and "journalists." Journalism is about (1) obtaining information and (2) explaining it.

Old-style media companies are still better at obtaining information. I really think that's undeniable. Name any good blogger, from Josh Marshall to Duncan Black to Digby to Daniel Larison (the fact that he's writing for the American Conservative and not for his hometown paper is a crime—not that there's anything wrong with the AC, he just deserves a bigger audience), and you'll find that they're mostly or wholly dependent on reporting from those institutions. Same goes for columnists. Even Paul Krugman, whose blogging and opinionating for the NYT is utterly invaluable, isn't out there publishing news articles on the latest from AIG or the Treasury.

This is probably an economic problem. Reporting, even stenographic reporting, is logistically difficult. It has to be your job—even the most SOP report from City Hall has to be filed from City Hall by someone who had to be there during City Hall business hours. This means you have to find an amateur who works weekends or hire someone. As far as actually doing the reporting that someone like former Reader staffer John Conroy does, that has to be a job (in Conroy's case it was part-time). There's no way around that, unless you can find someone who's both talented and independently wealthy.

So: I think we can agree that reporters = a necessity. Whether you want to present the reporting on a Web page or a newspaper or the radio, it's up to you.

So why are newspapers and their ilk getting their lunch money taken by these bloggers? I know it's not just them—craigslist, Google ads, etc—but we're talking content right now. This is, I think, the main problem:

Traditional journalism, in 2009 AD, is boring and kind of uninformative.

Let's all be perfectly honest here: what journalists at traditional local sources do you like to read? Which ones to you look forward to reading? Truly talented writers make you want to read them. There's a former blogger, who occasionally posts on Daily Kos these days, who goes by the handle Billmon. He's a former journalist, mostly trained as a business reporter, from what I've been able to glean, who blogged for a while at a site called the Whiskey Bar.

Then he stopped. I was, I swear to you, heartbroken. He's smart. He's funny. He's deeply passionate. I got excited when he posted. When I woke up one morning a few weeks ago to find that he'd done a post on the financial crisis at Daily Kos, I was gleeful, because one of my favorite writers was taking on a subject right in his wheelhouse.

Really, ask yourself: how many newspaper columnists have the ethical ferocity of Glenn Greenwald? The mordant wit of John Cole? The nerdy doggedness of Marcy Wheeler? The prose skills of Roy Edroso? The quantitative skills of Nate Silver? (Baseball Prospectus is a slept-on model of journalism you have to pay for.) Precious few. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone is funny and passionate. Krugman's analytical talents and enormous knowledge are backed by a fundamental decency. When This American Life decides to tackle a prominent news story, they often do an amazing job, and get a lot of deserved attention, e.g. their explanation of the financial crisis, "The Giant Pool of Money."

When these debates about journalism come up, the first thing traditional journalists say is that bloggers don't report. But that's not all journalism is. Getting information is only half the battle—the other half is explaining it to people in a manner that causes them to read, watch, or listen in the first place, informs them, and causes them to act. And speaking from personal experience—as not only a professional but as a reader—I think traditional journalism, particularly newspapers, is failing at that.

But: why?

First, the Internet has so reduced the expense of publishing that anyone can do it. And 99 percent of blogging is utterly useless as a result, but it's opened up publishing to people with talent and expertise who previously didn't have a platform. Juan Cole is a Middle East expert. Duncan Black is an economist. The people at Balkinization are prominent lawyers and law profs. They don't have to be filtered by journalists anymore—journalists who are experts in mere journalism. And even the people who aren't experts in the fields they write about sometimes have more talent than traditional journalists in important areas: for example, they're funnier and better, more interesting writers.

In part, it's a monkeys-with-typewriters issue: now that there's a near-infinite amount of writing being done, some of it's going to be great. It's almost a statistical inevitability.

Second...I don't know. I don't know why well-compensated, well-informed, experienced professionals produce so much weak tea. Risk aversion is surely part of it. The worse things get, the more institutions start to close the hatches and pray for the boat not to roll over.

Our country has suffered greatly over the past few years: torture, the collapse of an economic philosophy, wars on two fronts, the intensive politicization of our judicial system. From which sources did you get a better sense, not just on the level of information but emotion, of the scale of these crises? (And it's not just the rhetoric: detailed, painfully rigorous analysis is an aesthetic. It has gravity; it carries passion.)

Maybe it's this: Journalists rely on eyeballs and "traffic," so they write toward the broadest possible audience, which inevitably means watering down content. Since most bloggers don't rely solely on their work to pay the bills, they can do whatever the fuck they want, which is not only freeing but means they can work a niche in however much detail interests them. Most of America isn't interested in Monica Goodling's role in politicizing the DOJ? What John Bolton said to CPAC? Who cares? If it fails to monetize, no big deal.

It's tough to have this giant pool of talent that doesn't have to worry about paying for itself, but think of it like minor league baseball: it's charming, it's cheap, it's more intimate. And it also feeds the big leagues. The Atlantic wised up and started hiring bloggers—and by extension buying their audience!—and as far as I can tell it's working great.

Y'all want an actual, explicit idea to get you started, of which there have been precious few in this discussion?: HIRE DANIEL LARISON. Here's why: the Republican party and the conservative movement is completely fucked, as you may have noticed if you watched Bobby Jindal's brain-dead, tone-deaf response to Obama's address the other night. Yet major papers like the New York Times and now the Washington Post insist on throwing money at architect of failure Bill Kristol, who doesn't even redeem himself by being an engaging writer. He's just useless, and basically admitted that he blew off his NYT sinecure. Why in the hell would you pay someone who came out and said yeah, I was writing for the New York Times, but whatever, I was too busy to put my back into it.

Meanwhile, there's a thoughtful, articulate, original conservative—a grad student in this city—who could be picked up by the Trib for comparative chump change, which I'm sure the paper could find somewhere. Promote him right and you could make waves. (On the other side of the political spectrum there's Rick Perlstein.) Trust me as a baseball fan: everyone gets excited when you promote the hot new rookie.

Besides, if you're dying, live a little. Ask me for a bucket list!

Part IV: The 500lb Gorilla That No One Mentioned

HOW CAN YOU HAVE A CHICAGO JOURNALISM TOWN HALL AND NOT MENTION REDEYE? YOU REALLY THINK THE KINDLE—AKA THE NEWTON 2.0—IS MORE IMPORTANT????

Actually, that's not entirely true. At the very, very end, the editor of RedEye, Tran Ha, got up and said, basically, hey, there's the RedEye, we're makin' money.

There was grumbling. It was bittersweet.

I'm serious as a plague about this: the RedEye is the most read paper in Chicago. Numbers whatever: I trust my eyes, which are on public transportation twice a day, and it's everywhere. So it has to be reckoned with. Tran Ha should have been on the panel.

And the first question should have been: What is RedEye? I still don't really know.

It was pitched as training wheels for a real paper, but it has no editorial voice, or, as far as I can tell, mission. Its news is imported from Mother Tribune and the AP. Its columnists and bloggers seem to have no interest in local or state issues, especially political issues. It's sterile, a sterility masked by its tightly edited cleverness, and not just because of its overwhelming celebrity and sports content. There's little of the marrow of city life to the paper. It doesn't feel like a city, it feels like a focus group.

And this is where reporting, and even just page count, returns as an issue. Take Ben Joravsky's 1994 Reader piece on recently deceased Bulls great Norm Van Lier. It takes a lot of words to find the marrow, the person inside the celebrity.

If in RedEye it comes from anywhere, it feels like it comes from the grids that George W.S. Trow describes in his odd masterpiece Within the Context of No Context. To borrow liberally from Trow's aphoristic analysis:

"The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it."

"Wonder was the grace of the country. Any action could be justified by that: the wonder it was rooted in. Period followed period, and finally the wonder was that things could be built so big. Bridges, skyscrapers, fortunes, all having a life first in the marketplace, still drew on the force of wonder. But then a moment's quiet. What was it now that was built so big? Only the marketplace itself. Could there be wonder in that? The size of the con?"

"The comfort was in agreement, the easy exercise of the modes of choice and preference. It was attractive and, as it was presented, not difficult. But, once interfered with, the processes of choice and preference began to take on an uncomfortable aspect. Choice in respect to important matters became more and more difficult; people found it troublesome to settle on a mode of work, for instance, or a partner. Choice in respect to trivial matters, on the other hand, assumed an importance that no one could have thought to predict. So what happened then was that important forces that had not been used, because they fell outside the new scale of national life (which was the life of television), began to find a home in the exercise of preference concerning trivial matters, so that attention, aspiration, even affection came to adhere to shimmers thrown up by the demography in trivial matters. The attraction of inappropriate attention, aspiration, and affection to a shimmer spins out, in its operation, a little mist of energy which is rather like love, but trivial, rather like a sense of home, but apt to disappear."

"The middle distance fell away, so the grids (from small to large) that had supported the middle distance fell into disuse and ceased to be understandable. Two grids remained. The grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life—a shimmer of national life—and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening."

Maybe it's just adwrap. Papers have to make money. But as the RedEye supplants other papers as the public-transportation reading of choice, I'm starting to question whether the Tribune Company is building its future audience, or destroying it.

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