The scandalous Internet

Posted: Mar 30, 2005 12:00 AM

It's not only the top of the market old media like CBS and the New York Times that are under assault. In the last few days there have been stories about the travails of the National Enquirer and the New York Daily News' gossip columnist, Liz Smith, drowning in the digital storm.

 It seems the Enquirer has lost a cool million readers per edition in circulation over the last eight years -- down to 1.5 million over its historic high of 4 million in the halcyon days of the 1970s.

 Liz Smith, proud to be a gossip columnist a publicity agent could do business with, is down to 70 newspapers for her syndicated column. She cheerfully admits that she may be the last of the breed, and that it would be nuts to pay the million bucks a year she pulls down for a new hot print gossip columnist. 

 Unnamed Washington Post gossip staffers confess on background that they spend their days reading Wonkette on the Internet scooping their stories -- because she can be up as fast as she can type, while they have to wait for the next day's Washington Post to be manufactured and shipped to its distribution points almost a day after the hot rumor has already been consumed by a ravenous public.

 Is nothing sacred? Walter Winchell must be rotating in his grave, considering that the noble work of print gossip is being usurped by irresponsible digital gossips. In the old days, you could rely on printed gossip to be a genuine, certified rumor or double entendre sexual reference. (Have you noticed that there is invariably only one possible meaning to a double entendre?)

 But today, the public is being fed unreliable digital gossip. What you read on an Internet gossip blog may not be a genuine rumor at all. The blogger may have made up the rumor out of whole cloth (or, to update the phrase, out of virgin electrons.)

 Of course, its true that once the fabricated rumor (again, our language is lagging behind our technology. Something made of whole cloth is fabricated. But something made up of virgin electrons is "inputed" or "uploaded" -- once the uploaded rumor has been downloaded, it becomes a genuine rumor.

 Still, there seems to be something more reliable, more substantial, about rumors printed on paper. Behind that rumor stands a large building filled with hundreds of employees paying federal state and local taxes. The words used to make up the rumor weren't just typed, willy-nilly, on some $50 keyboard. When print media was really print media, each letter of each word of each sentence was cast in molten lead and assembled in large trays.

  Even today, a printed rumor is then processed by large printing presses. The New York Times spent three quarters of a billion dollars a few years ago to buy some new printing presses. These are machines that require good relations with a major financial institution in order to acquire. Compare that impressive sum with the paltry few dollars a month it takes to bring a web server online.

 The paper, measured by its tonnage, is delivered by train from Georgia. Oxen could drown in the ink vats. Platoons of highly trained, often unionized, press operators work around the clock to successfully bring the paper, ink and words together to form a proper setting for a genuine, certified rumor. 

 When those kinds of assets and those kinds of people are behind a paper-printed rumor, a reader has solid grounds for relying on it.

 But today, inexperienced youthful readers are willing to consume cheaply produced rumors by unlicensed persons in their basements -- if they even have basements. Knowing the type, they probably only have lofts. Having a basement suggests a substantial building of multiple stories. But today's decadent youth don't care from where they get their rumors. Just like the steel and other heavy manufacturing industries, the paper-printed rumor business is being hollowed out. Digital rumor manufacturing is to the rumor industry what ten cents per month Chinese wage rates are to the steel industry. 

 The impending death of the paper-printed rumor business should be a warning to the news divisions of those papers. While the newspaper's rumor department is at a competitive disadvantage with the digital rumor blogs, the news departments actually have some advantages -- if they choose to use them. Hundreds of trained reporters and editors, if they are committed to objective news gathering, can actually produce more usable, objective news each day than even the most hard-working blogger. But if they print rumor and prejudice masquerading as news, they will surely go the way of their official, certified rumor departments.