Open MSM Bonnet, Insert Bee

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Dec 30, 2005 5:58 PM

It seems to be the end-o-the-year tantrum season for a bunch of Old-Media-lovin' blog-hating types out there. There was the WaPo swipe at Bill Roggio. Then Kathleen Parker calling bloggers a bunch of savage children who should be ignored.

Today I ran across a column on Poynter (a media trade Web site) in which an editor of the Chicago Reader calls for a Year Without Journalism, just to teach all of us ungrateful news consumers a lesson.

Today, therefore, I am proposing a yearlong journalism strike. I am urging reporters and editors around the world to put down their notebooks, close their laptops, hang up their phones. Lie down and be counted! Let’s have no reporting, no editing, no application of any human intelligence whatsoever to events public or private till January 1, 2007.

I’m calling it the Year Without Journalism. Let’s all relax, let go, and float blissfully in the information-free state (excuse me, I mean free-information state) that our public awaits so eagerly. Let one of those news robots handle the hired truck scandal and further crimes of the Daley administration. Let’s see if Wonkette can deal with the devious bastards in the executive branch any better than Judith Miller did. Let’s have some of those citizen journalists call Burt Natarus and see if they can figure out what the hell he’s talking about.

With no news to aggregate, no facts to ruminate, the algorithms and the bedroom pundits will turn on each other like mirrors, producing a perfect regression of narcissistic self-reflection, repeating endlessly, adding nothing, ever shrinking, ad infinitum. Meanwhile our beaten-down journalists will get a much needed year of rest and relaxation.

Apparently the strike has already started, because Michael Lenehan's column is only accessible buried deep inside a 26-page pdf , which took me 10 minutes of downloading and zooming in to read.

Oh, but it was so worth it, because Mr. Lenehan, in trying to explain why "real" journalists are so very vital, actually goes a great way toward explaining why people tend to think they're not so much any more. And ending your year with that kind of irony is as much yummy good luck as starting it out with black-eyed peas and collards. Mmmm.

So, settle in for a meal, because I'm gonna serve up much of his column, so you don't have to read it in pdf. After all, I'm not a "real" journalist, so I don't have to strike. I can make things simple for my readers in an effort to, you know, keep them.

Have you heard that the newspaper business is going to hell? It’s in all the papers, but nobody reads the papers anymore so you might have missed the news. Assuming you still care about news, which you don’t, according to the papers. Circulation’s down, ad revenue’s down, jobs are vanishing everywhere you look.

Lenehan starts with some very bad statistics for the newspaper industry. They're all true, and they're serious. A serious analysis of the causes and solutions thereof would be in order here, but that's not what we get. Instead we get a veritable buffet of all the things readers are beginning to find tiresome about their local ink-stained wretches. Out of it, I have pieced together what seem to be the MSM's self-destructive New Year's Resolutions:

1. Display utter ignorance of the free-market system the rest of us work in, which is competitive and requires us to work hard to fend off competitors.

Who’s to blame for all this? Mostly Craig Newmark, the geek who started Craigslist ten years ago as an e-mail guide to “cool events” in the Bay Area. Now, with just 18 employees—fewer people than it takes to deliver the Reader every Thursday— Craigslist is a global juggernaut sucking up millions of dollars that used to go to newspaper classifieds. According to one much-repeated estimate, it cost daily papers in San Francisco alone about $50 million last year. (emphasis mine)

Herein lies the ignorance of the market I'm talking about. Craig's List isn't "sucking" anything. It is taking business from willing customers who are vountarily switching from newspaper classifieds to Craig's List because the big geek's product works. It works better. It is worth more to consumers. It earns whatever money it makes; it does not "suck" it. As do eBay and Yahoo and blogs and a host of other Internetty enemies Lenehan goes after with subtlety:

There’s also eBay, which has siphoned off who knows how many more millions of dollars by making camera-for-sale ads obsolete. And Google, which has rocked the advertising world by delivering ads to people who might actually want to see them. And online journals like Slate and Salon, and Yahoo and Microsoft, which lurk behind their mountains of cash waiting to spring out and copy anything that works for Google or eBay. And Wonkette and InstaPundit and the Decembrist and all their blogging friends whose idea of a good time is giving yourself a funny name and distracting normal people who used to read newspapers. (emphasis mine again)

Competitors are just cash-flush lurkers who distract and siphon readers from the products of "real" journalists, you see? Um, this is how the world works. Newspapers used to know this, back when there were a couple papers in each town instead of one, lolling, chain-owned giant per metropolis. My hometown had two newspapers, locked in one of the few healthy cross-town rivalries left. The battle is what made both papers better.

Now, newspapers have competition from other sectors, which makes their jobs harder, but will make the product better if they'll work on it instead of lashing out at lil' ol' distracters like me.

2. Have obvious contempt for your readers.

It is not wise to openly dislike the customers you're serving.

According to Lenehan, news consumers are un-engaged and witless, easily taken in by crafty Internet schemes to (gasp!) give them better products for less money, and need to be taught a lesson with a strike.

Well, that's one tactic for increasing circulation, I guess, but I'm not making it my resolution.

3. Save the most contempt for your most engaged readers.

I'm referring, of course, to bloggers. We consume news and we critique some of it. That's what we do. The media would do well to listen instead of getting angry. But Lenehan takes the standard swings:

whose idea of a good time is giving yourself a funny name and distracting normal people who used to read newspapers...

you can’t rely on bloggers to do it, because something might happen over Thanksgiving weekend...

Nowhere does Wonkette betray even the vaguest awareness of the person who actually reported that story or even the “mainstream media” that disseminated it...That’s the way it works in the blogosphere. The stories are just . . . out there.

4. When in doubt, throw up your hands and blame someone else.

Americans don't like a quitter. Nope, they like plucky geeks who sell things and write things on the Internet in new and exciting ways. Consumers like it that many of these geeks do it without seeming to look down their noses at them or threatening a strike when they feel underappreciated.

These New Year's Resolutions are simply not going to work for the MSM. As a blogger, I pick on the MSM a lot. We all do, and usually with good reason. We wish to hold them to the same standards they wish to hold corporations and politicians.

It doesn't mean we think the MSM should disappear. I know that when it comes to thorough, worldwide, concentrated, quick newsgathering, you can't beat AP. It will be a long time before anyone can, but there's no reason that the APs of the world should be able to recline forever in that comfortable knowledge.

I have a special place in my heart for newspapers because I grew up with them; it's what I studied in school; it's what I thought I wanted to do. But I have a more special place in my heart for whomever can give me the best information when I want it. I will not forever hold onto MSM sources simply because they feel entitled to my business, and no one else will either.

You know that scene at the end of "Harry and the Hendersons," where a heartsick John Lithgow yells at his sasquatch friend, telling him to leave the family he's come to love and go back into the woods? That's what this is like, Mainstream Media.

We are the Hendersons. We want you to learn to live in the wild, independent and strong. Sometimes we feel the only way you will do that is if we yell at you and make you feel very sad. But it's for everyone's good. If you wouldn't be so all-fired bitter about it, it would make for a better New Year for all of us.