Saturday, December 29, 2007

ASK THE LORDS OF THE FLIES: Punches in groin passed off as wisdom

"Free news will cost journalism dearly" was the title of a recent Consumer Confidential column in the Los Angeles Times. The discussion was on what we already know: Anything that can't be nailed down in cyberspace is taken for free, including news, and no one can figure out how to monetize it.

This has meant very bad things for newspapers, including the Times. As circulation decreases, the newspaper is scrambling with a new order to find some type of solution in cyberspace.

DD doesn't believe there is one. I never use the LA Times website except as a convenience to blog readers, as the destination of a link from something cited here.

I read the Times, home-delivered, everyday at lunch. Haven't missed an issue as long as I've been in southern California.

The LA Times' website in no way compares to the pleasure I get from reading the daily newspaper. There's absolutely no compelling reason why I should substitute the web's claustrophobic, crabbed and awkward delivery for something I can read comfortably while at the table.

These days, the newspaper has been pouring resources into its website like there's no tomorrow.

The publication acts like there is no future, that the on-line version is much more important than that stupid paper edition, that the latter can just wither away as long as there's a presence in cyberspace.

To that, DD says, knock yourself out. The assumption is an insult to serious readers.

Yep -- log-in [sigh] -- click -- wait for the page to load -- clickety-click -- wait for the next, discover it's something you aren't interested in, a task that takes barely a blink in the paper copy. Wow! Some progress!

For the Consumer Confidential column, reporter David Lazarus mulled over the future.

"Everyone says the Net represents the future of journalism and that's probably true," he wrote. "But at this point no one knows how to make money at it."

This is only true in the sense that no one knows how to make money at it on the order needed to finance a world-class news operation like the Los Angeles Times. While that might not sound tragic to laymen, I want (although maybe you don't) newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and their big budgets and overhead to get stories which require deep digging and dedicated journalists and editors. The world is not better served just by ad hoc collections of stringers and one-off free-lancers employed to furnish stuff for digital real estate around which ads can be clustered.

Lazarus wrote: "I figured the best way to understand the trend was to turn to the people with the most at stake: young journalists accustomed to getting their news free on-line, but also looking ahead to paying jobs at newspapers.

"That's how I found myself before the Christmas break in a window-less computer-packed room with the teenage staff of Crossfire, the student newspaper of Crossroads School, a well-regarded, K-12 private institution in Santa Monica that happens to be my alma mater," explained Lazarus.

"Braaappp!" went the bullshit detector. Not because of what was written, but because what the reader was about to be delivered. Fresh and hot, wisdom from the Lords of the Flies, the always unimpeachable logic of teenagers.

DD has now been in cyberspace for almost two decades and has seen a variety of teenagers come and grow into not-teenagers along with stories in which journalists seek their wisdom in order to divine the future. The results have always been the same, just like reading unmoderated comments pages or the old Usenet: You get a kick in the nuts and your glasses broken, gratis.

Lazarus anonymizes his sources, an odd move, since just before Christmas the business section ran a story in which a local teen stealing holiday music enjoyed no such benefit.

He starts off by asking his teen pals at the student newspaper if they pay for anything on-line.

Naturally, they don't. But there is an asterisk. They pay for music on iTunes, Lazarus reported. DD doesn't believe that. More accurately, the teenagers no more pay for iTunes than they buy their own iPods. Mummy and Daddy, or someone else furnishing an allowance or digital gifts, pay for iTunes.

Of course, not one of them pays for news, either.

"These bright, info-hungry, computer-savvy kids willingly paid for the latest cuts from Alicia Keys or Fergie," Lazarus wrote. "But they couldn't imagine having the same relationship with the New York Times..."

The awful cliches are delivered in one sentence! Those high school kids are always bright, always "info-hungry" and "computer savvy."

Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.

Basically, they're average. Not particularly "info-hungry," they surely download an endless pile of digital stuff, mercilessly and witlessly, just like every other teenager DD has met in cyberspace.

In 1994, DD wrote The Virus Creation Labs, the first first-person book on the teenage culture of computer virus writers and the cyberspace systems which served them. Many of the kids in it were good students. One of the main characters in VCL was the editor of his school's newspaper. For the most part, except for one or two genuine oddball sociopaths, they were apparently the same as the kids sampled in Lazarus' column.

Were they exceptionally "cyber-savvy?" While it might have seemed that way to casual passers-by, they never seemed that way to me.

Did they have some crystal ball into the future, some wisdom to share that we should have all bent over backwards to heed?

No, they didn't. They made for an interesting book, though.

Back in 1994, they obeyed the model which everyone would follow in cyberspace. Steal everything and don't feel bad about it.

"Information should be free," "declared" and eighteen-year-old named Corey, to Lazarus. This was the now standard rationalization that newspapers must give their news away, that such a state of affairs is as natural as oxygen in the air.

It was a sentiment "...I encounter a lot online, particularly among bloggers who feel a perverse sense of entitlement to other people's work," added Lazarus.

In reality, "Information should be free," is a meek and mild variation on the far more entitled and belligerent, "Information wants to be free!"

"Information wants to be free!" was an old hacker slogan, said to be first uttered by Stewart Brand in the Eighties, often repeated as a battle-cry in cyberspace. Generally, it was used to rhetorically club to death those who wished to attach value to something they naively put into the digital world.

By 1994, the bromide was zinc-plated and corroded. In Virus Creation Labs, I paraphrased what someone really meant when they tossed it in your face:

"Your information is mine for free. But everything I can grab is secret unless you have something I want which can't be free-loaded, stolen or found somewhere else."

"Our generation doesn't pay for things on the Internet," a fifteen-year-old girl named Phoebe told Lazarus. It's an age thing, you see, she explained.

In 1994, eighteen-year-old Corey of Crossroads School in Santa Monica was still probably wetting the bed. Phoebe was even worse off.

When you ask teenagers for their opinions on what should be the way of things in cyberspace, you get exactly what you pay for. Crap. Everything must always be free and you'll find some way to work it out. If you don't and are crushed, tough. It's the social Darwinism of The Lord of the Flies in action.

Said Jacob, sixteen, to David Lazarus: "I'm sure there are a bunch of smart people at Tribune or Universal or NBC ... I'm sure they can come up with a business model that works."

Thanks, kid. Top fuel advice from on the ground at the private school for the spoiled children of the upper middle class in Santa Monica.

In terms of comparisons, DD didn't pick up the habit of reading a daily newspaper until college. He wasn't an editor or reporter at the school newspaper, the Pine Cone at Pine Grove Area High School. It folded his freshman year. Paradoxically, DD did deliver newspapers for a couple years, even doing sports reporting for the same paper, the town weekly, while in junior high.

In graduate school, the Philadelphia Inquirer became the the daily read, a fact which irritated my thesis advisor. Reading it over lunch, it actually stretched the free time into about forty-five minutes at mid-day. That was thirty minutes too long away from the lab bench.

In any case, reading even more stories delivering advice and fundamentally obnoxious statements on the ways of the world from our Lords of Flies has never been enlightening. A student with a genuinely cutting and subversive outlook might have recommended newspapers think about getting into the on-line porn business or other vices which are monetized in cyberspace such as gambling, poker or watching strippers whilst engaged in self-fulfillment.

Another question that could have been asked for the article, but which wasn't, is a simple one: Why doesn't the journalism advisor at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica require each student to have their own subscription to a daily newspaper?

That would serve two purposes. First, it teaches value. You go to private school, you can have an iPod bought for you, you can certainly buy a daily newspaper or inveigle Mummy and Daddy into purchasing it.

Second, it gets one into the habit of occasionally getting one's nose out of cyberspace for something that's arguably a more readable good of quality in its physical form.

That'd be so 20th century! You clueless poop. Only me Grandmum buys a newspaper! Now go die, geezer.

Free news will cost journalism dearly.


Blogger drydiggins said...

(From the POV of a 54y/o male)

Fifteen years ago when I moved from L.A. to Sacramento I would walk five blocks to an LA Times vending machine for a fix. Even back then I wouldn't spend the 50 cents for a third-tier paper like the Bee, let alone my suburban bird-cage liner.

My workday keeps me very near a laptop and in constant intimate touch with a Blackberry. Result... I end up reading the pure text version of CNN at lunch on my BB.

What's worse is that I only find myself reading mainstream newspaper articles if led there by a link from a weblog... that I have selected largely because that weblog supports my preconceived worldview. Probably not for the best.

I regularly visit, via RSS feeds, wire service sites like McClatchy and AP.

Finally, the narrative of mega media owners changing the newsroom emphasis from a tradition of providing depth and context to chasing the next quarterly result doesn't serve to attract readership.

Once all newspapers resemble Murdoch properties, why would I pay for that? Better off to scan and crosscheck the infohaze.

4:50 PM  

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