Monday, September 10, 2007

Guilt Trip

Guilt Trip
By William Powers, National Journal
© National Journal Group Inc.

There's a new twist in the ongoing drama of the poor beleaguered mainstream media. Rather than merely bemoaning the plight of traditional news outlets, some people are suggesting that users of the new media -- pretty much all of us -- should feel guilty for undermining the blue-chip operations that are struggling to stay alive.

Nothing will kill the great newspapers more quickly than turning them into charity cases.

Writing in The Boston Globe, Lou Ureneck, chairman of the journalism department at Boston University, told the story of how, after a recent fly-fishing trip to a relatively untouristed corner of Greece called Epirus, he decided to start a website offering information about the region. Like many Web entrepreneurs, Ureneck signed up with Google's advertising program and, voila , the money started to roll in. Well, sort of. In its first week of business, pulled in just $1.05. Still, money is money, and therein lies the guilt:

"I love newspapers and subscribe to three of them at home.... I believe that the work that they do collecting and analyzing news is an essential part of a healthy democracy," Ureneck wrote. "But those little Google ads that are popping on my website are chipping -- more like hacking -- away at newspapers by cutting into their revenue streams.... In a sense, I am contributing to problems of newspapers by jumping into Web publishing and accepting advertising."

In suggesting that he kept those ads from appearing in print and thereby helped to impoverish the outlets he loves, Ureneck is making a leap. As Boston-based media blogger Dan Kennedy put it, "Does Lou Ureneck really think the little guys whose ads have popped up on his website about fishing in Greece would otherwise be taking out ads in newspapers?"

Still, the column's core point, that ad dollars are migrating from old media to new, is inarguable and nothing new. What's remarkable is the remorse, and it may be spreading. In one of the most talked-about media books of the moment, "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture," Andrew Keen strikes a similar note. Discussing the public's attachment to free media sites such as YouTube, MySpace, and Craigslist, he writes, "What you may not realize is that what is free is actually costing us a fortune." Later he specifically cites the way this practice is hurting old media: "Of course, every free listing on Craigslist means one less paid listing in a local newspaper."

Keen believes that amateur-produced content is destroying the best things about our culture, and he places the blame squarely on you and me: "We ... are being seduced by the empty promise of 'democratized' media. For the real consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution is less culture, less reliable news, and a chaos of useless information."

Again, the basic business dynamic is real, but the implied conclusion, that old media are dying as a result and we are the guilty assassins, is not. Digital outlets have stolen a lot of business away from traditional outlets, but the two are also converging and growing interdependent. Mainstream news outlets operate major Web portals (a fact Keen himself notes). Without newspapers and other traditional sources, Google News would have virtually no quality journalism -- the hard news and investigative work that are the media's most important products -- to offer. In an implicit acknowledgment of this fact, Google just inked a deal with the Associated Press in which it agreed to pay for AP content.

Nothing will kill the great newspapers more quickly than turning them into charity cases. And nobody should ever read a newspaper out of a dreary sense of civic obligation. Like great books, the best news shops have always drawn readers because they were feisty, well executed, and thrillingly alive to their own times. Their magnetism was rooted partly in the fact that they were optional, something you didn't technically need to get through the day, yet somehow couldn't live without.

When we take our eyeballs to a new media site, we are helping the old media more than hurting them, by showing them what works for us -- teaching them to be not weaker but stronger. Are they getting the message?

-- William Powers is a columnist for National Journal magazine, where "Off Message" appears. His e-mail address is

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