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Inky Tears

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Would that modernization were so simple now. But the Times and its print and television brethren can’t survive in the digital marketplace simply by adding bells and whistles online, or piling on C-span-league talking-head videos, or staging high-ticket conferences in which reporters and columnists mingle with corporate underwriters. (That get-rich-quick fad has already led to an embarrassing blowup at the Washington Post.) The digital revolution by definition has undermined the very notion of omniscient news organizations. We can mine information far more deeply than we ever could before, contrasting, comparing, and testing countless news sources all along the way as we become our own editors, trying to discriminate between the real and the spurious. Given the time most Americans devote to comparison shopping (much of it online) for cars or even toaster ovens, this does not seem like a tremendous burden of citizenship. Those who didn’t “follow the news” in print or on television still won’t, of course. And those readers who only seek news or opinion tailored to their own parochial interests and biases will continue to do so. But new media, no more than old, can’t be expected to remake the human race.

There is plenty of junk online, but the old media had their own antecedents of cat ­videos, rumormongers, and gossip sites. It’s amazing how few remember that in the good old days, there was Confidential as well as Time, the scurrilous and red-baiting Daily Mirror as well as the Times and Journal, rigged game shows like The $64,000 Question sharing prime time with Murrow’s See It Now. For any news junkie who once had to rely on days-late shipments to out-of-town newsstands to read firsthand news from Chicago or Tokyo, it seems like winning the lottery to be able to surf the digital marketplace now. And if the Internet speeds the spread of misinformation, so it can speed its debunking. Had social media been in place, some of the lonely voices, journalistic and official, challenging the fictions leading up to the Iraq War (not just the bogus WMD but also the bogus links between the 9/11 terrorists and Saddam) would have been amplified on the web, rather than buried in the back pages of newsprint and news sites. It’s hungry (and highly competitive) new-media outlets that quickly unraveled the writer Jonah Lehrer’s duplicity and uncovered the football star Manti Te’o’s fictional deceased girlfriend (whose existence was never subjected to routine verification by CBS or NBC Sports, ESPN, or Sports Illustrated, let alone by the Associated Press and many major papers). As Clay Shirky has written, “We don’t select publications anymore, we select links.” We are more and more likely to turn to the advice of trusted friends in deciding “what to read, watch or listen to” rather than rely on impersonal and arguably more fallible media kingdoms whose power can give a megaphone to someone like, say, Judith Miller.

This is why the biggest recent Times success story, the election-year popularity of the poll analyst Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog, is such a mixed indicator for the future of old media. According to Alexa, the company that measures such things, Silver and FiveThirtyEight were the only Times writers or brands to land on its list of rising referral search terms in October 2012. As the election reached its fever pitch, half the people coming to the Times site were seeking Silver. But that did not translate into those readers’ checking out the paper’s coverage of Afghanistan or art. As the paper’s executive editor, Jill Abramson, has said, “They weren’t coming for the rest of the Times, they came for him.” Given all the Times has to offer, that’s a sobering fact, for it and for Silver, whose deal with the paper is up this year. “At what point,” asked the digital trade site PaidContent, “does it become more of a hindrance than a benefit to be associated with a traditional media brand?” Is there a point, in other words, when large news organizations, whether a national newspaper like the Times or the Journal, or a network like CNN, become synonymous with corporate sclerosis, as well as unsustainable, in the face of more nimble (and potentially more profitable) competitors? Those competitors include not just specialist boutiques like Talking Points Memo or TMZ or Foreign Policy but also a brand-name blog like Andrew Sullivan’s the Dish, which recently left the Daily Beast–Newsweek megasite to experiment with a subscription model. Even so, the Times could still be the last of its genre standing, the Walmart of full-­service news. Or not. The much-quoted ­William Goldman dictum about the movie business, “Nobody knows anything,” surely applies here.

Though most old-media journalists I encounter these days are even more anxious than is par for the profession, those who have jobs can still find encouragement. It’s a paradox of the Internet that it has found more and new readers for virtually every news source, from old-media publications to the blogger who hit Tumblr yesterday, even as it has killed the business model that once supported them. The thirst and potentially the market for actual news is as robust as ever—whether for bulletins of 140 characters or long-form journalism of the type pioneered by writers like Talese and Halberstam. Despite the tough economic odds, aspiring young newshounds, whatever their chosen medium, are entering the ranks as enthusiastically as ever, and perhaps with a more realistic sense than recent generations that job stability and an upscale income are not guaranteed.

A few weeks ago I ran into a staff writer in his early forties I know at the Washington Post, where layoffs, cuts in coverage, and management turnover have been particularly severe. As is typical in such encounters, we compared notes on the state of the business. “We’re in for a long period of reinvention,” he said, “and almost no one now in journalism will see the end of it. It will take years to figure out how to pay for it. And reinvention is a painful thing to watch. Everything will have to be reduced to rubble and then built back up again.” But, as he added, “there’s no point in being nostalgic. How we used to do things in the seventies, eighties, and nineties—who cares? We have to go with it.” He was not complaining. In truth, we’re at the beginning of a new chapter in the history of news media, not the end of the last, and readers and practitioners alike have little choice but to hang on tight through the sublime and the ridiculous. You can track @RevolutionSyria in real time on Twitter, and also Jayson Blair, who had 207 followers last time I looked.


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