Random Thoughts for an Addled Dawn

12 Jun

I’m not sure why I even care anymore. Truth is, I haven’t worked in day-to-day journalism for nearly a decade, though I still contribute from time to time and visit old-friend newsrooms when I can. But something about the ongoing fracas between print and online fascinates me into migraines and bellicose outbursts on blogs across the Web.

I don’t exactly know what troubles me. I’m still formulating. “Process journalism,” right? There remain holes in my suppositions and I’m likely to roam into corners and stop, too chagrined to continue. So bear with me as I, in the words of David Byrne, “wress-sulll” with my conscience.

I don’t think it’s even a matter of print vs. online, really. That transition can only be beneficial, and I don’t know too many people — contrary to steadfastly held public opinion — who don’t support it. What we’re fighting is not technology but the marketing mindset’s domination of it.

I’d love to believe that the Internet is the Great Emancipator. But I wonder if what we’ll see instead is the evolution of new monopolies, where the loudest, most aggressive, and best-funded will reign (in other words, just like offline). Davids among Goliaths will sometimes shine, but still be rare indeed. I worry that spin will become even dizzier and more confusing. Data-mining will determine importance and significance. We’ll fret even more about what people want to read. You’ll have to be more profitable and popular than informative to survive. Subterfuge will be easier. Transparency? Good luck. Trends and movements will have faster life cycles; you could culturally live and die at the speed of the average housefly.

To a marketer, a playground, where recess never ends. All those eyes, all those malleable minds.

For instance, have you noticed the language that’s surfaced around the touted “new media” (I don’t air-quote as a slight; new, old — it’s all media to me)? Product. Branding. Consumers. Content. “Thinking outside the box.” Marketing jargon. The prominent players in this struggle aren’t journalists but CEOs and entrepreneurs who sometimes produce a pad and pen to play inquisitor ’cause it’s oodles of fun. So, interestingly, journalism’s future is being determined largely by corporate entities and deep-pocketed outside parties, both of whom regard the medium as a curious bauble. (In fairness I must say that of those outside parties, Jay Rosen is a teacher of journalism, as is Jeff Jarvis, who has worked as a reporter. Both have an appreciation of the form if not always the execution.) The actual practiti0ners, as always, have little say. They just toil until it’s time to clear out their desks. (Some have taken the initiative and launched their own community news sites; I wish them success and prosperity.)

I have little against marketing. Hey dere, Meathead, some of my best friends are in marketing. There was a lovely, receptive tribe at Rhino. They’d brainstorm with you, consult you, run ideas past you — for the most part, it was a giving environment. You could sit in a conference room for days batting concepts back and forth, and it never felt like work.

Sadly, I can’t say I had the same experience in newspapers. I won’t mention any specific names or mastheads, but among the more pleasant advertising-department denizens we had this gaggle of self-anointed geniuses, a real power-suited wolf pack. A trio they were, slathered in black and seldom seen apart. They’d hydra-head into the publisher’s office, whose hermetically sealed door would mysteriously unlock at their scent, and drag him off to a shmoozefest lunch or an asskiss golf. They’d descend on the retiring publisher of the sister paper across the bridge and present their golden boy, a local chisel-chin and former classified ad manager, as the obvious heir apparent. They spoke in slogan and only remembered your name long enough to go through your pockets. They were soulless vermin, cheap fucking slime. And every time I hear “product,” “branding,” “consumers,” “content,” and “thinking outside the box,” I imagine their lolling lizard tongues slithering over every syllable.

Marketing and pure-blood journalism have always had an adversarial relationship, but it’s a necessary one. However, one should never dominate and determine the direction of the other. That’s what worries me.

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