Hey, here’s a fun game: From now on, whenever you read a piece by a newspaper person about the “future of journalism” or “whither newspapers” or anything like that, try to pinpoint where that person is on the scale of the “Five Stages of Grief.”
So, for instance, if a newspaper guy writes that “We survived TV and radio; we’ll survive the web,” then you know he’s still in “denial.” If he talks about how “micropayments” or the Amazon Kindle are going to save his bacon, he’s probably in the bargaining stage. C’mon, it’ll be fun!
OK, now let’s talk about John Brummett, a news columnist and high-end journalist here in Little Rock who today tries his hand at a little media criticism. It is very sad, because Brummett seems headed toward the “depression” stage on our graph.
Can I Get a Witness?
Brummett looks at this week’s (moronic) congressional hearings on the future of newspapers to ponder where it’s all headed. He quotes the testimony of former newspaperman and TV guy David Simon, who bemoans the passing of “high-end journalism” and fears that web operations just aren’t up to snuff. (Incidentally, Gawker took issue with Simon’s “dead-wrong” testimony earlier in the week. Both Simon’s testimony and the Gawker rebuttal are worth checking out.)
Let’s pause here to note that Brummett’s column is around 700 words, about 250 words of which is a direct quote from Simon. That is what “high-end journalism” looks like, if you have never seen it before.
Brummett agrees with Simon’s grouchy take, and to give it a little local flavor he takes a couple of shots at me and Blake Rutherford of the Blake’s Think Tank blog for not going to the Capitol to cover legislative hearings, because we are terrible terrible bloggers, and we are “brash and sullen” (“sullen”?) to boot.
Brummett is correct that I spend little (i.e., no) time at the Capitol. This blog is not my living (yet?), so I focus on my paid work and link to Capitol news as it’s distributed by others. (This is what media critic Jeff Jarvis refers to as the “link based economy,” in which publishers do what they specialize in and then link to the rest. That’s pretty much how the web works, and it’s rather efficient, and why Brummett is unable to grasp that is beyond me.)
But if Brummett thinks it so shameful that a few part-time unpaid bloggers don’t frequent legislative committee hearings, he should at least turn a critical eye on the practices of his own news organization.
Last fall, Brummett’s employer, Stephens Media, shuttered its three-man Washington D.C. bureau. That bureau now consists of one reporter who is responsible for covering the congressional delegations of multiple states (and who no longer has an office and works from home). Since the Stephens Media D.C. bureau was disbanded, the organization’s regular coverage of members of the Arkansas delegation has essentially ceased to exist. High-end journalism, indeed.
Of course, if Brummett really were interested in the future of journalism, he might look beyond my and Blake’s little vanity projects and examine the efforts of some Arkansas folks who, rather than whining about these changes as he does, are actually trying to create new models that work.
He might look at Michael Tilley’s City Wire site in Fort Smith, which in just a few short months has emerged as a vital site for local news, and shows promise for the future. Or the Arkansas Times, which is practicing a hybrid print/web approach, with an unapologetic dose of liberal political advocacy, that has thus far helped to reinvigorate that publication.
Or he might look at the Fayetteville Flyer, a vibrant local site that covers happenings in that city nicely. (The Flyer may be a little heavily weighted towards cultural coverage at this point, but it gets newsier by the week, and it’s easy to conceive of how it might continue to evolve into a harder news site.)
Will these sites manage the tricky feat of evolving into profitable going enterprises? Maybe. Or maybe they’ll fall off and some other experimenters will fill the gap. But at least the bloggers and web gurus are experimenting and trying to find some solutions.
But Brummett doesn’t wanna do all that. He throws his hands up to declare, “It will all work itself out or it won’t.” You see, it’s enough to look at the daily media lay-offs news at Romenesko, shake one’s head sadly and then wax all gauzy and nostalgic and pine for all that lost investigative journalism and skeptical antagonism that we’ll no longer have when newspapers are gone.
(Except, oh, yeah, very few newspapers aside from the big nationals actually do much investigative reporting anymore, and in Arkansas, this “skeptical antagonism” toward elected officials that Brummett likes to brag about is pretty much a fantasy.)
Which is all a long way of saying, if you’re interested in the future of journalism and news media and want insight into where things might be headed, then you should know that you can safely ignore anything John Brummett may have to say on the subject. After a lifetime of working in the newspaper industry, he no longer has anything to offer any young journalist or aspiring media entrepreneur, in terms of discussing the industry’s direction, that might be helpful.
It’s little wonder he should be so depressed.
UPDATE: Over at his terrible blog, Brummett dismisses this post, because he does not like backtalk from the young’ns. He also lazily points to a paraphrased statement from new media guru Clay Shirky as justification for his own statement that “It will all work itself out or it won’t.”
But if you read Shirky’s piece in its entirety, he doesn’t say that at all. He does say this:
For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.
Shirky is not saying “it will work out or it won’t.” He’s actually reasonably optimistic that it WILL work out, but we simply don’t know what the end result will look like. And it won’t “work itself out,” but it will be worked out by experimenters and innovators and people who actually take action and do something besides throw up their hands. Shirky knows the media landscape won’t look like what it looks like now, and he offers a provisional scenario of what it may look like, which is helpful, unlike Brummett’s complacent shoulder-shrugging.
Shirky’s whole post is worth reading in its entirety, as is his book, Here Comes Everybody, which, unlike a lot of books published on new media, is not completely dated 10 minutes after it’s finished.
And over at the Think Tank, Blake Rutherford weighs in with more.
(Brummett also pronounces himself “tired of talking about these local blogging gnats.” This is Brummett’s usual posture whenever someone starts dares to level criticisms of his work or point out his shoddy reasoning—he simply declares himself above it all. If he doesn’t want to talk about or to these bloggers, that’s fine, but maybe he should just consider shutting the f**k up and not raising these issues in the first place.)