Have you heard that the newspaper business is going to hell? It’s in all the papers, but nobody reads the papers anymore so you might have missed the news. Assuming you still care about news, which you don’t, according to the papers.
Circulation’s down, ad revenue’s down, jobs are vanishing everywhere you look. A few weeks ago the Tribune Company capped a series of buyouts and layoffs by spiking the New City News Service, formerly the City News Bureau, the venerable Chicago institution that used to train the journalists of the future. Evidently it’s not needed anymore because journalism doesn’t have a future.
Who’s to blame for all this? Mostly Craig Newmark, the geek who started Craigslist ten years ago as an e-mail guide to “cool events” in the Bay Area. Now, with just 18 employees–fewer people than it takes to deliver the Reader every Thursday–Craigslist is a global juggernaut sucking up millions of dollars that used to go to newspaper classifieds. According to one much-repeated estimate, it cost daily papers in San Francisco alone about $50 million last year.
But Craig is not the only culprit. There’s also eBay, which has siphoned off who knows how many more millions of dollars by making camera-for-sale ads obsolete. And Google, which has rocked the advertising world by delivering ads to people who might actually want to see them. And online journals like Slate and Salon, and Yahoo and Microsoft, which lurk behind their mountains of cash waiting to spring out and copy anything that works for Google or eBay. And Wonkette and InstaPundit and the Decembrist and all their blogging friends whose idea of a good time is giving yourself a funny name and distracting normal people who used to read newspapers.
And of course there are the newspapers themselves, which, back in the days of Internet Bubble #1, in their desperation to maintain “mindshare” trained readers to look for their news online, for free, rather than on newsprint spread out on the kitchen table, as God intended.
Hardly a day goes by, it seems, without some Web behemoth announcing a major new initiative to suck the lifeblood out of the news business. Of course it’s not their intent to destroy journalism, or to bankrupt companies that employ thousands of decent, hardworking taxpayers, or to force the teenage daughters of reporters and editors into lives of prostitution. They’re just trying to make a better world.
Last month, when Google introduced Google Base, they presented it as a service that allows people to post “all types” of information online and assign “attributes” to it that will make it easy to find. For example, you can post Grandma’s chicken and dumplings recipe and assign to it such database attributes as “recipes,” “chicken,” “American,” and “traditional”; these become categories that searchers can use to find the recipe. Neato.
What Google did not say, but weary newspaper people were quick to notice, is that you can also post a description and some pictures of your apartment on Dayton Street and assign to it such attributes as “Apartments,” “Chicago,” “Lincoln Park,” “two-bedroom,” “$1,400.” And if you happen to run a rental agency and have hundreds of apartments to list, and if you happen to know how to put them in a database or have a sixth grader at home who can do it for you, Google Base gives you a way to upload your “items” (please don’t call them classified ads) in bulk. Just in case Craigslist is not easy or free enough for you.
Craig, too, is also bent on making a better world. And now that he has done so for job seekers, apartment hunters, and sexual predators, he’s turning to journalism. Just before Thanksgiving he let it be known that he’s involved in an online project that will use the same “wisdom of the masses” approach that informs Craigslist. He’s being coy about the details, but he has dropped phrases like “citizen journalism,” “networks of trust,” and “reputation mechanisms,” suggesting that he’s talking about a cross between Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia edited by its readers, and Google News, which boasts of presenting “the most relevant news first” by compiling reports from more than 4,500 sources “solely by computer algorithms, without human intervention.”
The day after Craig first talked publicly about his new project, I noticed the lead item on Wonkette, about an announcement that Dick Cheney would appear at a fund-raiser for beleaguered congressman Tom DeLay. I noticed that, according to Wonkette, the news story that inspired her fulminations (“Evidently the more event-appropriate MC team of Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham is already booked for that night”) had come from Yahoo, via Sploid. In other words Wonkette, whose blog is owned by Gawker Media, spotted this news on another blog owned by Gawker Media, whose writer had spotted it on Yahoo. Nowhere does Wonkette betray even the vaguest awareness of the person who actually reported that story or even the “mainstream media” that disseminated it. The Yahoo story came from the Associated Press, which had picked it up from the Houston Chronicle. For the record, the Chronicle story was written by a Washington bureau reporter named Samantha Levine. But as far as Wonkette was concerned, it came from Yahoo, via Sploid. That’s the way it works in the blogosphere. The stories are just . . . out there.
That item about Cheney and DeLay remained at the top of Wonkette for five days, thanks to the long Thanksgiving weekend. Wonkette doesn’t do weekends.
A couple days earlier, David Carr’s column in the New York Times told of a “plague week” in the newspaper business, a gruesome series of layoffs, ethical questions, and technology-induced travails including Google Base (but not Craig’s foray into citizen journalism, which was yet to be announced). At the end Carr reminded his readers of the gaping void at the bottom of our brave new media future. “For Google’s news aggregator to function, somebody has to do the reporting, to make the calls. . . . News robots can’t meet with a secret source in an underground garage or pull back the blankets on a third-rate burglary to reveal a conspiracy at the highest reaches of government.” And, I would add, you can’t rely on bloggers to do it, because something might happen over Thanksgiving weekend.
“Tactical and ethical blunders aside,” Carr concluded, “actual journalists come in handy on occasion.”
I think it’s time for actual journalists to drive this point home. Today, therefore, I am proposing a yearlong journalism strike. I am urging reporters and editors around the world to put down their notebooks, close their laptops, hang up their phones. Lie down and be counted! Let’s have no reporting, no editing, no application of any human intelligence whatsoever to events public or private till January 1, 2007. I’m calling it the Year Without Journalism. Let’s all relax, let go, and float blissfully in the information-free state (excuse me, I mean free-information state) that our public awaits so eagerly. Let one of those news robots handle the hired truck scandal and further crimes of the Daley administration. Let’s see if Wonkette can deal with the devious bastards in the executive branch any better than Judith Miller did. Let’s have some of those citizen journalists call Burt Natarus and see if they can figure out what the hell he’s talking about. With no news to aggregate, no facts to ruminate, the algorithms and the bedroom pundits will turn on each other like mirrors, producing a perfect regression of narcissistic self-reflection, repeating endlessly, adding nothing, ever shrinking, ad infinitum.
Meanwhile our beaten-down journalists will get a much-needed year of rest and relaxation. Or maybe some time to learn a new skill, like computer programming.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark S. Fisher.