Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Humpty-Dumpty at the New York Times

As the New York Times attempts to navigate the unfamiliar waters of the internet, they risk "swimming with the fishes."

Today the New York Times abandoned its efforts to create a two-tier access system for its website. The article announcing this capitulation can be found here.

Vivian L. Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of the site, NYTimes.com, noted that they didn't anticipate the amount of traffic to their site that would be generated by Google, Yahoo and the like. Many would-be subscribers were getting around the firewall by using these search engines. Projections for revenue growth favored advertising over pay-per-view.

Had the New York Times consulted any Media Ecologist at the start, they would have been told that attempting to control access to some of their content by charging a monthly fee ignores the nature of the internet as a communication environment. In reality, the Times is not competing for subscriber dollars, they are competing for subscriber eyeballs. With many other free information sources, it didn't make sense to pay a fee to the New York Times. In addition, the Internet environment has changed the relationship of publishers and readers. As Marshall McLuhan noted, in the age of print newspapers people didn't read their newspaper, they submerged themselves in it as in a warm bath. The difference with the internet is that the reader wants to respond, to publish, to interact and to critique the press. Rather than entering a warm bath, the internet reader dives headfirst into the news pool and swims with the correspondents school.

In discussing the nature of an existing media environment when threatened by a new configuration, McLuhan wrote:

“The structural features of environment and anti-environment appear in the age-old clash between professionalism and amateurism, whether in sports or in studies. Professional sport is environmental and amateur sport is anti-environmental. Professional sports foster the merging of the individual in the mass and in the patterns of the total environment. Amateur sport seeks rather the development of critical awareness of the individual and most of all, critical awareness of the ground rules of the society as such. The same contrast exists for studies. The professional tends to specialize and to merge his being uncritically in the mass. The ground rules provided by the mass response of his colleagues serve as a pervasive environment of which he is uncritical and unaware.”[1]
Substitute “journalism" for “sports” or “studies” and we can begin to understand the new information environment fostered by the internet. It is interesting that most major media outlets are dismissive of web-based journalists as biased and amateurish at the same time that they have abandoned many of the most fundamental journalistic practices. Mainstream media journalists are not generally self-critical, nor do they adequately fulfill their responsibility as a fourth estate, holding politicians accountable. As agenda-setters, news and broadcast editors substitute sensationalism for substance. When bloggers and other “amateurs” rightly question the professionalism of the mainstream media, they are subject to ad hominem ridicule rather than confronted on the merits of their criticisms.

The mainstream media are broken. The New York Times, trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again, has tried to recreate the old media environment, but has only succeeded in making it the content of the new. Citing Humpty-Dumpty, McLuhan noted:

“The impact that resulted in his fall brought into play a massive response from the social bureaucracy. But all the King’s horses and all the King’s men could not put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. They could not recreate the old environment, they could only create a new one. Our typical response to a disrupting new technology is to recreate the old environment instead of heeding the new opportunities of the new environment. [2]

For example, I worked as a financial analyst at CBS News in the early 1980’s when it was a cost center, but still the jewel in the corporation’s crown. I participated in cost-cutting moves intended to make CBS News generate a profit, just like other CBS divisions. Prior to this, CBS News was based on a print model where certain standards of journalism were acknowledged, if not always adhered to. The new information environment of broadcasting required a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) change in journalistic practices and created a gap between what the public wanted to know and what the public needed to know. This gap, being environmental, was largely invisible until the advent of the internet. The “amateurs” of this new media environment have brought this gap to the foreground, focusing our attention on unquestioned compromises of mainstream media news that have little to do with real journalism.

Established blogs such as Daily Kos, Eschaton, and yes, the Drudge Report have demonstrated how hanging onto a story neglected by the mainstream media can bring it to the foreground. Glenn Greenwald has shown how a little fact and precedence checking using Lexi-Nexus can go a long way. The live bloggers at Firedoglake.com set new standards for real time reporting.

As the New York Times attempts to navigate the unfamiliar waters of the internet, they risk ending up "swimming with the fishes." They would profit by embracing the critiques of the digital natives already working there, rather than rejecting them.

[1] McLuhan, M. “The relation of environment to anti-environment” in Marshall McLuhan – Unbound (04), W. Terrance Gordon, ed. (Corte Madera, CA: Ginko Press, 2005), p. 8-9

[2] Ibid, p. 9-10

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