Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ron Rosenbaum trashes media consultant who tells print journalists to pull up their socks

Posted By on 11.13.08 at 07:47 PM

It's a good thing that the protocols of online journalism require linking to sources. I've just read an essay by Ron Rosenbaum in Slate trashing a media consultant named Jeff Jarvis. By following the links Rosenbaum provides, I've satisfied myself that something the essay made me suspect is true -- Rosenbaum's being not just nasty but unfair. He misrepresents what Jarvis wrote.

Rosenbaum describes Jarvis as someone he used to like. "But something has changed in the last year or two: He's now visibly running for New Media Pontificator in Chief. He began treating his own thoughts as profound and epigrammatic, PowerPoint-paradoxical, new-media-mystical."

Then he quotes from Jarvis's blog, choosing passages that supposedly "illustrated his self-congratulatory attitude."

Here's one:

"The Christian Science Monitor is turning off its press and going fully online. I heard about this at my conference on new business models for news last week and said it makes perfect sense."

And another:

"Sometime ago, I used TV Guide as a cautionary tale to beware the cash cow in the coal mine. How now, said cow—which not long ago sold more copies every year than any other magazine—just sold for $1. Beware media and news companies that try to preserve their past: This could be you. Moo."

And a third:

"The Frankfurt convention grounds are also jammed with books from all around the world. What struck me was the optimism of it: all that work to create books on the hope that someone would read them. And they make fun of bloggers for whistling in the wind."

My own reaction to these passages was that the second and third made interesting points (though that "Moo," which made Rosenbaum furious, is a little much), and the first praised the Monitor for seeing into the future and dealing with it.

But Rosenbaum can't get past how heartless he thinks Jarvis sounds -- toward the "poor fools" who make books, and to "the suffering of who knows how many families" who've been supported by the Monitor.

Rosenbaum's argument, supported by no evidence he submits, is essentially this: Jarvis has nothing but contempt for mainstream journalists and wishes them dead. He writes, "Consider Jarvis' response to an essay by Paul Farhi that suggested the current crisis in journalism might not be entirely the fault of journalists. Jarvis parried with a cruel, disdainful rant contending that writers and reporters deserve their fate."

Let's follow those links. Farhi wrote in the most recent American Journalism Review: "As newspapers shuffle toward the twilight, I'm increasingly convinced that the news has been the least of the newspaper industry's problems. Newspapers are in trouble for reasons that have almost nothing to do with newspaper journalism, and everything to do with the newspaper business."

Farhi's essay, "Don't Blame the Journalism," says that newspapers are dying because the business model collapsed with the loss of classified and, increasingly, display advertising, not because the public lost interest in them. "The real revelation of the Internet is not what it has done to newspaper readership – it has in fact expanded it – but how it has sapped newspapers' economic lifeblood," Farhi argues. "Could smarter reporting, editing and photojournalism have made a difference? Can a spiffy new Web site or paper redesign win the hearts of readers? Surely, they can't hurt. But if we, and our critics, were realistic, we'd admit that much is beyond our control, and that insisting otherwise is vain. As British media scholar and author Adrian Monck put it in an essay about the industry's troubles earlier this year: 'The crops did not fail because we offended the gods.'"

Jarvis's reply: "Bullshit. The fall of journalism is, indeed, journalists’ fault. It is our fault that we did not see the change coming soon enough and ready our craft for the transition. It is our fault that we did not see and exploit — hell, we resisted — all the opportunities new media and new relationships with the public presented. It is our fault that we did not give adequate stewardship to journalism and left the business to the business people . . ."

(Jarvis's links below take us to his own discussions of journalism's next life. Beware. He does dabble in the futuristic vocabulary that obviously drives Rosenbaum crazy.)

Jarvis argues that the Internet has presented journalism with both a need and an opportunity to reinvent itself. "The internet does not just present a few glittery toys. It presents the circumstances to change our relationship with the public, to work collaboratively in networks, to find new efficiencies thanks to the link, to rethink how we cover and present news. No, the essence of the problem is that we thought the internet represented just a new gadget and not a fundamental change in society, the economy, and thus journalism."

The argument between Farhi and Jarvis is one in which it's possible to agree with both sides. Which you take depends on what you think your mission is -- to console beaten-down newspaper people or to goad and inspire them. But to Rosenbaum, there's one side only: all Jarvis had to offer was a "cruel, disdainful rant contending that writers and reporters deserve their fate."

Jarvis, says Rosenbaum, "believes the failure of the old-media business models is the result of having too many of those pesky reporters. In his report on his recent new-media summit at CUNY, he noted with approval one workshop's conclusion that you'd need only 35 reporters to cover the entire city of Philadelphia. Less is more. Meta triumphs over matter."

I read that with a lot of skepticism. Does Jarvis actually believe newspapers dug their own grave when they hired lots of reporters? I doubted it. In this case, Rosenbaum doesn't provide us with any links, but I was able to find a couple.

First, here's a report from the workshop: It explains that the working group worked backward from traffic and revenue assumptions and came up with a budget that included $2.1 million -- which would pay 35 journalists each $60,000 a year. They wouldn't do everything themselves: "In the areas of primary focus — local government, education, high school sports, etc. — we envisioned beat reporters working with networks of local bloggers to expand the reach of the staff."

Now, here's what Jarvis had to say about the idea:

"They calculated the likely revenue Philadelphia could support online and then figured out what they could afford in staffing. Instead of the 200-300-person newsroom that has existed in print, they decided they could afford 35 and they broke that down to include a new job description: “community managers who do outreach, mediation, social media evangelism.” They settled on three of those plus 20 content creators, two programmers, three designers, five producers (I think they were a bit heavy on those two), and — get this — only three editors. . . . That was real progress. Usually in the newspaper industry, this discussion comes after the cutbacks occur as papers then try to figure out how to cope with what’s left. This group of edit and business and money people bravely built from the bottom up, relying on few assumptions about the past."

Later in this blog post, Jarvis wondered: "How could 35 journalists possibly serve Philadelphia as 200-300 had?" With all due respect to Rosenbaum, Jarvis wasn't sure. He wrote, "I see one option: with the help of networks of independent agents working collaboratively." But it's all sketchy, and he knows it. He didn't say 35 journalists would be plenty -- he said that many might have to do.

"There’s much more work to be done to make it concrete. If we take the work that the [CUNY working groups] began and bring it to the next level with a clear problem to solve — e.g., replacing a metro newspaper — then I think we will begin to see new models, new ways to organize news companies, new ways to produce news, new revenue opportunities, and new relationships with the community take form. And this, in turn, could yield a methodology and attitude to create more new models . . .

"We at CUNY can imagine no more urgent work in news: creating the means to support it."

Read all of this for yourself and decide what you think. God knows, it's important. 

For me, I wished Rosenbaum hadn't dragged the Reader into his peroration. He wrote this:

"Yes, by Jeff Jarvis' logic, the hardworking reporters now on the street were fools: They didn't spend their time figuring out how to multiplatform themselves. I think of that guy John Conroy, who wrote about police torture for years for the Chicago Reader, which is now bankrupt and had to let Conroy go just as—after years and years—Conroy's reporting (100,000 words!) on the subject was vindicated and an official investigation began at last. Dedicated guys who did great work at the dying dailies are being made to feel by Jarvis that they deserve to be downsized. Yet who has the most honor, the men and women who did the work or the media consultants who mock them?"

Conroy's my friend, and if I thought for a second that Jarvis was mocking him, I'd pound him harder than Rosenbaum could ever dream. As it is, I resent Rosenbaum's invoking him to gild a tinny argument.

Here's Jarvis's own response to Rosenbaum.

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