Monday, June 15, 2009

Chicago Media Future Conference: We mean it, man

Posted By on 06.15.09 at 12:03 PM

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I agree with Athenae on a couple points about Saturday's Chicago Media Future Conference:

First, that the guy from Newser (meaning, theoretically, I guess, "a person who, um, newses" but unfortunately close to a portmanteau of "news" and "loser") was totally insufferable. Which will happen when your takeaway message is "only I will make money on the Web, muhahahaha! A toast, Jedediah, to love on my own terms!"

Also, his argument was totally wrong for completely transparent and simple reasons that Athenae addresses.

Second, that no one really knew what to do. But in fairness I think that's SOP for a general panel, which in my experience is really a jumping off point for further discussion and awesome Twitter discussion. So:

The most chilling thing that happened was a tweet from Hacker Journalist Brian Boyer, new data/programming honcho at the Trib:

"Defending cute headlines. As a *reader* I hate them. Only ppl who love them are writers. Screw writers. They're between me and my news #cmfc"

Okay, clearly this is hyberbolic, and his general point is well-taken: SEO'd headlines, which must be clear, direct, and contain searchy terms that computers can recognize as relevant, are not opposed to headlines that people want and will click through. 

Just be sure to take it as hyperbole. This rule should, I submit, be broken when you have a truly deserving headline ("Headless Body in Topless Bar," "Stix Nix Hix Flix," "Too Many Basques for One Exit").

And: I really do think that in these whither journalism discussions there really isn't enough discussion as to whether there's a crisis of writing in newspapers and magazines. 'Cause I think there is. Just to take an immediate example, the New York Times, given basically anyone in America to fill a slot on the most valuable op-ed real estate in the country, chose Ross Douthat, who has not merely demonstrated problems with basic factual interpretation, he also writes like old people eat (I wish that was my line, but it's not; it comes from the best-written blog ever, Chauncey Billups).

Yeah: programs and data are needed. They might be a golden goose. But as newspapers scout the world for the next Adrian Holovaty, I can't help but wonder if they're looking for the next Dave Barry, Molly Ivins, or Bill Simmons (Brad Flora has more). It's difficult to answer a question as subjective as "has the quality of writing in newspapers declined, especially vis a vis the Web?" but I tend to think it has.

The question that got brought up that I most wanted to see addressed because I'm weird and ultimately more interested in narrative and critical interpretation than monetization (how's that for a job pitch!) was from Trib social media doyenne Amanda Maurer. Basically, she said that she got into a discussion with her roommates, who did not just graduate from J-school, about whether or not journalists should obsess about celebrity, and the impression I got, and I may be wrong, was that she felt uncomfortable about it because journalists are supposed to and they, as people who are not trained to hand-wring about such things, were confused. The subject got dropped.

I wasn't born yesterday, and I'm as well aware of anyone as to what drives traffic, so I'm not going to tell anyone what they should or shouldn't write about. But I will tell you this: if you go into it thinking well, I want to write about pressing social issues but we must do snarky blurbs about starlets for the unwashed masses, your writing is going to stink of tortured condescension. You can write well about celebrities; read some Gay Talese.

Here's how I responded:

"@acmaurer re madonna: celeb coverage = pop normative ethics = news? A thought. #cmfc"

Basically, people read celebrity coverage not just because of the gravitational pull of celebrity or the basic pleasures of looking at pretty people, but because we tell ourselves these stories for the same reason we read and watch fiction: in order to live. It's like real-life Sunset Boulevard or, see above, Citizen Kane. This is not to say it is always done well, or for good reasons, and in fact it can be deleterious, cf. starlet coverage as schadenfreude and slut-shaming. But done well or badly, the import is the same. Whether it's Octomom or Jon & Kate or Kanye or Brad/Angelina/Jen, we hash out stories of love, infidelity, art, addiction, wealth, madness, how to dress - really, the fundamental questions - through these vessels because it's convienent to do so. It's more realistic to do it well than "fix" it.

The best thing that happened was Brad Flora of the Windy Citizen, in the midst of a discussion about how to make billions of dollars to stuff your pillows with, positively glowing that he was excited to be on the verge of turning his startup into a $60k business. Scale is what you make it, and there are other business models besides trolling for enough traffic to sell enough remnant ads to vacation in Vail. Not every idea has to Save Journalism: doing something good and making a respectable living off it is a great achievement.

And, God forbid, should Windy Citizen not monetize: so what, really? It's well-intentioned, well done, run by good people who are invested in their community, and that alone deserves credit, and if that doesn't make money, well, we don't sufficiently appreciate people who try awesome things that fail. Most people who succeed are heavily indebted to people who fail. If you are successful at something, you should be thanking failures every day for their contributions.

The thing that didn't really get discussed that sorely needs to be at some point is, as Athenae puts it: "I got kind of annoyed at the end of the thing, because I keep going to these things expecting them to be the Throw The Thieving Bastards in Prison Panel, the You Killed Newspapers On Purpose You Fuckers Symposium, a shame-the-greedy-corporate-assholes party that never really materializes." As always, it is worth keeping in mind that exceedingly ill-timed financial decisions (and, in the Sun-Times's case, actual Thieving Bastards) put a lot of papers on the brink.

During the afterparty, Steve Rhodes of the Beachwood Reporter had a probably futile but clever and resonant idea kind of along those lines that, I think, bears mentioning: journalists should make the median income for their community, max, because being in spitting distance of both comfort and poverty might help you understand, and thus communicate, both. (Also, it should go without saying, you can put more journalists to work, though if you are run by Thieving Bastards, it probably won't translate into that.)

It's worth thinking about. That's about where I'm at, salary-wise, and like everyone else, I think I'm underpaid, but I have friends who are teachers, and social workers, and pastors and who are similarly underpaid, and: they deal (having friends who are pastors will set you straight on a lot of things). Better, I think, than journalists.

This is not, of course, meant to undermine all my colleagues by saying that we on the ground floor should be grateful to make the median (although on some scale we obviously should), just to point out that resources across the industry are poorly deployed, and that if we've learned anything from the past couple years both in journalism and in America generally, it's that the argument that "the free market determines what you're worth" is a good way to lose your shirt if it's not stretched out over a longer time frame than Thieving Bastards wish to.

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