Think of this as Volume 17, Number 32 of the newsletter I have written weekly since March, 1997. Enjoy.
They were upset about it. I was optimistic. I insisted the news business could adapt to a cheaper means of delivering more product, and the result would be more jobs for journalists. They insisted the world was coming to an end.
We were both right.
I deliberately sought a career in the new media, and from the time I joined Newsbytes, in 1985, I looked for new means through which to get news to people and make a living. I tried an online newsletter as early as 1989. My Interactive Age Daily was the first online publication to launch alongside a print counterpart, in 1994. I treated what became A-Clue.com, from which this blog post descends, as an online newsletter starting in 1997.
As it turned out, the problem with newspapers' transiting to an online medium had nothing to do with my own prescriptions, nor with anything those in the business now claim. I said that papers should focus on maintaining their reach within the places, industries or lifestyles they covered. Newspaper people claimed that “link bait” sites like the Huffington Post were stealing their ideas, and their readers.
The answer was simpler, and it should have been obvious to me as a student. The newspaper industry had become insular and bureaucratic, pretending to be a “profession” rather than what it really was, a trade and a business.
(Ever wonder how Richard Cohen, right, got his job? Here's how.) The only way one rose to prominence as a newsman, in 1978, was to play the bureaucratic game. You had to become a political infighter, cultivating internal allies, and finding a way to keep rivals from gaining a toehold. This meant that a good reporter without political skills, turned ever-inward toward protecting his or her bureaucratic rear, was bound to get shit-canned in favor of mediocrities who knew how to play the internal game.
The result was rot, a steady brain drain that left the industry focused only on its own comforts, rather than the desires of readers or the needs of advertisers.
The worst thing the newspaper industry did was to put people who loved the newsroom in charge of the business. This was Donald Graham's fatal flaw. He cared more for his employees than he did for his business. Everyone talks about how he loved the newsroom, about how he came up through the ranks as a reporter, from the editorial side. No one realized that, in a time of rapid change, this insular approach was completely wrong.
Publishers don't share the ethics of journalists. They have business ethics, which is they get away with whatever they can. Theirs are the names on the great journalism schools – Pulitzer, Medill, Annenberg. They're businessmen. They seek market niches and exploit them ruthlessly. As Mario Batali said in “The New Yorker” years ago, “our job is to sell food for more than we pay for it.”
This is true of online journalism as well. Jim Cramer, who founded TheStreet.Com in the last century – an eon away in Internet time – told a friend once that his best move was to walk away from the company's management, hiring Elizabeth DeMarse to turn his company around. This left him free to do what he did best, entertain the people online and on TV. I wish I'd had a Liz DeMarse.
Cramer, like Graham, was spending too much time working in his business, not enough on his business. Cramer had the wisdom to realize this and do something about it.
It's DeMarse who will get her name on the journalism schools of the future, not Cramer. But in all the boo-hooing over the fate of Graham's Washington Post, which was finally sold (for more than it was worth) to someone who actually knows something about business, the chattering classes refuse to consider that they may be the problem, not the solution.
The fact is we now have working business models for online journalism. Let me repeat that – we have working business models for online journalism. We even have an editorial career path.
You start by picking your beat, studying it closely, and blogging about it. On your own. It's free. You don't get a job anymore by beating down editors' doors. You get it the way I did, by doing the work. I did a magazine story in Houston in 1978 that my editors' boss showed him after my third attempt to gain a foothold on the staff, telling the editor “see if you can hire this guy.” (The editor told me later he hid my resume under a stack of papers, nodded sagely, and said he'd see what he could do.)
The job equivalent of hanging out at the police station or courthouse is to do “link bait” stories. That's how you get your writing chops, it's how you get up your typing speed, it's how you learn to think on your feet, and these are the skills that count in this new medium. Some of those skills come from TV, especially the ability to improvise, and some come from the whole business of writing for a living. Others – the ability and willingness to use others' work as fodder for your own – are generic to this medium.
Once your reputation is established in this way, a budding online journalist has to learn to use social tools to publicize work, avoiding flame wars and building their own reputation, not just that of the employer. It's only after this is accomplished that you'll get the time and space to pursue long-form stories. These do sell, they sell well, but they're not the whole online paper, anywhere, and never have been. It's only after proving yourself on features, not just as a reporter who can husband time by leaving the office only after the Web has failed, but as a storyteller, that you should get a shot at stardom.
In the absence of people who've come up through the ranks in this way, we're settling on in-house “experts” for entertainment, people who've been part of the beat. Whether it's sports stars on ESPN, or investment bankers on CNBC, or politicians on CNN, today's talking heads and digirati are only stand-ins for the kind of people we need in the future. You can become that person by devoting yourself to your personal brand, to your own beat, and to learning the skills you need, one by one, to take over from these asshats.
Publishers, by contrast, focus on other things. They don't care about the newsroom, and they only care about the product insofar as it hits the target, winning share and loyalty within the place, industry or lifestyle they serve. And that is the job – serving the industry, the lifestyle, or the place where the publication lives. Never forget that. Intrinsic targeting, targeting ads based on algorithms using data about readers, hasn't worked and won't work. Extrinsic targeting, targeting ads based on the place, industry or lifestyle the site in question is covering, and that the reader is caring about at the moment they're reading, is still what counts, even in the 21st century.
Your job, as a publisher, remains what it was in the 19th century. Define a market, aggregate both the buyers and sellers, and stimulate financial transactions between them. Publishing is a market-making proposition, and those who create the best marketplaces win. Every time.
These are still the early innings of the online publishing game. The collapse of newspapers is a gift from above, not a plague. It opens up vast new opportunities for people who have learned their business, publishers and editors both.
I wish I were 35 years younger.