Beyond Newspapers: Steve Perry on Web Journalism

For several weeks, former City Pages editor Steve Perry and I have been having a back-and-forth email interview -- his first interview since leaving the Minneapolis altweekly in February -- on the Twin Cities media scene, the state of newspapers in the US, and net neutrality. The entire thing's online at Minnesota Monitor, but here's the last part:
Talking about the bright side of newspapers now is like trying to name the cheeriest thing about mass suicide. In its hour of deepest crisis, the industry is gutting its own resources in the interest of next quarter's bottom line. As a friend of mine put it, they're all being run like financial companies when they are in fact manufacturing companies that need to be looking out for their productive resources.

Most of the fun, and the sense of discovery, is on the web. Obviously. I mean, you've got tens of thousands of blogs that engage "the news" in some way. And although the vast majority just cannibalize workaday media and lay on a dollop of partisan cant, blogs have also produced a new generation of voices doing good, distinctive, original political analysis and media criticism, two huge blind spots of mainstream media.

The internet is also pressing newsgatherers to involve their readers in a more dynamic way, to let them in on interpreting and elaborating and sometimes even defining "the news." The challenge is to find ways to do that without letting the inmates run the asylum -- without letting the conversation descend to unverifiable claims, stupid in-jokes, and lumpen flame wars. Unmoderated is bad, n'kay?

The main issue for journalism is still monetizing the web, making a web platform pay for the kind of staffing that can produce useful original reporting. I have no idea how that will happen, but the smartest people I know on the marketing side of the internet think part of the answer will be elements of paid content. I know that's heresy to most users -- who doesn't like content that's all free all the time? But it's not all bad from the readers' standpoint, either. There's nothing like making people pay for content to ratchet up the pressure to make it ambitious.

It's impossible to say what the web is going to be like five years from now. There are political and commercial pressures in play that mainstream media has done an atrocious job of covering. What percentage of Americans has even heard the term "net neutrality," I wonder? How many people know that there's a lobbying movement afoot to create a two-tier internet in which the highest-speed connectivity is reserved for big companies that can pay a premium for it? Far too few. Most people regard the internet as a tool for entertaining themselves and shopping, and assume that the hand of the market will only make it more flashy, more fun, more powerful. They think it's essentially just another consumer product. Even among media critics, there's too little recognition that it's a new communication medium that's still in its Wild West phase, making itself up as it goes.

And beyond the pressures to make it a more exclusive tool of corporate commerce, there is also a lot of political anxiety about how wide-open dialogue and dissent can be on the internet. Do you remember the phrase the late Samuel Huntington coined to describe the political tumult surrounding Vietnam? He called it a "crisis of democracy," meaning there was too damn much democracy, too many voices demanding to be heard. The internet is a continual crisis of democracy in that sense, and it's naive to suppose it will stay as open in the future without political fights. There are those people who deem it unthinkable, or even technologically impossible, to limit American citizens' access to information on the web, but they're just plain wrong. (Every new communications medium spawns this kind of utopianism -- there were people in the '20s who thought radio would bring the revolution, and people in the '50s who thought TV would increase civic participation. Heh.) It's not impossible to hamstring web users. The best thing I've read on the subject is Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu's book, Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World. You have to read it if you haven't.

So in a sense, any speculation about the future of the web and of news media on the web has an asterisk at the end of every sentence. It's possible, for instance, to revamp the web to give a huge advantage to the usual cartel of well-capitalized media companies, and make it much tougher for small sites, amateur or professional, to draw traffic and to serve multimedia. It's possible, in other words, to more or less restore the old order in a new medium.

But it hasn't happened yet, and it's not entirely inevitable. At minimum, there's a lot of fun to be had in the meantime. Is there a downside to mainstream media's efforts to mimic what bloggers do? Yeah, if not understanding the spirit of the endeavor counts as a downside. I hasten to add that there are now a *lot* of good blogs scattered around daily newspaper sites, but the news business in general remains hampered on the web by the assumptions it makes about reporters as senders and readers as passive receivers. Watching newspapers try to "relate" with readers is still vaguely embarrassing much of the time -- this odd combination of unctuous and patronizing at the same time. Kind of like seeing your grandma in stretch pants, doing The Robot.

Or a Kate Parry column.
Read "Black and White and Dead All Over: Steve Perry on the Pauperization of Newspaper and the Promise of the Internet"

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