If you were going to pick an epicenter for mainstream media, The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz would not be a bad place to land. With his running scorecard on Beltway journalists, his interviews of other scorekeepers on his “Reliable Sources” show on CNN, and his ceaseless fascination with network news, Mr. Kurtz embodied the folkways of the traditional press.
Until last week, when he announced he was leaving his privileged perch to become the Washington bureau chief for The Daily Beast, a two-year-old toddler of the new digital press conceived by Tina Brown and owned by IAC, run by Barry Diller. Mr. Kurtz’s lane change evinced gasps reminiscent of when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
On the heels of decisions by Howard Fineman of Newsweek and Peter Goodman of The New York Times to go to The Huffington Post, it would seem like a bit of a tipping point.
The migration of old hands brought some hoots on the Web, as well as suggestions that the recent émigrés from the mainstream were making their way on the backs of early adopters. I’m not really feeling that. Even though he worked at a newspaper, Mr. Kurtz took to the Web early and often at The Post, and filed enough stories in print, on the Web and for broadcast to make it seem like he had a clone. He is well known and enormously productive, a rare combination on any platform, and valuable as such. (In an e-mail, Mr. Kurtz called his next assignment “an evolutionary step, not a revolutionary one, as I already do plenty of blogging.”)
More and more, media outlets are becoming a federation of individual brands like Mr. Kurtz. Journalism is starting to look like sports, where a cast of role players serves as a platform and context for highly paid, high-impact players. And those who cross over, after years of pushing copy through the print apparatus, will experience the allure of knocking some copy into WordPress and sending it out into the world to fend for itself.
It’s an intoxicating experience. In the closing months of the 2000 presidential campaign, I was working for Inside.com, a digital news site back when that was a novelty. I had left a job editing a Washington weekly and moved to New York City to join in the dot-com frolic, taking ribbing from my print colleagues at the time. At the farewell party, they performed a stirring and heartfelt parody of the song “Midnight Train to Georgia,” with the chorus changed to “Midnight train to nowhere.”
They were right. A year after I got there, the bloom was off dot-com world, the lack of a business model was manifest, and everyone who worked there had to scatter. But my print buddies were also so, so wrong. The Web, as I quickly found out, is a remarkably effective journalism machine.
As that 2000 presidential campaign was ending, I briefly spoke to someone from the campaign press plane and they revealed that a poll of beat reporters on the plane had shown a lopsided preference for Al Gore. Working in a room full of candy-colored Macs on the West Side of Manhattan, I typed up a few hundred words and pushed Enter.
Within 10 minutes, news organizations pivoted around my little item and a nice kerfuffle ensued about the objectivity of the press. It was a moment for me, a look into the future when news would land hard no matter the platform or who pushed the button.
It was clear back then that the Web, with its low-cost, friction-free distribution, was a remarkable way to publish. But 10 years later, paying for reporting on the Web remains daunting. The reason that newspapers put all the white paper out on the street is that we get a lot of green paper back in return. Put out all the pixels you want, even ones that render scoops, and you will still receive pennies in return.
While the digital news business is still a riddle — most outfits will tell you they “will be profitable sometime next year,” which is what we used to say at Inside.com — the market has decided differently. Newsweek, a print magazine built up over decades, sold for a dollar this summer, while TechCrunch, a news and aggregation site founded five years ago, merited a reported $25 million in a sale to AOL.
The speed with which a media brand can be built out — see Huffington Post for the most breathtaking example — means that the barriers to entry that made the media business the province of titans are gone.
On a journalistic level, the new playing field is more even. Many people see the news in aggregated form on the Web, and when they notice a link that interests them, they click on it with nary a thought about the news organization behind it. Information stands or falls on its magnetism, with brand pedigree becoming secondary.
More and more, the dichotomy between mainstream media and digital media is a false one. Formerly clear bright lines are being erased all over the place. Open up Gawker, CNN, NPR and The Wall Street Journal on an iPad and tell me without looking at the name which is a blog, a television brand, a radio network, a newspaper. They all have text, links, video and pictures. The new frame around content is changing how people see and interact with the picture in the middle.
And reporting is not just the province of doughy old newspaper guys like me. Digital news players as diverse as Yahoo, Huffington Post, Gawker, Business Insider and AOL have all moved aggressively in the past few weeks to acquire additional journalistic talent in the belief that while aggregation has a place, it is not enough. News is the killer app.
So if news is wherever the public finds it, what really is the value of creating a complicated, labor-intensive print product? I thought a great deal about that last week when a story I had worked on for months, on and off — about the leadership of the Tribune Company — went to press, a term that is not a metaphor, but a daily exercise here at The Times. There were many versions of the resulting article, lots of feedback from near and far, fact-checking, copy-checking and double-checking, all part of the practical effort to publish something as accurate as possible in a defined space at a time certain.
At the end of the night, I was thrown clear and out on the street, dazed and thinking about the rococo miracle that is a daily paper. The story was about to move onto the Web and onto the front of a large, national newspaper.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
There was all manner of reaction. Twitter lighted up, and hundreds of comments came in under the article. And that ability to land hard is not just the province of The Times. All over the country, daily regional newspapers in very diminished circumstances similarly still manage to set the civic agenda even as they struggle.
Yes, you can make news working in your pajamas and running stuff past your cat and no one else. But even in 2010, when a print product is viewed as a quaint artifact of a bygone age, there is something about that process, about all those many hands, about the permanence of print, that makes a story resonate in a way that can’t be measured in digital metrics. I love a hot newsbreak on the Web as much as the next guy, but on some days, for some stories, there is still no school like the old school.
By David Carr
Published October 10, 2010
From The New York Times: