In the December issue of Harpers (a magazine I have been published in, though it was years ago) the acerbic and frequently brilliant cultural critic Thomas Frank has an essay about the collapse of professional journalism’s economic foundations. His piece is also about the cluelessness of journalism educators and the satanic mills that some call “content farms.” Frank’s general thesis is that the failure of the business model in journalism has been met by a “cognitive failure” among people like Jeff Jarvis and myself. We are too impressed by the wonders of technology–or too stupid–to notice what is happening.
This might be the worst time ever to attend journalism school. And yet if you cast about in those high places where the flame of the profession is supposed to be guarded, you will discover that almost no one has an idea for tackling the big problems in a way that stands a chance of preserving journalism. The looming catastrophe has merely furnished an opportunity for repeating, in an ever-higher register, the management theory cliches of the past two decades. Years from now, only a handful of professional newsgathering organizations may remain, but you can rest assured that the leaders of the nation’s J-schools will still be talking about the need to “listen to the audience,” trilling wondrously that we must “embrace change,” and writing ecstatic little odes to “entrepreneurship.”
So powerful is our desire to believe in the benevolent divinity of technology that it cancels out our caution, forces us to dismiss doubt as so much simple-minded Luddism. We have trouble grasping that the Internet might not bring only good; that an unparalleled tool for enlightenment and research and transparency might also bring unprecedented down-dumbing; that something that empowers the individual might also wreck the structures that have protected the individual for decades.
Of course, Frank doesn’t have a solution, either. (Not his fault; no one does.) It’s odd, though, that he would go after Jarvis for introducing entrepreneurship into J-school, since the point of that exercise is to turn at least some journalists into owners rather than hired hands. Maybe Frank thinks that’s hopeless, and what we really need is state funding for journalism. If so, he doesn’t try to make that case. In fact there’s not a word about what should be done. Whereas Jarvis has written tens of thousands of words about what should be done.
I would provide a link to Frank’s essay so you can assess the argument for yourself, but it is not online. Harper’s doesn’t believe in that. Only subscribers have online access. The December issue is out; the November issue is the one available for download at harpers.org. This is a print magazine.
Now when Frank’s eye falls upon me, he is not entirely unkind. He says that I am intelligent and energetic and that I can be “satisfyingly vicious” in my disdain for newsroom curmudgeons.
But put Mr. Rosen face to virtual face with a master of the new-media world–say, Richard Rosenblatt, CEO of Demand Media–and a more conciliatory man seems to take his place. Mr. Rosen had been calling Demand nasty names before interviewing Mr. Rosenballt online in December of 2009, and this was his opportunity to smite the villainous organization. Here was his most direct question:
Someone who follows my work and knew I was interviewing you told me to ask you this: Do you love the Web? The implied question there is: if you love the Web, then why are you doing this, running these content farms…
Do you love the Web. Because if your love was true–if your heart was pure–you couldn’t possibly do such a thing. This is the sentimental check-and-balance, that safety catch that is supposed to protect us. All it will really protect, of course, is the Web itself.
Here’s what I think. Thomas Frank could only write that because he is not writing on the web, and his essay will never appear online the way that essays in, say, The Atlantic will. Were he writing on the web, he would have to link to my interview with Richard Rosenblatt, and readers who are alert would find his characterizations misleading.
And that’s being polite. But you be the judge: Frank says I was conciliatory toward Rosenblatt. Well, was I? He says my most direct question was: “Do you love the Web?” Was it really? He implies that I am squishy and sentimental in coming face to face with Demand Media. Am I? Here are five other questions I asked Rosenblatt, which the readers of Harpers will of course never know about:
1. …As I understand it, the mission is to make a ton of money on the Web by using data mining to understand demand and then cutting costs in this way Roth described. Do I have it wrong?
2. Here’s what I think Demand Media has right. It’s important to know what people are interested in. It’s good to have tools that tell us what they wish to know. Using that knowledge to guide production is innovation, too, which we need– precisely because production is so easy and cheap and the tools are so good.But here’s what I think bothers a lot of people, and leads to a description of your firm as a “content farm” or “factory.” I read about the 11 people – and 15 different roles – involved in the production of articles and video in Demand Studios. I get your idea that “quality is based on relevance.” But if you’re trying to match costs to the available revenue for a given piece of content, what happens when editorial quality requires costs greater that what’s available in search revenue? And who’s watching out for that point?
(Rosenblatt didn’t answer me when I asked him that so I asked him again.)
3. Okay I got that but I am not sure it answers this part of my question: …if you’re trying to match costs to the available revenue for a given piece of content, what happens when editorial quality requires costs greater that what’s available in search revenue? And who’s watching out for that point?
4. Does the description of your company as a “content farm,” content mill, factory (or even digital sweatshop) seem to you inaccurate or point missing in some way? I mean I know these are not nice terms or polite descriptions but are they wrong headed?
5. When you’re trying to build trust in an editorial brand, you pay those costs when they exceed available revenues, which I talked about. But it seems to me that Demand isn’t trying to build trust in that way, it’s trying to create content that meets demand, stays relevant and grabs the available search revenue. Why doesn’t Demand Media create the bulk of its content under the Demand brand, like Reuters, say?
Read the interview. I say Thomas Frank could only write what he wrote because he is not writing on the web. What do you say?
UPDATE, Dec. 17, 2010:
John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harpers, decided to respond. He reveals the correspondence one of his editors had with me about this post. His column is (literally) an anti-Interent screed:
Somehow, the passion that drives successful political crusades is attenuated when it’s reflected on the computer screen. All those millions of eyeballs glued to Facebook do not a revolution make, or even a reform movement. The energy devoted to the Net is an astonishing waste. This is time that obviously could be better spent talking to a friend or a child, reading a good book, or marching in a political demonstration.
Included in his indictment is a re-telling of the events in this post– and my half of the correspondence I had with one of MacArthur’s editors. Now it is so like Harper’s to leave half the exchange out, and, though MacArthur’s column was placed online, to refuse to link to this post even though it is directly referenced by MacArthur, and even though linkless publishing is the issue under discussion, as it were. This is what his column says:
Among the most insistent Internet salesmen in my world is Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University. In keeping with the “democratic” Web, he promotes so-called “public journalism,” which some editors take to mean journalism ordered up by readers instead of assigned by editors.
Tom Frank gently mocks Rosen in this month’s Harper’s Magazine for being too easy on Richard Rosenblatt, CEO of a content mill called Demand Media. Rosen objected — in his blog. But what really made him mad was that “Frank could only write that because he is not writing on the Web. . . . Were he writing on the Web he would have to link to my interview” with Rosenblatt, which would show how “misleading” were Frank’s “characterizations.”
Since we at Harper’s are not free content/free traders (you have to pay to read the magazine online), we asked Rosen to write a letter to the editor. His reply: “Harper’s has decided it doesn’t want to be part of the Web, and for that reason I don’t want to be part of Harper’s. Which is sad, all around.” Now, there’s the democratic spirit at work.
Actually, I haven’t worked on public journalism for ten years; it was a pre-Web development. But we no longer expect Harpers to be well informed. So you have the full context, here is the exchange:
Dear Mr. Rosen,
My name is Justin Stone; I edit the Letters section of Harper’s. Your post in response to Tom Frank’s article addresses the possibility that an essay written for print is (or can be) fundamentally different from its web-published counterpart (e.g., in its link-less argumentation). I like your idea, and I think it would be especially interesting to the readers of an essentially print-only publication—those who you point out are unlikely to find your blog. A letter may also be an opportunity to tackle Frank’s misrepresentation of your interview with Rosenblatt. In any case, please let me know if you’re interested.
Harpers has decided it doesn’t want to be part of the web, and for that reason I do not want to be part of Harpers. Which is sad, all around. Good luck.
Harpers doesn’t believe in free content, except when it does. Enjoy MacArthur’s column.