Sunday, November 23, 2008

Media futures: where's the critical thinking?

I sat down last night to annotate my objections to a rather superficial recent post in which marketing guru Seth Godin detailed his complaints and recommendations for how the New York Times should be operating online.

Not to pick on Godin (well, okay, not just on Godin), I was upset because it’s so common to find similar pieces shot through with inaccuracies, casual reasoning and ignorance. Godin offers up at least a half-dozen major flaws in something like 25 paragraphs – not just things I disagree with (there are way more than a half dozen of those) but facts and assertions that are either wrong or so ill-informed that they just don’t make sense. It pisses me off when people critique and dismiss institutions like the Times on the basis of such flaky reasoning, and it happens all the time.

Before I got warmed up to replay that this morning, I happened across another tours d’horizon about journalism that provides a splendid contrast: Jeff Jarvis’ new post outlining scenarios covering everything from revenues to collaborations. As is often the case, I find things to disagree with in his analysis, too, but there’s a big difference: how well reasoned and well argued Jarvis’ ideas are by comparison. His post is a solid platform that will support the argument it invites, not some off-the-cuff meandering.

I’ll try to give Jeff’s observations the thoughtful reaction they deserve over the next few days. As always, his points range from deep insights that will help define the future of our business – “Do what you do best, and link to the rest,” and “news will find new forms, past the article,” – to other assertions I find faddish and shallow. But it’s all worthy of debate.

Let me get the Godin burr out from under my saddle first. I reacted late yesterday in a series of Tweets that forced me to work within 140 characters; I need to stretch out just a little here.

  • I got mad in the third paragraph, when he described newspapers as “artifacts of a different age, one that today's consumer doesn't care a whit about.” He was talking about the physical presentation of newspapers (I think) but the point he seems to miss is that half of all the adults in the country use a newspaper every day. That’s a little more than a whit, Seth.
  • Later he asserts that “it's possible for a single individual with a Typepad account to reach more people than almost any newspaper in the country can.” Well, it’s possible, I guess. But nobody does. Even hugely popular sites like the Drudge Report or reach far fewer people than the total audience of the New York Times. (In Drudge’s case, of course, his site is entirely comprised of links, almost always to mainstream media sites – hardly a repudiation of the media model).
  • Godin graciously allows that some Times commetary has clout, saying, “Sure, Tom Friedman and a handful of other columnists have a large reach and influence. But why doesn't the Times have 50 columnists? 500?” Well, because 500 columnists would get lost in the mess, Seth. Organizations like the Times filter and verify and authenticate. We pay them to help us sort out the best 25 columnists from the 475 others we’d never have time to read. (Surely Seth knows more than I about brand dilution).
  • He notes disapprovingly that “Oprah is able to sell ten times as many copies of a book than (sic) the New York Times can.” Well, duh. Oprah is actively promoting and advocating for her books; the Times, thankfully, is trying to present honest, independent reviews – hardly the same mission. I want the Times to inform me, not sell me books.
  • He says the Times has advantages because “New York is an efficient place to be a newspaper. Lots of people, lots of advertisers, lots of spending ...” apparently unaware that local advertising (or even readership) is a small part of the paper’s success.
  • And so on. Really, on and on.

As an editor, the skill I look for first in journalists is critical thinking. While you’re writing, do you ask yourself “How do we know that?” or “Does this make sense, really?” Alongside basic honesty and curiosity, that’s a fundamental, baseline requirement for producing value-added journalism.

I’m usually reluctant to wander out into the blogoswamp like this because it’s so easy to get bogged down in what Jarvis characterizes as a “snarkoff.” That’s certainly not my intention. I don’t know Seth Godin but I respect his expertise and, generally, his point of view. I’m not being reflexively defensive (am I?) and certainly none of this is personal. I’m not saying he’s dumb or careless – just that I found this piece poorly constructed.


  1. Anonymous4:24 PM

    Glad you got that out of your system! Eager to hear your thoughts on Jarvis' post and how newspaper organizations can act on them (or not). I offered some thoughts on the Jarvis post here:

  2. Anonymous5:15 PM


  3. Anonymous11:13 PM

    Yes you are being reflexively defensive.

    While I didn't read the original piece (yes, I know, shame on me) I take issue with your issue taking ;).

    First, how do you get that "half of all the adults in the country use a newspaper every day"? Newspaper circulation reaches closer to 18% of adults in the country (, not 50% or are you counting that whole "hand off" thing where the guy that buys the papers leaves it on the table and someone else reads it BS. Ok, that's marketing crap and you know it. Furthermore that probably doesn't take into account the precipitous drop in circulation in the 35 and under market.

    Further more it is very possible, and plausible, for a single individual to challenge a newspaper in a given market. There are numerous markets where the local paper hasn't yet risen to the challenge online and other markets where its rising slowly. Just because it hasn't happened on a national scale challenging the Grandaddy of American papers doesn't mean it isn't happening. Did you learn nothing from Craigslist?

    Even if an individual can't challenge the local paper, we're still talking about an individual. That an individual blogger (or a small team of bloggers) could even appear on the radar of the local rag should frighten the hell out of you because how will you compete with that? Most metro daily paper employ how many people?!?

    Many, many otherwise brilliant print journos I know, snap to a panicked defensiveness whenever anyone dares utter the truth that deep down we all know to be true: newspapers are dying. They will go the way of buggy whips, film and ice harvesting ( sooner than later.

    But this doesn't mean that journalism is dying... unless you spend so much time fighting it that you miss the revolution entirely (see Craigslist).

  4. Anonymous9:21 AM

    My thoughts were similar, though not as well articulated. Thank you.

  5. Anonymous2:14 PM

    Organizations like the Times filter and verify and authenticate.

    Well, mostly. In the context you're describing (columnists) they're not quite so rigorous, as evidenced by William Kristol's serial dissembling, for example.

  6. Anonymous2:46 PM

    Journalists earned this sort of shallow criticism by subjecting other industries (the Big 3 automakers being the latest case in point) to the very same sort of off-the-cuff analysis.