Thursday, December 23

Dawn of the Newsmaster

Robin Good passes along this fascinating, semi-nutty think piece on the death of the Fourth Estate from Robin Sloan and the Museum of Media History.
In the year 2014 people have access to a breadth and depth of information unimaginable in an earlier age. Everyone contributes in some way. Everyone participates to create a living, breathing mediascape. However, the Press, as you know it, has ceased to exist. The Fourth Estate's fortunes have waned. 20th Century news organizations are an after-thought, a lonely remnant of a not too distant past.

Yeah, yeah. There's two points I want to make. First, while it's great that everyone will contribute, there's still going to be a need for dedicated professionals to spend 24-7-365-70 tracking, researching, collating, writing, fact-, grammar- and spell-checking, and all the other industrial processes that keep the newstream unpolluted by bullshit incoherence and worth drinking. Fine, you'll be able to get it without flouridation, like Gen. Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, if you choose, but you're still going to need to know that it's not actually poisoned with out-and-out lies.

The good news for those professionals is that there will be more channels than ever to feed into. Smart channels that we control ourselves could make it easier for us to reach the readers most likely to care about what we put together for them, and make it easier for them to communicate their wants to us. On the other hand, I don't see why we shouldn't continue to band together into teams, hash out what our target market is, seek some venture capital, think up a snappy name, and work the synergies so we can get paid to do this stuff full time and live in reasonable financial security while we do it.

That's why the tension between editorial on one hand and marketing and distribution on the other is not going away. It'll be the same as it ever was, even when everyone has a television studio in their living rooms and printing press in their pocket. I sit here surfing classified ads and seeing jobs for old-fashioned 'editors' getting elbowed aside by ads for 'content managers,' who give way in turn to algorithms. Will the new wave of 'newsmasters' have degrees in marketing or will they come from the liberal arts and the sciences? Will their intellectual heroes be Faith Popcorn--if that really is her name--or Daniel De Foe and Thomas Paine and Walter Lippman and Walter Cronkite and Thomas Hobbes and the Marquis de Sade?

I hate the whole mentality that reduces intelligent discourse to "content" on a par with advertising and spin and pornography and spam. I don't pay my freelancers for "content," which may be defined as any series of characters in a recognized world writing system forming grammatically comprehensible sentences or phrases. I pay them to create a special kind of written composition called "news reports" and "feature stories" and "news analysis." And I'm the rabbi that declares it kosher, not some idiot throwing a switch that routes chunks of words this way or that. My job is to keep you right with Y-h by making sure there's nothing cheesy in the meat of the story. I spend all my time thinking about how to make the fifteen minutes you have for reading in the morning as rewarding as possible.

Second, the fundamental philosophical question about the democratic media will remain: Is it our job people to tell people what they want to know--free celebrity sex diets!--or what we think they NEED to know? The social mission of the Fourth Estate always had a lot to do with "educating the public," and now we live at a time when all of this technology coexists with a movement to get the theory of evolution out of public school textbooks and to dismiss research on global warming and the health effects of nicotine addiction as "junk science."

In other words, as a wise friend of mine once said, "When any idiot can publish on the Internet, the Internet will mostly be written by idiots."

Is that true? I tend to be more optimistic than most people about the desire of most people not to dwell in ignorance, despite evidence to the contrary, like the very existence of Geraldo Rivera and the Weekly World News. There will always be a role for someone to filter down the cacophony and winnow out the idiocy. There may be a sucker born every minute, but a media activist is nothing more than a sucker who realizes they've been bitten by the snake-oil. Truth will remain the coin of the realm, even as the economics of content shift in favor of direct producers over blood-sucking distributors. Viva Tasini!

Also, on a branding note, the anti-globalization people coined the idea of a Fifth Estate and have been using it for years now--and quis custodet custodes ipsos has an even more venerable pedigree. (I always remember old Prof. Learnihan on the first day of Western Civ in college, thundering, "Ladies and gentlemen, you will never have an original thought in your life.") If they believed in intellectual property, they'd be suing. Still, the discussion ought to at least cite its antecedents.

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