Monday, April 12, 2010

More Bad News for Those who Want the News

Steven Musil filed his Digital Media report on Google CEO Eric Schmidt's keynote address to the annual conference of the American Society of News Editors on the CNET News Web site last night, and as I write this his article has fielded five comments. The one that interests me the most came from MaggieRed about four hours ago. I do not know whether Maggie's handle reflects an underlying Marxian philosophy, but her comment certainly slants in that philosophical direction. It is both brief and cautionary:

You people better open your eye's to this guy. He is more about controlling what you read.

Hear me now believe me later.

I call attention to this comment not for any new insights it offers but for the way in which it echoes a theme that has already been established. I refer to the Google Book Search effort and the opinions on this project that Robert Darnton has published in The New York Review. Specifically, Darnton sees Google Book Search as a project that can ultimately reinvent our whole notion of what a public library can be; and, for this reason, he feels it is dangerous for such a project to remain in the hands of a single private enterprise. I am not sure how many supporters Darnton has, but he has at least one powerful one. Unfortunately, that supporter is French President Nicolas Sarkozy; and he can only exercise power over the future of the public library system in France. Now, while I appreciate that, at least in out country, newspapers, unlike public libraries, have always been part of the private sector, I continue to hold to what I have called "the old-fashioned idea of the newspaper as a public trust." It is from this point of view that I would like to examine the key remark that Schmidt made and Musil cited:

We have a business model problem; we don't have a news problem. We're all in this together.

Let me begin with the most obvious flaw in the rhetorical gesture of that second sentence. Schmidt was addressing a conference of news editors. I do not think you will find many editors, particularly for large newspapers that serve large cities, whose job description includes responsibility for business models. Editors worry about what readers read, making sure that it is based on sound logic (and thus safe from accusations of libel, among other concerns) and realized through text that is both coherent and compelling. In a newspaper setting managing editors also worry about identifying specific writing tasks and assigning them to members of their staff. All this has to be done on a tight schedule to make sure that one newspaper's worth of stories has been compiled in time to "go to press."

The reason I suggested that Maggie's comment reflected Marxian philosophy is that she appreciates the distinction between those who do the business of a newspaper and those who run (i.e. control) that business. Editors are responsible for the doing, but control resides in the offices of publishers and owners. Furthermore, if the newspaper is a publicly traded company, then those latter individuals must recognize that some level of control also lies with the shareholders. It is at this level, remote from the activities in any editor's office, that decisions about business models are made and evaluated.

There was also an anonymous comment that asserted:

Schmidt never had an original thought in his life.

I do not know Schmidt's biographical history, but there is nothing original in his position in this case. Indeed, the best advocate for that position is probably David Simon, who made the same point last May in testimony before the Senate Committee of Commerce, Science, and Transportation's Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet. However, Simon was talking about economic models on behalf of the reporters and editors of professional journalism, rather than to them. Also, as I wrote in my analysis of his testimony, he was setting his sights higher that those activities in the editor's office:

Simon began with a call for a new economic model. What is important, however, is that he was less concerned with whether or not newspapers, as we currently know them, remain in business. The greater concern is with whether the profession of journalism itself will die along with those newspapers, and this is precisely the concern that [Google's Marissa] Mayer managed to deftly ignore in her own testimony. For all that she tried to talk about opportunities for the future of journalism, she could not confront the challenge that Web search is so superficial that it can only undermine journalism as a professional practice.

This is where Maggie's alarm sounds loudest. Those whom Schmidt addressed were more concerned with whether or not (or probably when) they would be losing the jobs they had worked hard to achieve. This was not about whether or not any specific newspaper would go out of business in the interest of a new business model. It was about an entire community of highly skilled workers faced with the prospect of no opportunities in which to exercise their skills. Ultimately, Schmidt had nothing to say to that community; and I suspect that a pretty heavy cloud of depression will hang over the rest of their conference.

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