Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Titanic crisis ahead for the Times?

Conservative Radio Show host, and author of Blog, Hugh Hewitt was the guest-of-honor during a Los Angeles Press Club event Tuesday April 26th at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. After the obligatory networking/schmoozing (more on that below) Hewitt was introduced and gave his opinions regarding the state of print media today, in particular the state of the Los Angeles Times.

Hewett's assessment of the Times was a bleak one. He began his observations by informing the Press Club that the Times circulation of approximately 900,000 subscribers (or 899,999 now that Susan Estrich has cancelled hers) is at the same level of readership that the Times held in the mid-1960s. Hewitt stressed that in the 1960s California had a significantly lower population and the Times did not have the monopoly status that it holds today, observing that any other company that had seen an increase in potential buyers with no increase of actual buyers would see crisis ahead indeed. Hewitt went so far as to compare the Times with the Titanic, pointing out, "Ten minutes before it hit the iceburg the Titanic was the pinnacle of transportation technology." Hewitt continued with the claim that the Times was in danger of becoming obsolete. Begging the question, "What would happen if GM discovers that their sale increase without the benefit of advertising in the Times?"

Following Hewitts critical assessment of the state of print media. Roger L Simon and Armed Liberal presented an alternative vision for the future of news media by "pulling aside the curtain of their 'Pajama News Service'" syndicate. This syndicate will, its creators hope, enable the blog community to compete with news services like the Associated Press by offering a wider net of reporters under a professional syndicated umbrella. All in all the meeting was a positive one for the blog community painting a bright future.

The Times was not without representation at the event. Sunday Opinion editor Bob Sipchen, who edits the Times-criticizing "Outside the Tent" geature discussed the Times current plans to maintain relevance. These plans included more solid coverage, broader incorporation of opinion, and interaction with the "blogosphere." During Sipchen's discussion, it was noted that a regularity of voices in the "Outside the Tent" column could create a possible draw to the paper. Sipchen displayed a savvy understanding of the situation and defended his paper well, though he didn't voice any aggressive plans to deal with the potential crisis.

Now that you have the factual background...

What do I think of the situation?

I think that Hewitt made many good points when it came to the state of the industry, but I also think he committed what I will term "the Futurist's Fallacy." When any new medium is found for entertainment the hopeful and excited tend to claim the obsolesence or the demise of existing media. Radio was supposed to kill reading. Television was supposed to kill radio and "theatre". VCRs were supposed to kill theatrical release. What was discovered in all these cases was that the old media adapted. Radio focused on what worked best chiefly music and interactive news (something Hewitt is very proficient at using). Books, while not read as much as some would like, are a multi-billion dollar industry. The old movie palaces disappeared and were replaced by googleplexes at your local mall. More people go to the theater than ever before. Where the futurist is usually correct is when the new media is an "upgrade" of the old media, combining identical or superior outcome with a more convenient format. Some examples of this phenomenon are Talkies versus the Silent film, DVDs combined with Tivo versus Videotapes. CDs replacing cassettes and LPs.

So that begs the question, which example is this closer to?

Given the current state of dependance blogs have on existing media, blogs are often an extended opinion/critique outlet based off and linking to existing media, I think it is closer to the first list of examples. If print media decided to cease "online publication" many bloggers, not to mention Drudge would have little to cover. Or at minimum would lose some respectablility due to lack of verifiabilty. One of the chief advantages of the internet and blogs is transparancy. Honest bloggers post links, everything is well documented. This is largely possible due to online versions of print media. The lack of online versions would effect the blogosphere. It would also create public outcry and possible backlash so I doubt it will occur, but I also lack the apocalyptic worldview of EPIC. I see the future of blogs as a symbiotic one where both benefit and prosper, though I am certain that Hewitt's observations regarding advertising are prescient.

As to why I am so convinced that Hewitt is committing the Futurist Fallacy, I point you to Keenspot, "The future of cartooning," or so they think. You see some online cartoonists had the idea that they could create a new syndicate and supplant the old (the most important component of my criticism is their "supplant the old" assertion). What many have discovered is that keenspot is an insular and pretentious community that would better be titled Take your money spot as the gents at Penny Arcade and their friend Schlock Mercenary discovered. In fact, internet comics have few success stories. For every Penny-Arcade, PvP Online, Homestar Runner, Nodwick, and Dork Tower, there are hundred or even thousands of failures. Most of these failures are at Keenspot and one of the largest contributors to that failure is the rejection of the power and legitimacy of existing media.

So here is to the bright future of a more integrated and sophisticated media future. As if I didn't have enough things to keep track of.
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