Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bright Frenetic Mills

by Thomas Frank

Harper's Magazine Easy Chair (December 2010)


Although it scarcely seems believable today, I originally came to journalism as a practical, responsible career move. It was the mid-1990s, I had just finished a PhD in history, and I was toiling away as a lecturer at a college in Chicago. Thanks to an overproduction of historians and the increasing use of adjunct labor by universities, the market had become hopelessly glutted. Friends of mine all told the same stories of low-wage toil, of lecturing and handing out A's while going themselves without health insurance or enough money for necessities. Our tenured elders, meanwhile, could only rarely be moved to care. What was a predicament to us was a liberation to them - a glorious lifting of their burden to teach. For the university, which was just then discovering the wonders of profit-making, it was something even more fabulous: a way to keep labor costs down.

I got out I discovered that I could earn as much for a few stories in an alternative newsweekly as I could for an entire semester of Civil War to Present, and so I left academia forever.

Now it is journalism that is collapsing. Ad revenue is in decline. Newsgathering staffs are decimated Distant bureaus are closed. Print editions shrink or disappear. It is next to impossible to make readers pay for online content. There is no point in denying it. The industry is dying.

And when it's not dying by more or less natural causes, it's being hustled into the grave by bright entrepreneurs with big new ideas. Consider the poor Tribune Company, publisher of the floundering Chicago Tribune, the shrinking Los Angeles Times, and a collection of other once-trusted household names. A few years ago it was bought out by Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell, who planned to rescue the papers from disaster. People needed to understand, he said in 2008, that "if we keep operating the way we've been operating in the past, there is no future".

Mr Zell's bold solution to this crisis was to install at his company's helm one Randy Michaels, a former radio executive famed for applying the "principles" of McDonald's to the airwaves, along with a cohort of Michaels's loutish radio pals. Churlishness is the ticket to success nearly everywhere else in business these days. Why not here? According to an account by David Carr in the New York Times, Michaels and his merry band of Babbitts proceeded to declare righteous war on journalistic professionalism, closing career opportunities to the qualified and conspicuously blending advertising with editorial. And although these radio execs were almost entirely innocent of newspaper experience, they were masters of the art of the grab, pulling down millions in bonuses while the company slogged on through bankruptcy proceedings.

And - need I say it, reader? - all this was done in the name of revitalizing the business by constructing, as a missive from Mr Michaels put it, "a fun, non-linear creative environment". (Mr Michaels announced his intention to resign a few weeks after making this claim.)

Quality journalism is not, of course, a function of newsprint. It can theoretically work in other media just as well, and by now there are enough examples of bloggers breaking big stories to put the paper-based argument to rest. The problem is not the end of the newspaper; it's that professional newsgathering organizations can no longer be supported by the for-profit system. Either the profit must go or the professionalism.

It's easy to predict which course the market will take. Just look at journalism's greatest foul-up of recent years: its almost complete failure to warn the public about the collapse of the subprime bubble. In that case, the convergence of journalism and profit meant journalists had trouble suspecting anything might be amiss.

Or, looking to the future, consider the example of Demand Media, a so called content-mill, which uses a vast collection of Web-recruited freelancers to generate articles for about $15 per 300-word item; copy editors are said to get $2.50 for each piece they correct. The outfit's editorial direction is charted by what the company's prospectus calls "our proprietary algorithms", which is to say, equations that mainly weigh two factors: what people are searching for on Google and what advertisers might pay to associate themselves with a given topic.

According to Demand's manifesto - yes, they have a manifesto - all this is merely "listening to the customer", an "incredibly liberating" development that "guides" not only the "content we create" but "the communities we nurture". Its competitor, Associated Content, actually calls itself "The People's Media Company"; on the occasion of its purchase by Yahoo!, Associated's founder claimed he had in mind "a democratization of content".

How egalitarian. Of course, the real source of the mills' magic would have been familiar in the nineteenth century: an inventive way to minimize labor costs. The content-mill is like a temp agency for writers, a literary maquiladora. It automates not some part of the creative act but rather the context in which it takes place: it deprofessionalizes journalism. You can see the results for yourself on eHow.com, one of the friendly showplaces of Demand content, where you can find out "How to Make Your Eyes Look Bigger" or "How to Replace a CV Joint on a Chevy Avalanche", the latter penned by a fellow who, according to his bio, "is widely published on numerous writing websites and runs a his [sic] small writing business out of his home in Marietta, Ohio" {*}.

* You can also read content-mill text on
USA Today's website, which has outsourced the writing of certain travel features ("Family Road Trip Planning") to Demand and its army of freelancers. Other newspapers have followed suit.


Columbia Journalism Review
recently put a giant hamster wheel on its cover to bemoan this state of affairs, this frantic race to the bottom, this coming journalistic war of all against all. As for the entrepreneurship involved, one thinks back to the days of the robber barons, when a deluge of life's goodness went to, say, the innovator who figured out how to make his workers live in company towns so he could deduct rent from their paychecks. One thinks of the immortal words of utility baron Samuel Insull: "My experience is that the greatest aid to efficiency of labor is a long line of men waiting at the gate".

Nowadays we don't speak as plainly as old man Insull. It is the convention of our age to look at situations like this and declare that people are actually empowered by standing in that long line, that queueing up there frees them to engage in some kind of synergistic community-building - and that, come to think of it, the hamster is a noble beast. Democracy-talk has long provided the cover for the latest advances in rapaciousness, and a natural hostility toward elitism has furnished the official explanation for the great project of transferring the country's wealth to the uppermost one percent. And it is plain that the rise of the content-mills today merely advances the strategy launched years ago by the founder of USA Today, whereby focus groups were used to steer news coverage, critical attitudes were stigmatized as cynicism, and all of it was done in the name of "listening". At the time, you will recall, this was known as the "journalism of hope".


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".

Let us note, before proceeding, that the Editorial Advisory Board set up by Demand Media back in February includes, among others, Kevin Z Smith, former president of the Society of Professional Journalists; Ernest James Wilson III, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California; and Teri Schwartz, dean of the School of Theater, Film, and Television at UCLA.

Jeff Jarvis, a well-known blogger and management author, was also asked to join the board; he declined. ("Demand is uniquely controversial right now", he explained.) Mr Jarvis would have been quite a catch: he was recently named the head of the brand-new Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York (Tow and Knight are the names of the foundations bankrolling this particular hamster-training facility). Although Mr Jarvis is willing to listen to critics of the content-mills, he also maintains, on his blog, "that we should not miss the key insights and lessons in Demand's model", which he describes as "finding new ways to listen to what readers and the market want ..." - ahh, listening to the audience - "and second, cutting content creation into its constituent elements and creating a market for creation to find new efficiencies".

What makes the content-mills so innovative, so worth studying, in other words, are the very aspects of their operations that make them so toxic to the form of professionalism the J-schools exist to protect.

And should you be wondering what J-Schools will teach in the future, or on what grounds they will continue to admit students, simply heed the direction taken by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, which was moved by the crisis, back in 2006, to appoint as its dean one John Lavine, a newspaper marketing expert. Chicago magazine called him a "campus revolutionary" for his announcement that "I'm blowing up the whole curriculum", though the only thing he seems to have blown up is the division between journalism and marketing, the latter of which, he assured an audience of journalism educators in 2009, is "essential to news and every other aspect of what we do". (Apparently that's because marketing is really a form of etiquette, a way of "being respectful to your audience".)

Otherwise, to judge Mr Lavine by what information is publicly available, all that is remarkable about him is the guilelessness of his techno-optimism, a sort of gadget-love I haven't seen since I stopped going to management conferences in 2000. In that speech from last year, which you can watch yourself thanks to the awesomeness of the Internet, Mr Lavine can be seen enthusing over the awesome new miniature computers that are coming, the awesome new GPS devices, the awesome new videoconferencing technology, the awesome new digital billboards, and his awesome Kindle, which reads what is left of the newspaper to him as he drives along in his car.

Maybe it's too much for Mr Lavine to imagine that these admirable, friendly machines might have a role in making life impossible for his student hamsters. And so, in the reassuring manner I associate with the Sunday schools of my youth, he tells his fellow journalism educators not to worry too much, that "be it strategic communications, or marketing, or journalism, or whatever ... know we're going to get through it. We are going to get through it. Because people are going to want what we all represent."


I sincerely hope that Mr Lavine is right. But I'm not counting on it. What you find as you explore the tweets and blog posts of the profession's leaders is that the failure of newspapers has brought with it a cognitive failure as well, in which a handful of superstitions have come to obscure what is actually happening in the world. 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.

Jay Rosen of New York University, for instance, is a smart and lively journalism professor. He has for years taken as his special commission the taunting of writers he calls "curmudgeons", by which he seems to mean those who express misgivings about blogging, Twitter, "citizen journalism", and so on. When insulting these doubters for their old-fashioned cluelessness he can be clever and satisfyingly vicious. 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 Rosenblatt 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, the safety catch that is supposed to protect us. All it will really protect, of course, is the Web itself.

Just to rub it in, here was Mr Rosenblatt's reply:

OMG. My entire career and life has been about the Web. Trying to innovate and create value where open spaces exist. We do not have a content mill as we discussed but an efficient method to get people the information they need when they want it. That is improving the Internet and I am proud of it.

Quite a bit has happened since the Web-crazy days of the late Nineties. We have lived through bubble after bubble after bubble; endured waves of accounting fraud so open they might be called fads; seen political entrepreneurship work its wonders on Washington's K Street; tasted the spoiled fruits of deregulation; watched the destruction of American manufacturing, the sinking of the middle class, the slow demise of labor unions, and so on. But the myths of the magic market persist as though nothing had happened to shake our faith in all those intervening years.

"Now that the commercial system of journalism is disintegrating ... our journalism schools for the most part appear clueless", the critic Robert McChesney wrote me recently. "The fact that the market is voting emphatically that journalism is no longer a profitable exercise, or at least profitable enough to provide the level of journalism our nation requires, simply does not compute".

Old Samuel Insull might be plenty pleased by that. Let the line grow long at the factory gate. Let the hamsters compete to make the wheel spin, cranking out their $15 stories and tweeting their little tweets while the Republic goes to hell. And by all means let the professors teach the wonders of "entrepreneurship". We all know what answer lies at the end of that line of inquiry: The only real solution to the hamster-wheel problem is to be the guy who owns the pet store.

_____

Thomas Frank will now be writing each month's Easy Chair essay.


Bill Totten http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/

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