Back in the early 1980s, several generations ago in terms of the mass media, I was freelancing at People magazine and stumbled upon an astonishing sight in a cubicle in the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center.
There on the desk, where the typewriter should have been, was a glowing computer screen. The screen was similar to the screens used in the big photo-typesetting machines that had recently replaced the venerable linotype machines that had ruled the publishing landscape for the previous century. The keyboard was attached to the monitor by a long curly cord, now fully extended by a gangly guy who had it on his lap. The guy was not a phototypesetter, but, amazingly, a writer just like the five or six of us crowded around him as he showed how we could overwrite parts of sentences we didn’t like or insert words we had left out the first time around.
The writer with the keyboard was Jeff Jarvis, a guy in his mid 20s from Northwestern, who went on from People to become the founding editor of Entertainment Weekly and then an advocate for the brave new world of online journalism. His 2009 book, “What Would Google Do?,” not only describes the genius of the online search engine but also shows how almost any industry — publishing, especially — can transform itself to create a “Googley” business model.
So the stars must be aligned when I receive an E-mail inviting me to attend an informal discussion at a Princeton University dining hall, where the featured guest will be Jeff Jarvis, appearing on campus as a speaker in a course taught by Jim Willsie, the retired editor of the Newark Star-Ledger.
There is just one problem: After spending the prior two or three months immersed in online media (in addition to the old print world that already has consumed me), I am exhausted. As I noted in this space last week, social media is not always the most efficient media. The time drain is considerable. Think about how much time you spend now with E-mail. Budget at least the same amount of time to keep up with your social media crowd. Add in even more time if you plan to do a lot of Tweeting yourself.
Like a late-night insomniac surfing the cable TV channels, you will find worthwhile things, but only after sifting through a lot of junk: “Feeling yucky today, Decided to treat myself to hot chocolate. Yum.” And you will waste your time clicking on what promises to be a valuable link, but turns out to be another 140-character missive. (Because the links are shortened to a miniature URL to save space on Twitter, you can’t tell if the link is to the Smithsonian or to a Facebook wall.)
The first person I follow on Twitter is David Carr, the media writer for the New York Times. In the past I have cheerfully paid $2 to buy the Monday paper and his column. I figure I’ll get it for free. But his Twitter posts are so frequent (20 or 30 a day) and so self-indulgent that I give up — two bucks is a bargain.
At one point the Princeton area Twitterati are excited about an event that will be Tweeted live as it unfolds — a lecture by Princeton president Shirley Tilghman on the subject of race and genomics. Tilghman, a molecular biologist as well as the head of an institution committed to racial equality, is bound to have some insight. But does anyone want to digest this complicated and controversial subject in 140-character snippets “broadcast” while she is delivering her speech? I would prefer a hard copy, thank you, with wide margins so that I can scribble notes. And I could wait a day or a week or even a month to receive the copy.
But, tired as I am, the Jarvis invitation is too good to pass up. I drag myself across campus, re-introduce myself to Jarvis, and remind him of the scene back at the Time-Life building.
It was 1981, he recalls, and the personal computer was an Osborne. Amazing: The last linotype was shut down at the New York Times on July 2, 1978. Three years later I was watching Jarvis showing off the device that would soon replace the replacements of the linotype. Nearly three decades later Jarvis is still enthusiastic, now about changes that he believes will be far more dramatic than a mere change in the newspaper production process.
Over some cafeteria food, Jarvis launches into his world view of the media in the age of Google, social media, and all the rest. Most of the print media, he argues, simply do not get it. “The big, old media are trying to transpose the old models onto the new.” Trying to put old-fashioned content online and — even worse — trying to charge for it is all destined to fail, Jarvis believes. “News is a process, not a product,” says Jarvis.
Better, he proselytizes, is to do what Google would do: Be free, build a mass of niches, empower your readers to shape your content, and link to everyone you can. “You have to plan for a no-print future,” Jarvis says.
I’m a skeptic. I think back to the cacophony of voices that I have been listening to during my observation of the social media scene. I consider the ratio of views to clicks on our website, and the equally high ratio of followers on Twitter to people who actually click through to the link we provide.
And if the public’s attention is split among hundreds of bloggers and Twitterers, how can anyone command an audience big enough to pay an old-fashioned reporter to cover a significant event, or make sense of an issue such as race and genomics?
“I am optimistic about journalism and news,” Jarvis says. “It’s not as if the big old print newspaper is now going to be replaced by a big new online newspaper,” he says. “It’s more likely going to be replaced by an eco-system.” At City University of New York, where Jarvis teaches a course on entrepreneurial journalism, a group envisioned how an online community might take the place of an old-line newspaper. “We envisioned some micro-bloggers pulling in $200,000 a year in ad revenues,” enough to support a few reporters. Those bloggers, in turn, could form a cooperative, selling ads across the network, thereby offering the critical mass that might attract advertisers as the old newspaper used to. “The new eco-system might include a hundred companies, many of them employee-owned,” says Jarvis.
My entrepreneurial juices are stirred. How great would it be to run a blog from the comfort of my home, with no production costs, no printing costs, no distribution costs.
A great idea, I think, but it would nice to see someone else try it first.
That’s no problem. Jarvis announces he has just been hired as a consultant to a struggling newspaper chain that has made the commitment to the brave new world of online journalism. The new publisher is “getting rid of iron and real estate,” Jarvis says, referring to in-house printing plants and big newsrooms. “He has decreed digital first,” meaning that the first thing a reporter does is to Tweet a piece of news, then post it to the website and possibly upload a video to YouTube, and then — last and least — send it off to the printing press and the fossil-fueled trucks that will deliver it to the die-hards that get it no other way.
The great thing is I can see the transformation played out every day by simply turning on my computer and following the Tweets, and then walking up to Nassau Street and buying the daily print equivalent. The pioneer in online journalism, being watched by the national print media, is the Journal Register Company, publisher of 150 non-dailies and 19 daily newspapers, including our very own Trentonian. Oh my: What will happen to the page 6 girl?
Next week: From Trentonian to Trashtonian to Twittonian.