Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why Does Bill Keller Hate The Internet? (And Himself)

In a recent address to a gathering of more than 250 college and university presidents and other top administrators during The Chronicle of Higher Education's two-day Executive Leadership Forum, New York Times head honcho Bill Keller had some choice words with regard to the Internet, blogosphere, and anything that isn't Times-run:

"For all the woes besetting our business, I believe in my heart that newspapers will be around for a long time," he said, even if they aren't always delivered "as that lovable old-fashioned bundle of ink and cellulose."

"Technology has lowered the barriers to entry in the news business," Keller said. "This is unsettling to the traditional news business, but it is also an opportunity."

Established newspapers can succeed by offering something the newcomers can't, he added: "Google News and Wikipedia don't have bureaus in Baghdad or anywhere else." Rather than creating content, the new Web-based news outlets aggregate it from various sources, including newspapers.

Bloggers, likewise, occasionally enlighten readers with original material, but "most of the blog world doesn't attempt to report. It recycles news," he said.

And this really bugs me. Why? Because Bill Keller is looking at the "newspaper situation" in a very, very partisan way.

In a way, that's what his job is all about. But hang on a second.

First off, a disclaimer: I was not at this conference. I do not know if these quotes, borrowed from the Chronicle's own report here, were taken out of context. I'm simply keeping the faith that those journalists respect their ethics as much as I do.

Bill Keller's given this speech a hundred times in the last several years. You know: the one where newspapers are dying. The one where staff layoffs have to happen. The one where "bite the bullet" and "bootstrap" and all of those choice phrases come into play.

Newspapers are the victim, he's saying. It's just not fair that the Internet gets all the traffic (and not NYTimes.com).

And I agree with him on one note: yes, the original source of much of the Internet's reporting are the mainstream media -- i.e. the salaried (or lately, temp'ed) professionals who get press passes to save the world from itself. And I'm certainly with Keller on the fact that the Internet news can't survive without them (especially those wire services), or at least that it would take a long, long time for new grassroots organizations to replace them (in some crazy apocalyptic way of hypothesizing).

However -- and this is a BIG however -- Bill Keller needs to quit the pity party. I'm not sad for him, I'm not sad for the Times, nor their shareholders. Why should I be? They peddle some of the finest American journalism out there from a venerated post in society, and they've adapted better than any other news organization to the Internet (ever see nytimes.com/multimedia? Fabulous!).

So why does Bill Keller find it necessary to continue complaining about the best marketing structure to ever hit world commerce: the Internet? With its advent -- and the Times' cooperation, no doubt -- Times stories run far wider than the five boroughs or tri-state region. Every hour of every day, the minor successes in progress on NYTimes.com are repeated and exaggerated as its stories are reproduced around the world. Even if readers don't click all the way back to NYTimes.com (where the ad revenue is!), they know they're getting reliable journalism. And that's one marketing and branding strategy that wins far more in the long run than the simple advertisements that the Times puts elsewhere.
In other words: The Times is getting more bang for buck as a successful Internet entity than as a brick-and-mortar paper, especially with marketing and advertising taken into consideration (the great journalistic stories ARE the ads).

So what's to complain about? Probably because the bean counters haven't figured out a way to collect data on it. It's an intangible -- how can you monetize the intangible?

Often, advertising and marketing budgets are black holes: you can't really calculate how well you're doing. You just pour money in and hope/expect that it's making an impact. I think this is how the Times should start looking at its journalism.

"Google News and Wikipedia don't have bureaus in Baghdad or anywhere else."

Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch. Why should they? Bill Keller, why are you taking pot shots at an automated news aggregator and an open encyclopedia? Just because it's easier to find relevant (local, ahem) stories on Google News and relevant subjects on Wikipedia rather than the U.S. section of NYTimes.com and Times Topics?

Fight a bigger battle, please.

If the Times shut down for a week, all of those news aggregator sites would suddenly be without serious, breaking, reliable, informative, educated, thoroughly-reported journalism. And it'd be instantly noticeable (until the Washington Post or Wall Street Journal stepped in). And the Internet would be worse for it, without a doubt.

So I ask again: what's there to complain about?

I urge journalism's leaders -- those at the top of newspapers, magazines, and any other business deemed "dying" by their own writers -- to quit the whining and realize their own value. To take a page from a trend story they like to run often enough, they sound like a bunch of whiny 'Millenials' who think they're not smart because their 4.0 GPA is now a 3.97.

Yes, you're smart. You're a valuable commodity. So enough with the low self-esteem.

Man up, Keller.

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