Letters section meets blog — blog wins

by Mathew on June 10, 2006 · 5 comments

Back in the good old days of traditional media, when newspapers ruled the world and editors were a law unto themselves, the Letters section of the paper was what passed for interactivity with readers. Anyone could write a letter expressing their thoughts on an issue, mail it to the newspaper, and if they were lucky their letter (or part of it) would get published. The exact process by which certain letters were chosen and others discarded was a mystery — just one of the many mysteries of the newspaper business. And let’s face it, lots of journalists liked it that way.

The old ways are getting harder and harder to maintain, however. For a good illustration of how that is happening, look no further than the recent dust-up between General Motors and the New York Times over a column written by Thomas Friedman, which Mike at Techdirt summarizes here. Like many columnists, Friedman went a little overboard with the colourful rhetoric when he was describing GM — calling it the equivalent of a “crack dealer” and so on — and needless to say, GM wasn’t impressed. So they wrote a letter to the editor. And that’s when things started to get interesting.

The Times balked at the letter idea, at first because it was too long — a fair enough point, since the letters section isn’t really the place for a 500-word essay from a company spokesperson. Then, however, things degenerated into a debate over the word “rubbish” and whether that was appropriate language for the letters section (the Times wanted to change it to “We beg to differ” and then to “Not so.”) So what did GM do? They wrote about the whole affair on a GM blog — and included the text of the emails.

As Jeff Jarvis notes, this all makes the Times look not just arrogant, but woefully clueless about how the Web has changed the balance of power when it comes to traditional media — just as clueless as the reporter who wrote a series of emails to Mark Cuban not that long ago and then watched as the billionaire posted them on his blog for everyone to see. As Tom mentions here, the Times is used to having voice, not in giving voice.

Should the Times have caved in right off the bat and let GM run a 500-word letter defending itself? No. But it should have been smart enough to know that treating the company the way it did over a simple word like rubbish (which InOpinion notes has been used many times in the NYT letters section) would backfire. The Letters section is no longer the only sandbox that readers (and advertisers) can play in.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    [Bah, humbug]

    Oh me, oh my, what would poor little voiceless General Motors ever have done before this fantasic conversation – golly gee, BL0GS RUL3Z!!!

    Because we know that before the greatest invention of web-infinity, the *blog*, a giant business just couldn’t get heard. But now, with blogs, blogs, blogs, the gatekeepers have lost their power. It’s a New Era.

    Don’t those unhip dead-tree old-worlders “Get it”? Wow. GM PUBLISHED IT THEMSELVES! Amazing. Fantastic. Unheard-of. No megabillion-dollar megacorp could ever have that sort of power before.

    Shout it from the rooftops! Down with elitist priests of the old-media newspapers, and up with BIG CORPORATIONS AS THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE!!!!!!!

    [Bah, humbug. Bah, humbug. Bah, humbug ...]

  • Mathew Ingram

    Hmmm — was that a hint of sarcasm, Seth? I know that actually thinking about the topic doesn’t fit well with your whole “bah, humbug — blogs suck” shtick, but what would GM have done before it had a blog? Put out a press release saying the NYT wouldn’t publish a letter? I doubt it. Pull its ads from the Times in protest? Hardly. Whether you like it or not, blogs do change the equation.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Mathew, seriously, I’m flabbergasted. Again, General Motors is multibillion dollar corporation. That’s BILLION. ten-to-the-nine. Can you seriously assert they were powerless before the advent of the weblog?

    I’m at a loss. This isn’t something I want to argue as a big flame-war. But seriously, rationally, what evidence could I put forth to you that would change your mind? Story-placement is bought all the time! They have friendly industry pundits who would echo their point of view, and press agents and PR people. I’m sure someone at the Wall Street Journal would have been happy to run GM’s material as an Op-Ed, or work it into a story. All of this was in place in the era BB (Before Blogs).

    Their “blog” is not any sort of personal voice – it’s part of pre-existing corporate function. You or I have nothing in common with such a blog (GM, as an entity, is not even a carbon-based lifeform! – it’s a legal fiction).

    This particular entry irritated me, because of the cookie-cutter blog evangelism taken to such absurd heights, that scary aspect of cheerleading the interests of business flacks and portraying the very wealthy as somehow being persecuted underdogs.

    The change in the equation is that the flackery business is shifting around, with different gatekeepers. But the rich have always been heard, and it’s ridiculous to be trumpeting the latest example as some overall ability that’s never been seen before.

  • Mathew Ingram

    Seth, as usual you’re kind of missing my point in your eagerness to make your own point. My post wasn’t about how blogs have empowered GM to get its message out at all, but about how they have disempowered the Times, or at least exposed a little more of the inner workings of the newspaper to outside scrutiny and criticism. That’s my point — not that GM has somehow gotten powers it never had before.

    And even if I were to try and make that latter point, I think I would succeed, because all the power that GM had before to influence friendly journalists (or whatever you think they do) might have helped them get out a contrary piece to counter Friedman’s, but it wouldn’t have done anything to expose the internal workings of the NYT letters section, which is what I find most interesting about the whole thing.

    It has nothing to do with portraying GM as some kind of persecuted underdog, as you accuse me of doing. It’s about how the Times has less control over the flow of information of all kinds than it used to have.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Mathew, I actually think you’re missing my point. This exact same post could have appeared as a column in a GM-friendly business magazine, one which likes to bash the Times. In fact, that’s basically what’s happened, it appeared in a GM “house organ”.

    When you wrote “The Letters section is no longer the only sandbox that readers (and advertisers) can play in.”, that ignored that GM has had its own sandbox for decades, as well as plenty of business press sandboxes. All of which love the plotline of the biased journalist who just won’t give an honest businessman a fair shake (compare: “As Tom mentions here, the Times is used to having voice, not in giving voice.”)

    The difference now is that they have blog evangelists giving tnat old sob-story a New Era glossing.

Older post:

Newer post: