Ignore the Web? Good luck with that

by Mathew on December 23, 2008 · 23 comments

David Carr, a writer for the New York Times, is a pretty interesting guy — he kicked a cocaine habit and went on to become a respected journalist at one of the country’s top newspapers, something he just finished writing a book about. That’s the good news. The bad news is that a piece he wrote on Monday perpetuates all kinds of myths about the so-called competition between the Web and the printed newspaper business. For a guy who is supposed to be the Times media columnist, that’s not a great calling card — unless the only media you like to write about is the kind that lines the bird cage or is used to wrap fish and chips.

Carr tells the story of a newspaper that has succeeded by ignoring the Web. Not just treating it with disdain, or failing to invest enough resources in it (as many other papers do) but completely ignoring it, as though it wasn’t even there. An inspirational story, right? If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool newspaper man, perhaps, determined to find any evidence — no matter how flimsy — that this whole Web thing is a fad. And pretty flimsy evidence it is: the paper Carr writes about, the Tri-City News, has 3.5 employees, and caters to a tiny niche readership in New Jersey. Is that a great business model for the newspaper business as a whole, or for journalism? Hardly, as Mark Potts notes at Recovering Journalist.

All this story proves is that hyper-local media is probably one of the few remaining safe harbours in the media business. Search engines like Google don’t do a good job of serving that market, and the information that papers like the News have is relatively hard to come by because it is so specific to a location. People aren’t reading about it on Google News or Yahoo News or in their RSS feeds or in a hundred wire stories a day that are completely identical and carried by every newspaper with a circulation greater than about 1,000. Good for them; they should be congratulated. But their model is of absolutely no use to the vast majority of newspapers out there, and it’s deceptive and misleading to suggest that it is.

It’s almost as dumb as the proposal that Joel Brinkley makes in a piece he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle — in which he actually makes the argument that newspapers should engage in a widespread and effectively criminal act of collusion in order to corner the market on news, and then ask the government for an exemption from anti-trust legislation because what they would be doing is in the public interest. As I read his piece, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. If that’s the kind of insight we’re getting from leading media thinkers (Brinkley is a former newspaper reporter and a journalism professor at Stanford), then the industry is doomed.

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