Ignore the Web? Good luck with that

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.

23 thoughts on “Ignore the Web? Good luck with that

  1. You may be overstating what he proves. He had to go to what seems like the smallest, most local paper in NJ to find someone who can ignore the web – for now.

    I'm not sure what that proves, if it proves anything at all.

    • Yes, I was trying to give his argument as much benefit of the doubt as possible. I don't think it proves much of anything, actually. In any case, it's like finding a couple of teenagers making money washing cars in their neighbourhood and proposing that as a business model for the auto industry.

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  3. Myself and about 3 other people (average view count 250) have been following Carr's foray into the world of video content on the NYTimes YouTube page (it's in there – the one with the 'Tom Cruise' screen test). I've actually been enjoying them, though they are a little too brief. In a pretty cheeky move, he mocks the stereotype of the basement blogger by actually recording vids from the comfort of his 'New Jersey basement' (hanging wire light, decrepit surroundings, etc.). Unfortunately these vignettes haven't stirred much debate (or hits), but given that it's YT maybe that's for the best.
    Anyone curious about the phone systems at the NYTimes offices or what A. O. Scott's office looks like should watch the most recent one:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfBF5VtoJ-M

  4. Maybe he's trying to defend the old school media distribution – you read what you get, but the whole web is evolving to a subscription/push model, in the sense that you read what you want, or are recommended (targeted). You right – he does sound a little bonkers.

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  6. What a bunch of assholes on here. The story is about the success, in these crazy economic times (especially in the print world), of a small, independent alt weekly. What's wrong with that? I don't get the negative feedback on this article. I don't think Carr is suggesting this as a business model for all. But rather it's just one example of how to be a success in the newspaper industry. Duh? Idiots I tell you.

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