Weekend reading | Blogads

Weekend reading

by henrycopeland
Saturday, January 29th, 2005

Atlantic Monthly: “Flexibility, irony, class consciousness, contrarianism. I’d gone to Princeton, and soon I’d go to Oxford, and these, I was about to tell Karl, are the ways one gets ahead now’not by memorizing old Ralph Waldo.”

Washington Post: “Perhaps best of all, you can indulge your megalomaniacal tendencies by approving or declining potential ads at will.”

The Atlantic Monthly:

Some niches are so small they’re approaching the vanishing point. There are now hundreds of thousands of bloggers, individuals who publish news, commentary, and other content on their own idiosyncratic Web sites. Some boast readerships exceeding those of prestigious print magazines, but most number their faithful in the double and triple digits. …

It’s instructive to remember, however, that the centralized, homogeneous mass-media environment of Cronkite’s day was really an anomaly, an exception to the historical rule. For two centuries before the arrival of television America had a wild, cacophonous, emphatically decentralized media culture that mirrored society itself. And something like that media culture seems to be returning right now. …

Yet even though the media of the [early 19th century] were profuse, partisan, and scandalously downmarket, they were at the same time a powerful amalgamator that encouraged participatory democracy and forged a sense of national identity. Michael Schudson, a professor of communication and sociology at the University of California at San Diego and the author of The Sociology of News (2003), says that the rampant partisanship displayed by newspapers “encouraged people to be attentive to their common enterprise of electing representatives or presidents.” Commenting that “politics was the best entertainment in town in the middle of the 19th century,” Schudson compares its effect to that of sports today. “Professional baseball is an integrative mechanism even though it works by arousing very partisan loyalties,” he says. In other words, newspapers helped pull the country together not by playing down differences and pretending everyone agreed but by celebrating and exploiting the fact that people didn’t. It’s the oldest American paradox: nothing unifies like individualism. …

The “Trust us, we know better” ethos that undergirded the broadcast era today seems increasingly antique. If red and blue America agree on anything, it’s that they don’t believe the media. To traditionalists worried about the future of news, this attitude reflects a corrosive cynicism. But in another way it’s much like the skepticism that animates great journalism. As the media have become more transparent, and suffered their own scandals, the public has learned to think about the news the same way a good journalist would’that is, to doubt everything it’s told. …

Moreover, for all the pointed criticism and dismissive eye-rolling that niche and mass outlets direct each other’s way, the two are becoming more and more symbiotic. Where would the Drudge Report and the blogging horde be without The New York Times, CBS News, and The Washington Post? Were it not for the firsthand reporting offered by those media dinosaurs, the Internet crowd would have nothing to talk about. Conversely, where would the Web versions of mass outlets be without the traffic that is directed their way by the smaller players? If there’s a new media establishment taking form, it’s shaped like a pyramid, with a handful of mass outlets at the top and innumerable niches supporting them from below, barking upward. …

And although much changes in the media over time, there are some eternal truths. Most outlets crave two things, money and impact, and the easiest path to both is the old-fashioned one: grow your audience. Ambitious niches will always seek to become larger, and in so doing to attract a more diverse audience. It’s only a matter of time before the first mass blog is identified, celebrated, and showered with minivan ads.

Finally, there’s no substantive evidence yet that the rise of the niches is bad for democracy. The fractious, disunited, politically partisan media of the nineteenth century heightened public awareness of politics, and taught the denizens of a new democracy how to be citizens. Fast forward to the present. The United States just held an election that was covered by noisy, divisive, often thoroughly disreputable post-broadcast-era media. And 120 million people, 60 percent of eligible voters, showed up to cast their ballots’a higher percentage than have voted in any election since 1968. Maybe we’re on to something.

I’d only add two points: the pyramid implies hierarchy, while the new model is probably more of a fast mutating, 10 dimensional mobius. We’ll see that minivan ad this year. It’s definitely coming, for better or worse. Our job will be to make sure that the ad sheds the motifs of hierarchical megaphone media and adjusts to the reality of the blogosphere’s skeptical, conversational maelstrom.

I listened to the BBC reporting from Iraq’s election. When even jaded Brit journos are teary eyed, you know something awesome is happening.

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