Keller v. Jarvis
Monday, March 7th, 2005
The recent e-mail exchanges between Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, and Jeff Jarvis, blogger, are kinda surreal.
Keller is right (and pretty damn funny) in pointing out that Jarvis is a self-appointed chair of a committee of one and speaks for no-one but himself. But Keller seems to be realizing that he himself, an employee designated by some profit-seeking pension fund managers, lacks any unique non-corporate claim to the epistemological or civic podium.
The context: corporate media is on the run, and the Keller/Jarvis e-mail mud wresting is a sign of the times. On the business side, publishers see revenues leaching away to Google, Craiglist, Monster, eBay and thousands of no-overhead publishers. On the editorial side, publishers realize that their 400-year-old monopoly on the publishing megaphone is gonzo. Thanks to free blogging software and the blogosphere’s speed-of-light neural network, a rag-tag army of swarming individuals increasingly leads public opinion.
Ten years ago, the New York Times’ editor might have claimed that the newspaper’s one million readers had “elected” him truth-meister. But today Keller knows that some bloggers individually and many in aggregate can make the same claims. Worse, Keller knows that bloggers themselves helped oust one of his own predecessors, Howell Raines.
It used to be that the editor of the NYT or LAT could say “it is not news until we report it.” That used to be literally true — most people didn’t pay attention to a story until a big paper or three jumped into the fray. “News” was something manufactured by publishers. Now the thought sounds ludicrous.
Vis the economic and communication function of media, the key question is what/how we
constitute “common knowledge.” There’s lots of emerging economic theory around the importance of “common knowledge” — the idea that I know that you know that I know that you know something. Corporate media used to be the unrivalled engine for creating common knowledge. That’s less true every day.
At present, bloggers can’t run a news cycle on their own, from gossip to factoid to outcry to resignation. Blogs still need corporate media to complete the chain-reaction, because blogs lack corporate media’s mass market reach. We haven’t yet reached the point where everyone says “everyone knows ABC…” because ABC has been covered by DailyKos and/or Instapundit. But that day is coming fast. And when blogs become the acknowledged manufacturers of common knowledge, corporate media will be superfluous to advertisers. (Which is not to say bad or societally useless.)
Sounds pretty draconian, I know, but if you connect the dots — persistently rising blog
traffic, opinion maker migration into p2p communication, eroding corporate publishing audiences, cannibalization of corporate revenue streams by online players — that’s where you end up.
I will miss corporate media’s thoughtful investigative journalism and great beat reporting. But I’m pretty sure the market won’t.
(I originally wrote this in answer to Hugh Forrest’s question for the SXSW Q&A page. http://2005.sxsw.com/interactive/?PHPSESSID=e2a4e0d0c3f91251d3ba662eab189f24 … other answers will be posted there later this week.)