Back in March, I had an intense dialogue with Jon Udell about how journalism in general and tech journalism in particular feel increasingly broken, and whether something else comes next, and if so what. Herewith a look at the problem and where it comes from. (Warning: Insanely long even by my standards. Summary: Journalism sucks. But there's hope.)
Troubling Evidence · That things are weird out there.
Item: In the course of the recent Iraq war, by far the best source of up-to-date, uninflated information was the collective online weblog from the BBC war correspondents.
Item: I used to read a bunch of technical trade publications. I don't read any printed tech magazines any more.
Item: In 1998, the publisher of Byte Magazine shut it down because it was losing money even though it had a large and healthy circulation.
Item: You'll learn more about the facts on the ground in Iraq from Salam Pax than from any dozen prognosticators laid end-to-end.
Item: The number of news publications, of radio stations, and of TV stations—in fact, of outlets for professional journalism—has declined for decades. (There is an exception to this trend: cable news networks.)
Item: The business picture among the “analyst” firms (Gartner, Forrester, and their ilk) is lousy, with contractions, acquisitions, and layoffs.
The Broken Market · You may think that when you subscribe to a newspaper or a magazine, you are their customer, and your satisfaction is important. It's not like that. Publishers have customers all right: their advertisers, who provide way more revenue than subscribers do.
That, by the way, was what was wrong with Byte. It had a big customer base, but it didn't specialize, so when Byte's ad salesmen talked to Dell or Electronic Arts or Compaq, they couldn't say “I guarantee that all my readers use Windows every day and care about it.” But the salespeople for Windows magazine and PC Week and so on could say exactly that, and even though they may have had fewer readers than Byte (and, most people think, lower editorial standards), the people who paid the bills didn't care, because all they care about is getting in front of a measurable group of people with well-understood characteristics.
So while Free Enterprise is good at quite a few things, its goodness depends on the organic relationship between the buyer and the seller, and when it comes to publishing, that relationship ain't straightforward or organic at all.
One of the nasty side-effects of all this is that as conventional journalism's revenues decline, the moneymen who run professional-journalism operations deal with it by cutting expenses: by trying to cover the same territory with fewer journalists, and by paying them less.
The novelist Carl Hiaasen covers this territory amusingly but with high impact in his recent Basket Case. And I've seen it myself; I remember one time a journo from the late Industry Standard called up to get me to explain what XML was going to mean, and it became obvious he didn't know what it was, so I started to explain that it was like HTML only... but then it turned out he didn't know what HTML was either. How can things get better when this kind of stuff is happening?
The Writing-Skills Conundrum · Some of the more enthusiastic blogophiles see a future in which people from the inside (of the tech vendor, the political campaign, whatever) communicate direct with the world in their own voice, via a blog or something like it. I'm an example of that, I regularly write on what Antarctica is up to, or what the W3C TAG is worried about. And when it works, it works well.
The trouble is, writing is a skill that's distributed unevenly among the population, and often-times, the people who are really in the know just don't have the tools to get the word out in a form you'd want to spend time reading.
Not that writing is a gift from God. Anyone can learn to write competently and get the point across without offense. Unfortunately, this fact is blithely ignored by large institutions of higher education. I have personal experience with prestigious schools of Computer Science and Physics and so on that are happy to turn out exquisitely trained graduates who can neither write a coherent English sentence nor perceive why this is a shortcoming. How these institutions can do this and at the same time pretend that they're preparing these kids for life in the real world is beyond me.
But even if everyone got the basic writing training that they really ought to, skill in writing has at least two dimensions: polish and speed. Take me for an example; I'll never be a great writer, but I've always been a very fast writer; when I decide that I need to blog something I can sit down after the kid's in bed at 9PM or so and it'll be done by the time I crash, unless it's really long or really technical or involves writing code too.
And finally, a lot of people just don't like writing.
So I really don't believe in a future where we depend entirely on direct communication via insiders’ blogs. Among other things, I find it easy to believe that some political candidate who would do a great job in office might be a terrible writer.
Why Not Pay For It? · It's certainly not impossible to imagine a world in which we, not the advertisers, pay for the information and opinion we feel we need. Consumer Reports works that way, and has to work that way; so does Antarctica customer Which? Online.
Then there are the analysts, names you've probably seen quoted in a news article somewhere: Gartner and Forrester Research and AMR Research and the Patricia Seybold Group and the Aberdeen Group (and there are lots more of them).
The way these guys work is that you sign up for one or more of their services, which are really expensive, thousands and thousands per year. The people who sign up fall into two groups: the first are enterprises who feel they need to know about technology but don't have the expertise in-house (e.g. the CIO's office at a car company). The second are vendors who want to understand the markets they're selling into and really want the analysts to write nice things about them for the benefit of the first group.
Astoundingly, there is a strong correlation between a vendor's subscribing to an analyst firm and the analyst firm having good things to say about that vendor. So the market's magic is tainted in the analyst space, just as in straight journalism.
There's one thing that only the analysts are really set up to do, now or in the future. This is the tedious, unglamorous, business of market surveys and product surveys and feature surveys. For example: How much are people spending on database software? On which vendors? What are the features they're using? That they're not using? How many of them plan to spend more next year? Less?
This is important stuff to know, and there's no way to do it for free, and people are willing to pay for it, and it requires specialists who do it for a living.
Advertising Isn't Necessarily Evil · The world seems to need advertising. I have no objection, when reading magazines, to people trying to sell me whisky or vacations or cars on the page opposite the one I'm reading. I don't mind Web ads that don't get between me and the content. I find the vast majority of advertising to be unconvincing, off-topic, and not useful, but that's just Sturgeon’s Law at work; most software and Art and philosophy is lousy too.
Also, it's nice to not have to pay the full costs of maintaining a staff of journalists and editors and so on, which is a pretty high cost.
But we all have to be clear that the advertiser/publisher relationship is a deep, severe conflict of interest, and that in my opinion publishers should generally be regarded as guilty until proven innocent. There are certain publications whose gravitas and prestige, we can believe, are as important to them as the advertising dollars, because it's the prestige that brings in the advertising dollars: The Economist, the New York Times, and Der Spiegel come to mind. But I certainly wouldn't be too deeply shocked if it turned out that these titans were on the take, putting the advertiser before the reader.
On the other hand, I see no reason to expect that the proprietors of large television networks or small-town newspapers or the tech trade press are in the slightest immune to advertisers’ demands to spin coverage one way or another. Which sucks. But there's no way to get around it unless you are willing to pay the full cost of a publication, which most people aren't.
Grounds For Hope: People Want to be Heard · Maybe not everyone can write or wants to write, but a lot of people do. Anyone with a reasonably popular site who looks at their incoming links via Technorati knows about the crowd of bloggers out there who post away on a daily basis, un-linked-to, maybe, most days, unread. I respect these people immensely.
So, given that anyone can now get on the air with a blog, the question is whether the collective neural mesh of blogolia is sensitive and flexible enough to arrange that the ones who are saying something worth reading get noticed and read. It is now, but does the mesh scale up? The jury's out on that one.
Grounds For Hope: People Want to Know · The hunger to know what's going on is intense and without end. I have (a possibly naive) faith that when better ways to traffic in useful information become available, some market mechanism will eventually sprout and grow like a weed in the sunshine of that need.
Grounds For Hope: Big Advertising Bucks · The amount of money that is in aggregate routed into marketing, even in a niche like computer technology, is immense. While I, like many, tend to think that the marketing and advertising professions are dysfunctional, they're not entirely clueless; if a credible human voice inside a big scary company (think Don Box) is a good way to get the message across, they'll notice. If a smart writer with a long leash turns out to be more useful than a phalanx of conventional journalists (think Jon Udell or Dan Gillmor), they'll notice that too.
And the currency generated by such discourse—the attention of people who spend—is, in the world of marketing, beyond price; diamonds are dust beside it.
A Daydream · Someone else who thinks about these things wrote me:
Let's say the tech ecosystem requires some kind of publishing function that selects, analyzes, and synthesizes. I actually believe this is true. But ad-driven trade rags are broken, and ad-driven web publishing never was anything but broken. Meanwhile, there is more and growing access to the thinkers and doers once hidden behind PR walls. These folks are increasingly motivated to speak directly to the world. This produces more grist than ever for the journalist/analyst mill, if such people can converse intelligently with the inventors, mediate useful conversations among them, and shape coherent narratives.
This conversing, mediating, and shaping defines the value that trade rags on the one hand, and the Gartner/Meta gang on the other, were (I imagine) supposed to deliver. For the same reason that the industry funds other kinds of consortia, it might consider using a tiny fraction of its collective ad budget to fund a small, independent, online publishing operation, run by somebody like me, to help all their stories get told as deeply and richly as they deserve to be told.
I Wrote Back · (Slightly abridged).
Sounds good. If I could do anything to help make it happen I would. Hm... publishing is one sector of industry which is poorly-served by market forces; largely because of the fact that the publisher's real customer is the advertiser. So the interests of the reader and the writer are both secondary to the real game. You know all this of course, but it's remarkable how few people out there in the world do. In the nontech publishing world, there are periodicals that remain worthwhile because enough smart people want to read them so advertisers are willing to fund them at a level that supports quality editorial work. Why is this not the case in the technology space? Even in down times like these, there's enough advertising budget flowing around to support the work, but the trade rags are self-destructing.
The analyst market is similarly broken, I don't know if it ever worked. The two business models there are
- Explain tech to people who don't have time to learn, and
- Pimp vendors' products for pay
As of now I think #1 is dead, but #2 maybe has legs if they're honest about what they're up to, lord knows most vendors are pretty poor at explaining what they're trying to do. Hmm...
Aren't weblogs great? If you want to write a zillion-word tour through something you care about, then reproduce the correspondence that motivated it, verbatim, well... you can!