Hushed conversations at the deathbed of the news

I don’t know why they let me in, but the room was vast and domed like a mausoleum yet cluttered with preposterous-looking life support equipment.  On a bed the size of a football field lay an equally immense organism – shapeless, featureless, and resembling nothing so much as a slowly deflating balloon.  A zigzag chart on the wall read:  NEWS BUSINESS.  All around stood stricken media owners, journalists, editors, and assorted hangers-on.

One, a balding baby boomer, softy hummed a Doors tune from the Sixties:  “This is the end, my friend…”

I interrupted.  “Looks to me like it has some life left.”

Everyone turned toward me.  I was not known as a friend of the patient, but I held my ground.  “Still pretty huge,” I said.

“That can change in a second,” said an earnest-faced man who called himself Arthur.  “Take newspapers.  What’s going to happen – a gentle decline?”  He pointed to the chart on the wall.  “According to this, that’s the best case scenario.”  He read:

So the price for newpaper companies continues to head downwards because newspapers themselves continue to enjoy a steady and gradual decline in readers and revenues as demographics and technology suck both away. At one end the old readership is simply dying; at the other it isn’t being replaced as people spend the time they once spent reading the news in other ways, primarily online.

Wrong. Sure, for at least the last decade (and Philip Meyer would argue four or five decades) that challenge has been the basic reality of doing business for most print newspapers in the first world. But that steady decline is the best case scenario for print, it’s what happens if everything goes well or even perfectly. The idea that newspaper companies are somehow cheap at today’s prices rests on a very optimistic assumption that the future will be just like the past. Here’s three potential discontinuities that instead of contributing to the steady decline scenario could wipe out one, or more, or all, newspaper businesses overnight…

I read the whole thing, and felt forced to agree that the situation looked dire.  But we lived, after all, in the digital age.  Information companies made money on the web:  Google did it, and Facebook.  Amazon, a retailer, made money on the web.  Couldn’t purveyors of news do the same?

Arthur became agitated, and muttered something about walls.  At the word, the entire group shuffled restlessly and groaned – even the patient on his vast bed emitted a sad flatulent sound.

“The future of information is to lock it up behind walls.  High walls.  Hard walls.  Lots of walls,” Arthur repeated.  “Then you charge the public when they want to come in.”

“But you tried that before, and it didn’t work,” I observed.

“Yes, but this time I’ve made up lots of incredibly complicated rules about who can get in.  You see the difference?”  Suddenly his face collapsed.  “Who am I kidding?  This plan sucks.  The best thing about it was the nostalgia – it reminded me of the old days, when I just made up the rules and nobody talked back…”

“Here’s a dirty little secret,” whispered a grimacing female in a cigarette voice.  “Someone once said that a newspaper has its head in high politics but its feet planted in commerce.  Well, the commerce is shot to hell.  But you know who really cares about politics?  NobodyWe care because we get passes to the White House.  Nobody else gives a damn – they’d rather read about the Redskins or Justin Beeber or Oprah…”

“We’re not interested in politics,” I nodded.  “The public, I mean.”

Once again they groaned and hissed in unison.  “The public!  The public needs our information just to survive.”

“But, then, wouldn’t they pay a lot of money for it?”

Silence.  Then:  “The public should need our information just to survive.”

Arthur broke in.  “The public is ignorant and lazy.  Take you, for example.  As a member of the public, you are ignorant and lazy.  And you need journalism to remind you how ignorant and lazy you are.”  He assumed a professorial tone.  “The moral turpitude of the public was first demonstrated by Walter Lippmann in 1922.  It was proven beyond a doubt by Cass Sunstein in 2001.  And who can dispute Andrew Keen’s shattering arguments in 2007 – remember the whole cult of the amateur thing?”

“That’s the difference between news and garbage.  We are professionals,” muttered a reporter who resembled a mummified version of Robert Redford.

“Well – no,” I interjected.  “I see a lot of war correspondents in this room.  Any of you have professional military experience?”  No hands went up.  “I also see a few who write on economic affairs – any economics degrees among you?”  Silence.  “What about science correspondents – are any of you actually scientists?”

“We are professionals of the news.”

I began to feel a little dizzy.  “But what is news?”

“News is what I report,” exclaimed the mummified Redford triumphantly.

After that, conversation lagged.  I tried to cheer up the company with the thought that, even if newspapers failed, the business still retained a profitable sector in broadcast news.  No good.  Journalists, it turned out, despise broadcasters for being flimsy and shallow – “You can write the seven o’clock news on the back of your hand,” said the woman with the nicotine voice.  “They probably do.”  She reserved a special venom for those she termed anchorettes.  “In what other line of work,” she growled, pointing at a woman with frosted hair, “are people supposed to be led by an anchor?”

The woman in question, sensing our interest, unleashed a smile of preternatural perkiness.

“Hi,” she waved.

“Broadcast news is only a step behind print in the death spiral,” Arthur explained with a certain grim satisfaction.  “Network news, they are losing audience.  Cable news is losing audience.  And what audience is left gets divided among more and more broadcasters.”  He drew my attention to the patient.  “Look – you can see it.”

It was true.  The prone enormity seemed not only to be deflating but also, in some strange way, disintegrating.

“It’s a numbers game.  It’s the damned public – it’s running away in droves, to the blogs or the tweets or God knows where,” muttered an unhappy Arthur.

Someone swore.  “Next time they want to see a revolution in Egypt, they can watch Seinfeld reruns instead!”

I considered that.  “But there’s still a revolution going on in Egypt,” I said, “and you’ve stopped covering it.  Nobody’s covering Yemen, Syria, Bahrain.  Forget about Ivory Coast.  Millions died in the Congo – you never covered it.  Look, I really don’t get Seinfeld – but I’d rather watch NCIS reruns than an endless obsession with Libya because it’s a shooting war with Americans in it.”

This drew in the famous frosted anchorette, who had been edging in my direction.  She spoke in odd rhythms, as if every other word was pregnant with meaning, yet never once lost the perky smile:  “You can’t expect the news to cover everything.  That’s not our job.  We give you the big story.  We show important stuff.”

“But how do you decide what’s important?”

“Because I cover it,” she smiled.  “Duh.”

In the end, I started to feel sorry for these poor castaways from another historical era.  They wished to be loved and admired by customers whom they hated – the sphinx-like public – and were sincerely astonished to be treated by them as most strangers treat one another, with indifference.

They also confused their meal ticket with their morals, but that’s a human trait.  The Redford mummy, for one, kept dreaming up get-rich-quick plans.  “The BBC is supported by a license fee.  The emir of Qatar funds Al Jazeera.  Even Nicholas Sarkozy – a Frenchman, for God’s sake – is subsidizing newspapers.  Why not here?  Why not us?  Why not now?

“We need more sugar daddies,” snapped the smoky-voiced woman, noting that a millionaire had recently purchased a famous newsweekly for a dollar.  “Hell with the public – we’ll become agents of influence.”

“Won’t that compromise your objectivity?” I asked.

Everyone laughed.

Shortly before I left, Arthur pulled me aside, wishing to speak in private.  We stood by the head of the football-field bed as he confessed, “I’m not in the same fix with these guys.”

“No?”

He gave me an uneasy look.  “I’ve a rich Mexican paying my rent.  Nice guy, really.  Doesn’t say much – just pays the bills.  Of course,” he reflected, “he always gives me this creepy look when he writes the checks…”

Arthur blanched at the memory – and the vast mindless blob on the bed, in either sympathy or condemnation, uttered a tremulous wheeze.

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