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Humpty Dumpty at the New York Times

Today the New York Times abandoned its efforts to create a two-tier access system for its website.

Vivian L. Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of the site, NYTimes.com, noted that they didn't anticipate the amount of traffic to their site that would be generated by Google, Yahoo, and the like. Many would-be subscribers were getting around the firewall by using these search engines. Projections for revenue growth favored advertising over pay-per-view.

Had the New York Times consulted any media ecologist at the start, they would have been told that attempting to control access to some of their content by charging a monthly fee ignores the nature of the Internet as a communication environment. In reality, the Times is not competing for subscriber dollars, they are competing for subscriber eyeballs. With many other free information sources, it didn't make sense to pay a fee to the New York Times.

In addition, the Internet environment has changed the relationship between publishers and readers. As Marshall McLuhan noted, in the age of print newspapers people didn't read their newspaper, they submerged themselves in it as in a warm bath. The difference with the Internet is that the reader wants to respond, to publish, to interact, and to critique the press. Rather than entering a warm bath, the Internet reader dives headfirst into the news pool and swims with the correspondents' school.

In discussing the nature of an existing media environment when threatened by a new configuration, McLuhan discussed the relationship between professional and amateur sports. He claimed that professional sport is environmental and amateur sport is anti-environmental. What McLuhan meant was that the environment created by professional sports requires that the individual merge with the mass, that rules, spoken and unspoken, be obeyed uncritically. A manager or coach may question the particular call of an umpire or referee, but he isn’t going to call into question the basic rules of the game. In truly amateur sports, not amateur sports pretending to be professional, the rules are fungible, as memorialized in the expression, “Play my way or I’m taking my ball and going home!” In an amateur setting, what is sought is a critical awareness of the ground rules as such.

Substitute “journalism” for “sports” or “studies” and we can begin to understand the new information environment fostered by the Internet. It is interesting that most major media outlets are dismissive of web-based journalists as biased and amateurish. At the same time that they have abandoned many of the most fundamental journalistic practices.

Mainstream media journalists are not generally self-critical, nor do they adequately fulfill their responsibility as a fourth estate, holding politicians accountable. As agenda-setters, news and broadcast editors substitute sensationalism for substance. When bloggers and other “amateurs” rightly question the professionalism of the mainstream media, they are subject to ad hominem ridicule rather than confronted on the merits of their criticisms.

The mainstream media is broken. The New York Times, trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again, has tried to recreate the old media environment, but has only succeeded in making it the content of the new media environment. Citing Humpty Dumpty, McLuhan noted that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t recreate the old environment, they could only create a new one. Any time a new medium of communication becomes dominant, its time to make an omelet.

For example, I worked as a financial analyst at CBS News in the early 1980s when it was a cost center, but still the jewel in the corporation’s crown. I participated in cost-cutting moves intended to make CBS News generate a profit, just like other CBS divisions. Prior to this, CBS News was based on a print model where certain standards of journalism were acknowledged, if not always adhered to. The new information environment of broadcasting required a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) change in journalistic practices and created a gap between what the public wanted to know and what the public needed to know. This gap, being environmental, was largely invisible until the advent of the Internet. The “amateurs” of this new media environment have brought this gap to the foreground, focusing our attention on unquestioned compromises of mainstream media news that have little to do with real journalism.

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