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Bloggers blabbing: a Slate symposium

Slate Blogging Symposium

Last night I attended a symposium at the New York Public Library celebrating the 10th anniversary of Slate magazine and addressing the current state of online journalism. Michael Kinsley moderated a panel made up of Arianna Huffington, Malcolm Gladwell, Jacob Weisberg and Norman Pearlstine. It was a good talk by some of the brightest lights in the world of journalism and culminated in a very typically New York moment.

Then and Now

Kinsley launched into the discussion by remarking on the evolution of the online world since he first envisioned Slate in talks with Microsoft some 11 years ago. Back then he could only imagine the internet as a new distribution channel — Slate would publish weekly installments that could be downloaded and printed out. Ten years later the Net has grown into a rich publication environment that goes beyond in many ways the limitations of frozen-in-time printed words. Understandably, given his past bias toward paper publication models, the topic he wanted the panel to discuss was the future of paper, specifically newspapers as the standard form of news consumption. There was a general consensus that print would be around for awhile, but that the economics were against it. This view was put forth most forcefully by Time’s Pearlstine, who repeatedly hit on the fact that advertisers are looking more and more for measurable return on their investments. Interactive media is tailor-made for calculation of ROI and, as Pearlstine pointed out, the database marketers are the kingmakers in the new media world.

Malcolm Gladwell played Devil’s Advocate, trying to throw a little cold water onto the hot rhetoric about the virtues of online writing. Imagine, he began, that paper had never existed, that we got all of our information from computers and tablet PCs. Then someone announces that they have invented this amazing new material — paper — that lets you carry around news very conveniently. It costs next to nothing and doesn’t require batteries! The audience loved it. He went on to draw an interesting analogy between the state of newspaper economics and that of the airlines — in both cases, the core business itself may be foundering financially, while supporting at its periphery any number of other businesses that are thriving (in the case of airlines, hotels, which make loads off cheap transportation and in the case of newspapers, web sites like Google — and Huffington’s own site — that make money from advertising by aggregating links to news content). He suggested that newspapers need to adopt a successful subscription model (like the premium cable channels) where people will be willing to pay a decent fee for high-quality content and service.

The Value of Blogging

That’s unlikely to happen with people like Arianna boosting for “free” content. Arianna is an amazing creature — in her latest terrestrial incarnation as the maven of political blogging — and she takes to the role with gusto. But I think someone forgot to tell her that the dotcom bubble popped because she’s going at the upside of online media like there’s no ceiling in sight. Just back from an advertising convention at Cannes, she remarked that only 5% of media dollars are spent online. For this reason, she recommended that subscription models, like that of The New York Times Times Select, be abandoned in place of free sharing of content that would generate ad dollars by driving traffic from other sites (*cough* HuffingtonPost) that link to it. This elicited a sprightly exchange between Kinsley, Gladwell and her about the value of blogs and other sites that act, as someone in the audience termed it during Q&A, as “parasites” on sites, like The New York Times that spend extraordinary amounts of money to produce quality content. To this, Arianna dipped a dainty hand into her purse and whipped out her portable soapbox, hopped aboard and regaled the crowd with a spirited harangue about the “quality” of content, from Judy Miller and others at the Times that helped build a case for an unjust war. Without the bloggers dissecting their content, we’d be even more at risk of the pronouncements of elitist institutions! Another panelist helped Arianna off her soapbox by reminding her that the first places to raise issues with the quality of Times reporting were not bloggers, but other elitist news organizations like the London Observer. Yes well.

Pearlstine, who along with Gladwell was trying to stay rooted in the economics of online media, remarked that the risk to the Panglossian view of Arianna and others who see an ever-expanding pie for readers, bloggers and advertisers to feed at was the reality that the declining fortunes of newspapers that are losing their revenue base to sites like Craigslist and the search engines will surely lead to consolidation of properties, fewer news outlets and less original content for people to consume. He bemoaned the late start that magazines and newspapers got on the Net wave and the fact that even today they still have not embraced the creative opportunities provided by the medium — preferring to duplicate the offline experience online. This led to an important few minutes discussing how much the voice of news should evolve to become the softer, more personal (and opinionated) voice of the blogosphere. Ultimately, it was a discussion of whether the long-respected standards of news, which required a certain elitist detachment, can be upheld or will be replaced by a more accessible “newsiness” (as Colbert might have said if he had been there). Weisberg, current editor of Slate, allowed that stories on Slate are pitched in a humorous voice because it’s more entertaining.

The Shape of Things to Come

A coda of sorts to the discussion of what the future portends was offered by the last audience member to ask a question — His Nibs himself, Nick Denton, of Gawker Media — purveyors of such fine soul-enriching fare as Gawker and Defamer. He pointedly asked Arianna if the current ad-driven business models for online sites that rely on ever-increasing traffic put them at risk of being “click whores”. Arianna, for all of her embrace of all things bloggy still a cultured girl of the Old School took the bait and answered, earnestly, that it was something to be vigilant about — one must always try to maintain the quality of product and not just chase eyeballs. Well, of course, to have this question come from the Click Whoremaster himself meant something else. Directed at Arianna, he was saying — in typically snarky fashion — that for all her pronouncements of the virtues of blogging she was no better than him. We online are all click whores.

There’s a democratic flattening of elitist hierarchies of authority on the web. On the upside, that means that just about anybody has a shot at getting their voice heard alongside that of the writers of The New York Times. On the downside, that means that just about anybody has a shot at getting their voice heard alongside that of the writers of The New York Times. Especially for younger readers (who will soon be older readers), without a history of seeing some media forms as more reliable or worthy of respect, one clicks their way from the Times to Gawker to a journal by a guy pretending to be a rat and there’s a kind of equivalence to all of it. Is this a good thing? As always, evolution will out and we’ll know after the consequences take their toll. What we can be sure of is that the database marketers — amoral in their pursuit of dollars at any cost to culture — will come out just fine.

UPDATE 6/ 24: The Guardian [announces] that Michael Kinsley has joined them as “US editor-at-large”, part of their push into US markets. Here’s one area the panel failed to address in their debate about paper vs. online: the geography-destroying reach of the internet, that delivers news around the world instantly. No physical medium can compete with that. It really is all about velocity.

Don’t Take My Word For It

Others blogging this event: [DigiDave] [Alex Halavais] [Editor & Publisher] [FishbowlNY]

Audio of the event can be downloaded from Slate [here]

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