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July 8, 2008

Big Daddy Newspaper Has Gone and Left Journalism

Tree House Media Project Debuts. Self-reliance for angry journalists, preached by a former member of the tribe. Plus: "Last gasp of the curmudgeon class." NEWSROOM ID EXPLODES LIKE FIREWORKS OVER INTERN'S UPBEAT BLOG POST. Newspaper revanchism 'splained.

Now this is interesting. Kind of an anti-curmudgeon site. The opposite of bitching about the bosses. Or unloading your frustrations on newspaper interns. I give you Tree House Media Project and its blog, which appears on a tab called “Fuck Google.” (Just an expression, wastes zero time on that.)

The first entry—Free or Subscription?—is informative and unhysterical. It highlights some of the “niche” news sites that have proven sustainable on the Web, each created by a person, not a firm.

The tone is self help for angry journalists. Empower ex-newsroom people with tools to learn with. Enough with the ignorant griping, the site says: figure out the self-publishing puzzle and you can take matters into your own hands. It’s like a band with a new sound. “No amount of bitching will prevent Yahoo from poaching our readers.” Suck it up, news tribe.

First, we should give thanks, for we are far luckier than the textile and steel workers who have found themselves on the wrong side of globalization or technological change before us. As knowledge workers, we can benefit from the technologies that are threatening newspapers’ survival: No longer does one need a printing press to publish, only a personal computer, an Internet connection and an idea.

Or as Chris Nolan put it at PressThink in 2005, The Stand Alone Journalist is Here (“And the newsroom has left the building.”) The founder of Tree House is Rich Heidorn, Jr., formerly an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer during the Gene Roberts era. “We won 18 Pulitzers in the 17 years.” Who’s going to tell him he doesn’t know the newsroom? He certainly knows about its dependents:

No IT department to fix our PCs. No advertising sales or circulation staff to generate revenue. But by banding together, we can reduce our learning curve. We can generate economies of scale (share costs) in marketing and information technology.

Recognize that sound? It’s an old American creed, self-reliance—and voluntary association—preached back to newsroom folk. Your news organization sucks? Start your own. Be self-reliant!

Laid off? Bought out? Pissed off? Or just overworked because you’re one of the “lucky” ones still working for the walking corpse that is the daily newspaper? Join us, the diaspora of a generation of once-proud working journalists, as we try to recapture the joy, the passion and the creativity of our noble profession.

I don’t know the founder, Rich Heidorn, or his earlier work. (But here’s his Linked In profile.) I know some people who worked with him at the Inquirer; seems solid. His project doesn’t sound like what I’ve heard before. Big Daddy Newspaper is gone, he’s explicitly saying. There’s just us.

Heidorn’s idea—equipping journalists with the skills they need to be self-publishers—stands in helpful contrast to (this is my name for it) the last gasp of the curmudgeon class, an awesome display I observed over the Fourth of July weekend. I urge you to get the full effect. It has anthropological value.

The show unfolded at intern Jessica DaSilva’s blog after she wrote about a staff meeting where Tampa Tribune editor Janet Coats announced more layoffs and talked about what was to be done, including a more dramatic re-organization involving the Tribune staff, and WFLA, the NBC affiliate, all owned by the same company. (Here’s the Coats memo describing it.)

Coats had said a few things you don’t normally hear. For example, the newspaper should be seen as an adjunct of the web site, not the other way around. Jessica DaSilva cheered those things in her post, and her new media self called Coats “my hero.” But Coats had just laid people off. The grim reaper had come, and DaSilva wasn’t being grim. Coates also said things you always hear, like local, local, local. Toward these DaSilva did not perform the necessary eye rolls. “People might be angry or frightened by what Janet is saying, but she’s right, and they need to start recognizing that,” she wrote. She also made a few spelling mistakes that copy editors would easily catch.

I thought it was an interesting piece of writing because she was rooting for her editor to figure it out without expecting her editor to know.

But the tonal miscues seem to some set off something in the tribes people and they began unloading on her in the comment thread. One of these—anonymous, of course—even said he or she was an editor at a midsized newspaper and would call friends to make sure DaSilva never gets a job. They told her she would make enemies in the newsroom. They told her (repeatedly) that she was young and naive and should learn to spell. Others came to her defense and sent some of the ridicule back over the fence.

Jeff Jarvis wrote about her post at Buzzmachine. Romenesko put her on the left rail for July 3rd. I Twittered about it. The argument soon spread to other sites. See Ryan Sholin’s blog and John Zhu’s. Then go to John McQuaid (ex-Times-Picayune, Pulitzer winner) remarking on the futility of the exchanges, and Web thinker Stowe Boyd taking that theme even further.

Former Tampa Tribune staff—as if alerted by a grapevine—dropped in to express animus, extend sympathy. Current Tribune staffer Elaine Silvestrini gave Jessica some advice: “If you do celebrate the person swinging the ax, those who are cut and those who are ducking won’t like it. We are already in pain and looking for a place to direct our anger. You really shouldn’t volunteer to be a target.” Reporter Daniel Victor, closer to Jessica’s generation, said that everyone should be ashamed of how vitriolic the thread became.

We’re in pain and looking for a place to direct our anger. Silvestrini’s words are accurate. Some chose to beam that rage at the young woman who identifies with the female boss. She’s not one of us, not really “of” the newsroom. She’s cheering one of them: the executives who screwed up our thing. Them: the know-nothing, misspelling bloggers. Them: our unpaid or lowly paid replacements. Them: generaton whoop-dee-Net. She’s one of them. Her post proves it!

This is boundary policing, in which deviant behavior is denounced and community bonds are renewed in a casting out motion. Which is why it was appropriate for people like Howard Owens and Erik Wemple—also part of the news tribe—to appear in support of DaSilva’s post: “No, she’s one of us.” And here I direct you to Chris Nolan, writing about the same incident: Thugs in the Newsroom. (“…how the mostly male news establishment goes about silencing enthusiasm and optimism.”)

You can hear worse than casting out in comments like this. It’s almost newspaper revanchism, an irrational demand to restore the Kingdom of Print, and the suggestion of a monstrous, industry-wide lie preventing that restoration. (See Mindy McAdams, The survival of journalism: 10 simple facts.) By an exploding newsroom id I mean stuff like this…

What’s occurring now is that newspaper managers and media company chiefs are being sold a bill of goods about how the Internet is the only way to survive, and so they’re all jumping on the cyber bandwagon, throwing aside talented, dedicated people in favor of techno geeks and cheap labor who can sustain a Web page but who can’t write a compelling article or edit a story with care and sound news judgment.

Post it now, fix it later.

Get it out on the Web site now. Who cares if it’s well crafted or well edited.
The prevailing mindset – always spoken as a fact and foregone conclusion — that nearly everybody in America is constantly on the Internet and gets his or her news from that source is an outright lie.

Plus: “TBO is an adequate Web site, but it doesn’t replace what a real, quality print edition can offer.” Notice the charming phrase, “Techno geeks.” I wrote about this trope in Twilight of the Curmudgeon Class from ‘06. It reveals an uncomprehending bitterness about news aggregation. Robots are stealing our news stories and branding our work as Google News and Yahoo News. “Techno geeks” are the people who program the robots. Fear and loathing are properly directed there. And at bloggers! And at youth! The last stand is indiscriminate. All targets deserve it.

In my previous post, Migration Point for the Press Tribe, I said that pros in the mainstream press “have come to a reluctant point of realization.” To continue on, “to keep the professional press going, the news tribe will have to migrate across the digital divide and re-settle itself on terra nova.” A new platform means, as Stowe Boyd put it, “the end of mass.”

People simply do not hold with mass identity now that they are free to find human-scale identity, and once they find it, they will not go back. Newspapers and other mass media is falling first and fastest because we are rejecting the erstatz, mass belonging that they offered.

Or as the sociologist of media forms, Raymond Williams, put it before Stowe: “There are no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” But we should understand two things. 1.) Those ways of seeing sunk deeply into some people, the media pros of the one-to-many era. No platform shift will pull them out. 2.) The decision to migrate—which has been made, more or less—can still be contested (“doesn’t replace what a real, quality print edition can offer…”) By screaming at Jessica DaSilva, some of the participants were protesting the tribe’s decision to give up on the land, known by its mythological name: Print.

“People need to stop looking at as an add on to The Tampa Tribune,” Janet Coats said through Jessica DaSilva’s blog post. “The truth is that The Tampa Tribune is an add on to TBO.” It’s that moment right there the curmudgeons were contesting. Both women they wanted to shout down.

Bob Sipchen, who worked in the opinion section of the Los Angeles Times, once gave a striking image of the metropolitan newspaper as it appeared to those who ran it when it was good. He said he “always thought of the Times as a heavy battleship under steam, regarding its critics as no more important than swimmers in the water throwing dead fish at it.”

It’s a hard come down from a commanding feeling like that; and the curmudgeon class is angry about it. But there is progress through the generations. Inspiration runs two ways. Journalists Jessica’s age probably find the battleship image grotesque. And journalists Rich Heridon’s age (armed with MBA, start-up experience, and geek son) are offering open-your-own-shop guidance, re-directing newsroom smarts to the artisanal level for news. (See this post on the curmudegeon v. new media divide.)

Meanwhile, newspaper editor Steve Smith in Spokane was showing us there are alternatives to curmudegeons screaming at interns: Let born-on-the-web people try to figure out better work flows. This is from Colin Mulvanys, the multimedia editor, writing about Smith’s plan:

A few days before the newsroom meeting, editor Smith quietly invited eight of our newest, young journalists into his office. He asked each of them, who basically have no stake in the processes of the past, to suggest ways to streamline the newsroom operation. He wants them to find a way to make it more efficient, thus letting people spend more time on developing quality journalism instead of just shoveling content.

The “Great Eight” as I call them, are meeting daily to share ideas and work up a plan. What they come up with is anybody’s guess. They have been given boundaries with which to operate. No suggestions to stop publishing the print newspaper, no downsizing or upsizing the present newsroom staff. Whatever they come up with, the challenge is for management and older co-workers to really listen to what they have to say. They are the future of our business. If we don’t change fast, they won’t stick around for the sinking of the ship.

There is nobody I respect more in the news tribe than Steve Smith; this project shows why. (UPDATE: the report from the eight young journalists was completed.)

When I flashed word of Tree House Media over my Twitter feed, it was Jessica DaSilva—we follow each other—who picked up on it. And she replied. “I am LOVING this guy. thanks for the link!”

My pleasure, Jessica. Thanks for the lesson.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 8, 2008 1:24 PM