From headlines to breadlines: Old media is toast

Back when I was in J-School in the mid-90s, or more specifically, studying creative writing at San Francisco State University, my classmates and I knew nothing of the then-nascent Internet and the havoc it would eventually wreak on a bevy of industries. We knew nothing because A) We had the misfortune of studying at SF State and B) The web seemed little more than a computer lab curiosity responsible for introducing the tilda to English speakers, when web addresses looked like cartoon talk bubbles full of profanity (“‘#@%~!’ you too, Dagwood!”). We had little reason to believe that its once blue “hyperlinks” and primitive grey screens would soon swallow all media that had preceded it and permanently reorganize the industry in its image.

It’s as if some bastard offspring of Edison, Bell, Farnsworth, Gutenberg and the Lumiere Brothers cooked up a Dream Machine upon which all human desire may be projected, reflected and perhaps even perfected – always on, always aglow. Of course, the road from the boob-tube to YouTube, from movable type to blogs with typos is laden with casualties. There’s an entire generation that will never purchase music in a record store or read a printed newspaper, let alone call a travel agent and say “Get me out of here before the Singularity and the sentient Internet turns us into slaves.”

When I canceled my subscription to the New York Times, the mawkish voice on the other side of the line (a VOIP line I should add), plead the Grey Lady’s case as more than merely “all the news that’s fit to print.” She reminded that it’s an institution, a daily tribute to truth, justice and the American way. We agreed that the Times is superior to the Daily Planet, especially since Clark Kent got canned and replaced by a blogger. What she failed to realize, however, was that I wasn’t quitting the New York Times, I was just quitting the paper. My appetite for Times’ content remains the same but now I prefer to consume it via the iPhone app they’ve provided for free so I can read the news for free. If they charged for this service I’d gladly pay but they don’t. I can only assume their subscription department didn’t get the memo.

It’s ironic new media types once used the term “eyeballs” as slang for “market share” since they were evidently blind to the fact that they were dooming their own model with the free content they used to pluck those very peepers. These days, media pundits chide old school content producers for not having the foresight to establish fee schedules for their product a decade ago. Craigslist founder Craig Newmark often gets the blame for mortally wounding newspapers with his online want-ad juggernaut that effectively replaced the newspaper classified ad market (and created a cottage industry for “erotic services” in the process).  But blaming Craig is like saying that Mesozoic mammals killed the dinosaurs when anyone who saw Disney’s “Fantasia” knows it was a meteor.

The meteor is back and this time it’s on a collision course with traditional media. At present, the big guys have decided to take a page from the little guys’ playbook. The Times is currently beta-testing “The Local,” their hyperlocal online news portal with the ungainly tag “Your town. Your neighborhood. Your block. Covered by you and for you.” I dare them to come to Sonoma. Local coverage has proceeded here just fine for 130 years. The Sonoma Index-Tribune has weathered all sorts of teacup tempests (anyone remember the Sonoma Valley Expositor?) and has managed to evolve and embrace all matter of new media in the process. This is good for readers like me because, admittedly, I read it almost exclusively online (which, as a contributor, sort of makes it user-generated content – how vogue).

Anyway, I’ve realized that contributing to a local paper means more than merely giving David Bolling a headache once a week. It means overcoming my 21st century prejudice against wood pulp and participating with the product and indeed, Sonoma, with greater commitment. I put my money where my keyboard is. I subscribed.