Nobody Knows What To Do

That’s primarily what I took away fromChicago Media Future this afternoon, that and a dislike ofPatrick Spain of, who spent his entire time on the afternoon panel making the following assertions:

1. Nobody with fewer than 5 million hits daily is making any money online.

2. Politico has replaced the Washington Post as a source of good political information.

3. HuffPo will replace the New York Times.

4. The New York Times will not exist one year from today.

There’s not enoughbish pleasein the whole world for #1, like, tell it to Dooce and the Fug Girls and Nate Silver. If #2 is true I weep for the future because Politico, let’s not forget, are the sharp-dressed men who opined that Hurricane Gustav would offer the GOP a “do-over” after Katrina. #3 is unrealistic blogospheric breast-beating. I’ve been hearing variations of #4 since I was 19 years old and it has yet to come to pass, so I’m posting it in hopes that in a year I can e-mail this post to him and demand an explanation.

I don’t want to spend a whole post about the event bitching about some things one guy said (he also mentioned that the Tribune’s bankruptcy is proof that print is over, which … readers of this blog and occupants of that space known as reality know not to be true in the slightest, though it is proof that running your business with your head up your own ass is not advisable) because by and large the thing was kind of fun in that lots of questions were asked to which the answers of the experts was universally, “… erm, fuck if we know.”


Which is as it should be. We all just got here. In the lifetime of a new medium we are freaking larval. For people who’ve been in newspapers for decades to come up and puff out their chests and be all, “Oh yeah, what kind of money do you make, punk?!” is a bit premature. Not to mention which, on balance, the answer is as likely to be “as much as you do, and how are the layoffs treating you?” as it is, “not much, sir, I’m very sorry for existing.” If we all had a foolproof way of magically growing money and cotton candy and ponies in our back yards, wouldn’t it be kind of creepy? I’m not trying to pass off confusion as some kind of authenticity, I’m saying, give us a minute to collect our belongings.

Dan Sinker of Columbia College made my freaking day by talking a lot about how local papers in Chicago gave up on local news in large parts of the city years ago and that local coverage in the Trib and Sun-Times peaked in 1994, according to thisCommunity Media Workshop study about which I’ll probably have a separate post later. And, really. You can claim to be the guardians of our democracy but the argument only works if you actually, you know, do it. Otherwise you’re just stroking yourself and while I’m sure it feels nice I’m not particularly interested in listening. I could have stood up and kissed Sinker, too, when he said that any time a new tool is introduced, going all the way back to the radio, people have always panicked about the implications, so everybody calm down.

As the panelists talked about innovation, about making your own site what you want local news to be, someone behind me kept shouting out, “Who pays you while you do it? Who pays the rent?” and it’s not that some of the blithe “You just have to work for the love of the story and wait tables if you have to in the meantime until somebody hires you” didn’t come off as romanticizing the poverty-stricken artist’s life as one somehow more noble than any other. But what I think the panelists were trying to say was something we say around here all the time: If you want things to stop sucking you have to go make them not suck. You can’t wait until somebody just hands you a giant platter of not-suck and tells you it’s all yours.

You can’t just sit back and complain, as we knock on the conservative punditry for doing all the time, that the world doesn’t offer you the choices that allow you to be who you want to be. I’m not advocating poverty for anyone. I’m not arguing it’s great that for some reason people aren’t flinging money at those I know to be talented writers and good solid reporters. What I am saying is that eventually, when you continue to ask that something happen and it doesn’t, you either change your strategy or you shut the hell up. Who pays the rent while you figure your shit out? I don’t know. And nobody should be asking anyone else to answer that question for them.

Except maybe Patrick Spain. The New York Times’ death date is 6/13/10. Somebody should send them a memo, maybe warn them what’s coming.


ps. I got kind of annoyed at the end of the thing, because I keep going to these things expecting them to be the Throw The Thieving Bastards in Prison Panel, the You Killed Newspapers On Purpose You Fuckers Symposium, a shame-the-greedy-corporate-assholes party that never really materializes. I think maybe I’m gonna have to host that panel some day, preferably out back of a tavern, with some feathers and a nice hot barrel of tar.

10 thoughts on “Nobody Knows What To Do

  1. I was going to ask you if you had any tomatoes to throw at the newser guy but you were lined up to ask a question.
    Other notes:
    I wanted to hug brad flora when he said that he was excited to be close to making a $60k business. He’s really nice.
    Re paying the rent: it’s funny, I work with lots of folks at the Reader, pro journalists, who have not-insignificant sidelines in bands. And lots of friends who do stuff like acting and art that don’t pay the rent, or at least not all of it. Pro artists are great and necessary, like pro journalists… but not everyone great and necessary (cf billmon) pays the rent doing their genius. Salary != status != value.
    I’m sorry, but Digg gets the finger.
    Revenue problem that doesn’t come up: overpaying boring columnists.

  2. whet moser, boring columnists don’t bother me as much as purposely dishonest ones.

  3. Nobody holds the panels you want because we all know you have to bow to the money.
    The money people don’t want to hear you complaining about them,”Back to work you commie or we’ll fire you! There are plenty of hungry bloggers and unemployed journalists who would love to have your job”

  4. @Whet,
    Anytime you want to do that man-hug, just ping me.
    I AM excited to be close to making a $60k business. I’m excited because that means I don’t have to worry about rent, eating, insurance, or any of the other things I need to be comfortable enough to keep working on the Citizen. It also means I’ll have some money left over to hire folks to come in and work on things I want to do but can’t yet, which could lead to even more growth and opportunity. Once you’re sustainable, it’s like a huge weight being lifted (so say my startup friends who’ve hit the mark). Heck, once I hit $25k, that’s enough to where I can afford to do things on my terms indefinitely.
    First, it was nice meeting you today. You have cool friends.
    I hear you on the “who’s going to pay me while I write this stuff?” line of thinking…But if you’re really serious about this stuff, you can find a way through. When I was finishing up J-school a year ago, I had about 10 news-related things I wanted to do. I thought about my options:
    1. Find a respectable media job that pays the bills and make these things in my spare time.
    2. Find a respectable media job and apply for funding from a foundation or fellowship before starting on it.
    3. Take a job at Starbucks to pay for the basics while I worked on one of my ideas until it would sustain.
    I chose a variant on #3, finding dirt-cheap housing, living on ramen, and taking on a few web design/development jobs on the side while I worked full-time on the Citizen, an idea that I thought had the most potential.
    My last year has had a few phases:
    1. The big disappointment
    When I started, I wrote to many of the well-known new media gurus and future of journalism pundits to tell them I had been infected by their enthusiasm for the future of media and was going to try to make something new and useful for the landscape they were predicting. Not one of them ever wrote me back. I’ve kept on sending them updates over the last year. Never a response. This taught me a valuable lesson. Outside of your family and friends, nobody cares about your ideas as much as they care about their own ideas, unless your idea can make them some money or be useful to them.
    So yeah, no one is going to usher in the future you want. You must try to do it yourself or forsake all rights to gripe about how it turns out. It’s like voting. If you didn’t do it, you can’t complain about the guy you elected.
    I eventually found the people I needed to keep sane, but they wound up all being technology and startup people, not media consultants. In retrospect, this seems obvious. Heh.
    2. Complete utter disillusionment and despair
    After about 6 months of working on the Citizen as a network of local blogs, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to build a business out of this for a few reasons I won’t go into here. This realization, that my initial idea wasn’t as good as I’d thought, was a real downer and hard to bounce back from. I think a lot of people give up here. Fortunately, I was determined to not go home empty-handed after half a year of living the crummy life, so I revamped the site to do what it does now. I moved from idea 1 to idea 2.
    3. Signs of life
    January through March was just me and some friends posting stories to the new, open the Citizen and talking about them. Eventually, people started seeing what we were doing and joining in. This was a fun time, iterating very quickly through designs and ideas and just hammering down on getting new stuff up every morning. People who found the service were saying great things about it.
    4. Pulling back to find a way to make $$$
    About 2 months ago I realized this might “work” and now I needed to work on the business end more than the editorial side. And that’s where I’m still at, meeting with potential advertisers, lining up new ones etc. Tweaking the code to our programs. Like I said at the panel, I’m on trajectory to be sustainable. We’ll see.
    So yeah, it’s been ugly and clumsy and a little scary at times, but I’ve always found a way through so far. Maybe you can too.

  5. Hey, Brad, it was nice to meet you, too.
    Your point is exactly what I was trying to say, and you know, I think a lot of the time when we talk about innovation what we’re really talking about is the determination to succeed with a new venture regardless of how hard it is. There’s a lot of willingness to surrender to the supposedly inevitable at big media companies today, willingness to try something for ten minutes and then declare it’s over and we should all just go home and give up. Whereas the people working in independent media, the student press (my personal favorites) and in some local online ventures are a lot more willing to say, “Okay, this has to work, let’s think a little harder about how to make it do that.”

  6. I think the artists/band analogy is right on. One problem with journalism/writing is that, like acting, art, music, etc., is is intrinsically rewarding in its own right, therefore it attracts a huge supply of practitioners, driving the pay down enormously. The economics of say ditch digging don’t suffer from this because when there is no ditch digging work, ditch diggers go find something else to do. Whereas people who want to write, act, play music, etc. keep plugging away in the hopes that they will figure out how to make money some day.

  7. Why sweat the small stuff?
    What the tools need is a little distraction. Why not point out that it doesn’t matter about the democracy. 5 of the 9 of the supreme court are catholic. With the new Puerto Rican tool it will be 6 out of 9. Bye bye Roe vs Wade. Hell, Gingrich has already smelled the wind and switched.
    Democracy? When the fundies, Baptists, Holy Rollers, snake handlers, Mormons, and Limbaugh puppets realize that they have lost everything the whole ball of wax is going to come undone. Stock up on guns, ammo, white robes and dynomite, religious war is coming here.
    And you are worried about newspapers? Why not cry about NPR or 1/2 the budget for the warmongers, no universal health care.
    Jezz get a grip, everyone just thinks of themselves. Newspapers are a waste of good trees. Hell, if all newspapers were shut down and I could still make it to a good music concert, I’d be happy.

  8. When I heard Dan Sinker say this was a diverse group (he meant professionally) I noted that only a few non-white faces were present and no non-white presenters.
    I wonder how many Chicagoans of any color would watched a broadcast CMFC had it been televised citywide. Is it unreasonable to suggest that the future of (hard news) journalism may hinge our ability to say things, at conferences like this, that will win their attention, even perhaps via local mainstream media?
    My take from a civic media perspective is at
    Good event. Glad for the opportunity to attend.

  9. Wasn’t there some ancient Greek who argued that reading and writing were going to turn us all into Alzheimer’s patients? Of course, we know about him because someone wrote it down.

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