October 10, 2007

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Michael Wolff, arch-quotable media scourge, has started a new medium of his own: Newser.com. He explains why, and much more, in his latest Vanity Fair piece: Is This The End of News? Excerpts —

  …in its various current forms, the news–as a habituating, slightly fetishistic, more or less entertaining experience that defines a broad common interest–is ending. Newspapers, the network evening news, newsmagazines, even 24-hour cable news channels, these providers and packagers of the news, are imperiled media (even if Murdoch has spent $5 billion on The Wall Street Journal). The news is technologically obsolete–information envelops us, competing for our attention, hence fewer and fewer people (read: younger people) feel any need to seek it out. This has resulted in a rapidly aging audience for all news media–the adult-diaper crowd–which is sending advertisers scurrying to find more energetic buyers. The view among newspeople is that this is a chronic condition: for 40 years there’s been a falling off of the news audience, something on the order of 1 percent a year. Not good, but we in news can make it to retirement. In the last three years, however, that gradual decline has turned into a mud slide. It’s suddenly almost 10 percent a year and growing. We won’t make it...

  You can’t put this too starkly: the news as a pastime, as a form of media, is vaudeville. The news business–our crowd of overexcited people narrating events as they happen–is going out of business.

  Such an imminent lack of narration, of the search for common ground, may have disastrous consequences for the commonweal. But more pressing is its rude effect on newspeople–my friends and relatives.

  …most of the people I know who are interested in news, rather than, say, social networking, or solitary blogging, who believe news media might thrive, online or in more classic forms, are old.

  …would it be possible to know what other people think is news? So that–and imagine that I am now gesticulating awkwardly–the news experience is potentially about not just my knowing something but understanding who knows what I know, and of my understanding what they know. I mean, could you create a news which would tell you what people at, say, The New York Times think is news? At Goldman Sachs? In Congress?

The trick is getting the algorithm right, he says. Or says his techies say. But finally, it’s personal:

  I’ve done this for 30 years, blended my life with the news. My parents did it before me, and I’ve trapped at least one of my children now (the others, though, resist). For everybody in the news business, everybody with a daily news habit, the news forms part of our identity. But the generational change, the transformation, the schism, may be that this identification with the news, this dependence on a narrator, has become … out of it, square, dumb, hopeless. Indeed, when I watch the traditional news, read it with waning interest, try to understand what Katie Couric is about, I think, Out of it, square, dumb, hopeless.

  Still. I have been starting newspapers, or talking about starting newspapers, since I was eight years old. So here goes, for the last time

I know the feeling. Here’s another: Everything we invent is just a prototype for the next mistake. And that’s okay. The best we can do is leave the world a little better than we found it. All of us found it full of information only other people know. My youngest kid, at age two or less, grabbed me by the finger one day and pulled me outside. “Papa,” he said, “show me something”. Translated to the adult: “I’ve been here about six hundred days or so. You’ve been here forever. You know what all this stuff is. I don’t. Fill me in.”

News is how we fill each other in. The need for that will never go away.