The Editor's Lament

To me, one of the great mysteries of web publishing has been the penchant to put articles on two or more separate “pages.” There are no pages in the virtual world, I’ve argued. The whole thing is silly.

Many editors agree with me. One of them noted his agreement to me over the weekend, while admitting he’s going to multi-page anyway. It’s necessary to add advertising inventory, he said.

If you look at the question from a traditional print publisher’s perspective, the point makes sense. Editorial sits next to advertising, and there are only so many stories, so you split stories and add pages to fit more ads.

A little thought yields other solutions. You can, if you like, add banners within the story. You can run buttons all along the side. MSNBC likes to run “scrolling ads” you have to click to hide (proving you at least noticed them).

The only “counter-argument” (and it’s pretty lame) is that advertisers are promised prime page placement, or “real estate” — at the top of the page. (Do your eyes ever go to the top of a web page anymore? I didn’t think so.)

The real problem, of course, is that this is the wrong argument. Publishers are, for the most part, still looking at this medium through the prism of the old media. They’re not accepting the web on its own terms, and they’re not buying into the web’s business models. They’re not even dealing with the right subject.

What is the right subject? I thought you’d never ask.

Journalism is not about attracting and reselling eyeballs. Journalism is about advocating and organizing markets. Industry papers organize industrial markets. Local newspapers organize local markets. The “public interest,” “the peoples’ right to know,” and the “editorial environment” are all by-products — they are not the thing itself. Oil companies know they’re not rock collectors, and butchers know they’re not cowboys — those are images they sell the public.

Refineries and slaughterhouses just don’t make the audience feel all warm-and-fuzzy. Journalism is the only business that believes its own PR.

While print and broadcast technologies only let you organize markets second-hand, the web lets you do this directly. Instead of fighting for the 5 percent of a firm’s marketing budget that’s spent renting the eyeballs you want to pitch, web journalists can (for the first time) compete for the whole pie. What I ask publishers is “how hungry are you?” (Obviously, not very hungry.)

Doesn’t this change the nature of journalism? Well, like duh! You have to interact with your readers, introduce your readers to one another, look inside the industry you’re covering and help remove costs.

In other words, you have to provide services the market wants to buy and not just sit in the press box complaining they don’t understand your “art.” You have to get your hands dirty. You have to, as Molly Ivins writes, “do bidness.”

I must apologize for going on like this, but this is a sermon I’ve been giving for nearly five years, and it still hasn’t gotten through. Media’s share of this medium has been falling like a stone, yet the doors remain locked against obvious truths.

Instead, they’re adding “pages” to a page-less medium, and telling the ad buyers it’s progress. Stupid is okay in my book, but ignorant just burns me up.

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