Perhaps This Apparently Late Stage Is Actually an Early Stage

03/14/2011

At the end of last week, there was an amusing exchange between New York Times editor Bill Keller and the ubiquitous Arianna Huffington. Keller wrote an opinion piece for the Times Magazine in which he compared the Huffington Post to Somali pirates, and Huffington responded by saying that she is not, in fact, a pirate.  Supposedly at issue was the utterly banal question of whether online news outlets are or aren’t parasitical (they are, and they aren’t), but what was interesting was the odd nature of Keller’s hand-wringing. He begins his argument, whose upshot is that media outlets like The New York Times are valuable, with a supremely weird account of how influential he is, explaining that he is the 50th most-powerful person in the world; that a movie studio has bought his life rights; and that on Twitter one time, a bunch of people got really concerned when they thought he was an insomniac. Keller’s point is that despite the outsized nature of his own importance, The New York Times is more important than he is (major revelation), whereas presumably The Huffington Post is reducible to Arianna Huffington and her charms as a snake-oil salesman.

What’s odd about all this, aside from the human interest in Keller’s strange attempt to be self-effacing while being in fact totally grandiose, is that he could have published virtually the same complaint about web news five years ago. One expects the person in charge of The New York Times to have more nuanced views about the future of journalism. It makes you wonder: does the Times still not have a plan? Are they really still hoping for a return to a subscription-and-advertising model, full stop?

Meanwhile, over at The Atlantic, James Fallows posted one of the most nuanced essays about the future of journalism that we’ve read in some time. It demonstrates both a better sense of what is happening online than does Keller’s piece, and a better sense of what the fate of organizations like The New York Times might be, in the coming years. Using Gawker as a case study, Fallows convincingly argues that a Gawkerization of news will probably be neither so complete nor so apocalyptic as some of us fear. Here are the stirring final paragraphs of the piece:

At no stage in the evolution of our press could anyone be sure which approaches would support life, and which would flicker out. Through my own career I have seen enough publications and programs start—and succeed, and fail—to know how hard it is to foresee their course in advance. Therefore I am biased in favor of almost any new project, since it might prove to be the next New York Review of Books, Rolling Stone, NPR, or Wired that helps us understand our world. Perhaps we have finally exhausted the viable possibilities for a journalism that offers a useful and accurate perspective. If so, then America’s problems of public life can only grow worse, since we will lack the means to understand and discuss them.

But perhaps this apparently late stage is actually an early stage, in the collective drive and willingness to devise new means of explaining the world and in the individual ability to investigate, weigh, and interpret the ever richer supply of information available to us. Recall the uprisings in Iran and Egypt. Recall the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and the earthquake in Haiti. My understanding of technological and political history makes me think it is still early. Also, there is no point in thinking anything else.