Saturday, October 16, 2010

In Pursuit of Hits, Newsmakers Become the Story

On Friday, the Chicago Tribune ran an editorial from veteran columnist Mary Schmich titled "Here's what makes a good boss." In honor of National Bosses Day, Schmich produced a list of what a good boss should do and be. Published amid accusations of boorish behavior and overall incompetence leveled against Schmich's employers, the column can either be read as blithely innocuous or incredibly sarcastic. Overrun by chest-puffing media marauders, Tribune Co. has lately served as a versatile symbol for everything that's wrong in today's media industry. Tribune's tales of dwindling newspaper circulation, foolhardy Big Ideas, and egocentric management, are now common among major media organizations. What does not seem to be common is something like Schmich's editorial. Finding herself standing at a podium with ample material--and no doubt some very personal feelings on the matter--Schmich decided to deliver a sly, even esoteric, message about her employers. It's almost hard to believe that such deference exists anymore. In a world where the story of the news is the news, Schmich improbably decided to step to the side.

Appearing on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Friday, John Ridley of described the current state of news media as an "echosphere in which we're just feeding each other." His comments were in response to MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan's rant about Islamophobic fear-mongering, which stemmed from a discussion about Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walking off the set of "The View" in response to comments made by the show's guest Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor." Shortly after Ridley spoke these words, video of the segment appeared on The Huffington Post under the headline "Dylan Ratigan Blasts Bill O'Reilly," and thus the "echosphere" was fully realized. What Ratigan and O'Reilly and The Huffington Post have successfully done, both this week and over the past few years, is to foster a significant shift in the way that media organizations operate. In an effort to survive and even grow in the era of Tribune Co.'s bankruptcy, news agencies have decided to do what Schmich avoided doing in her editorial: they've become newsmakers.

Nowhere is this shift more evident than in the ascent of Gawker Media (which ran Ratigan's "Morning Joe" segment with the headline "The Single Truest Political Rant Ever to Appear on Morning Television"). This week Nick Denton, Gawker's founder, received a profile in The New Yorker in which his name was placed alongside such media luminaries as Tina Brown and Rupert Murdoch. "Gawker has become," The New Yorker's Ben McGrath writes, "a portal to the world of information that I consume, and a filter for interpreting it." What has made Gawker so successful is Denton's focus on creating news instead of reporting it.

In the low-margin game of web-based media where news stories quickly become ubiquitous and revenue is generated by huge spikes in traffic, Denton realized that in order to really grow, Gawker had to orchestrate its own news and be the main character in its own stories. He took a logical step from the first-person repackaging that is the foundation of news blogs and essentially flipped the way Gawker interacted with the media. Instead of offering a fresh take on an event that was originally reported by a major news entity, Denton would make Gawker the news item. With this formula, Gawker's ad revenue was up 35% in the summer of 2009 while major newspapers were shuttering their doors and online advertising as a whole was down 5%. Over the past year, Denton has continued to refine this formula, placing his top editors (and top lawyers, no doubt) at the center of stories clamoring for national attention. With Jezebel's take on "The Daily Show"s sexist work environment, Deadspin's preoccupation with Brett Favre's penis, and, most famously, Gizmodo's possession of a stolen iPhone4, Denton has made Gawker a fulcrum in the national news cycle.

Now, one can argue perhaps that Gawker's "creation" of news stories is actually old practice. Katie Couric's aggressive questioning of then-Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin comes to mind as a recent example in which a powerful media figure became a catalyst for news. David Carr of The New York Times, stitching together insider quotes and accounts of disparate events, in effect created news with his recent A-1 portrait of Tribune Co. as "a frat house." The main difference, though, between what Carr did with Tribune and what Gawker did with, say, the stolen iPhone is that Carr and The New York Times never became the protagonists of the story. They didn't have to. The Times, unlike Gawker or Bill O'Reilly, has the cultural gravitas that comes with decades of steady reporting.

When billionaire Sam Zell bought Tribune Co., he positioned himself as a maverick who would confidently bring Tribune's media entities into the future. "I don't really believe in conventional wisdom," he said in 2007 as he took over the debt-strapped company. "Sam Zell was sort of a rock star," Ann Marie Lipinski, the former editor of The Chicago Tribune, told The Times. Zell assembled a managerial team that was full of brash individuals with deep experience in modern radio's cult of personality. Lee Abrams, the company's chief innovation officer (who was recently suspended for sending inappropriate emails to staff), sent out a memo upon his hiring, declaring that "NEWS & INFORMATION IS THE NEW ROCK N ROLL." Zell and his team were not interested in the steady growth of the company--they were looking to produce hits.

In Schmich's editorial, she offers an aphorism that is especially relevant for her employers at Tribune Co., and one that the Nick Dentons and Bill O'Reillys of the world need to be reminded of. A good boss, Schmich writes, "understands that all power is fleeting and borrowed."

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