My Long Bet with the NY Times
Monday, March 25, 2002 by Dave Winer.
Late last year, Paul Boutin, who was then at Wired Magazine, contacted me to see if I would be interested in participating in a project they were doing with The Long Now Foundation, started by Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelley among others.
Of course I said yes, and we started to frame a question that would be settled five years from now. The question: which will be more authoritative in 2007, weblogs or the New York Times? Perhaps surprisingly, Martin Nisenholtz, the CEO of New York Times Digital, went for it, and today the bet is public.
In 2007 we will ask an objective third party to tell us what were the top five stories of the year, each reduced to a single word or phrase. Then we will look up the phrases in Google. (Assuming Google is still here five years from now, and still high integrity.) If three or more of the top links point to the NY Times, Martin wins. If three or more point to weblogs, I win.
For example, in 2001, there's no doubt the top story would be September 11. In 2002, we'd be searching for Enron, the Olympics, and maybe Scientology.
They asked us to write an essay explaining our position. My essay follows. You can read Martin's on the Long Bets website. They will open a discussion group there in May so if you want to participate, you can.
Here is my argument..
"As with personal computing, the early days of Web publishing belonged to the hobbyists, reveling that it worked at all. But the Web is maturing, the tools are getting easy, as the understanding of the technology has become widespread. Serious professional journalists use the new tools, moonlighting, publishing the news they don't or can't sell to the big publications who employ them.
"At the same time, we're returning to what I call amateur journalism, people writing for the public for the love of writing, without any expectation of financial compensation. This process is fed by the changing economics of the publishing industry which is employing fewer reporters, editors and writers. But the Web has taught us to expect more information, not less, and that's the sea-change that the NY Times and other big publications face -- how to remain relevant in the face of a population that can do for themselves what the BigPubs won't.
"The pervasive big publishing philosophy of Dumb It Down, forces all stories through too narrow a channel to model the diverse and complex world we live in. When the Times covers my industry it seems they only know three stories -- Microsoft is evil, Java is the future (or open source or whatever the topic du jour is) and Apple is dead. All other stories are cast into one of those three. They're boring the readers into looking for alternatives, and because they are limited in the number of writers they employ, they can't branch out to cover other angles.
"There's another fatal flaw in the bigpub approach to journalism, that the reporter doesn't really need to know anything about the topic he or she is covering. If the reader doesn't know the technical details, the writer doesn't need to know either. But when I see the Times cover areas I am expert in, and miss the point completely, I wonder how well they're informing me in areas where I am a neophyte. I'm not from Missouri, I'm from Queens, but I still need to be shown that they are doing their jobs responsibly. I'm not impressed, so I look elsewhere for real news, and soon most other people with minds will too.
"My bet with Martin Nisenholtz at the Times says that the tide has turned, and in five years, the publishing world will have changed so thoroughly that informed people will look to amateurs they trust for the information they want."