Excellent Rebooting the News podcast yesterday, with someone both Jay and I respect -- Saul Hansell, who runs the seed.com program at AOL.
He came to be a guest on the show because he argues with the podcast, at his home in suburban New York, while doing his laundry. A time-honored way to consume podcast content. I do it myself. I often feel like yelling back at the idiot on the MP3, only this time I happened to be the idiot!
Not that we have the power to hear anyone yelling back at us. Wish we did. Saul sent us an email suggesting he might be a good guest. When I said I welcomed the chance to argue with him, he got a bit squeamish, as if we wouldn't like each other after the show, or whatever. I thought to myself, what's become of us that we can't argue, even passionately, and learn something in the process and come away with even more respect for the person we're arguing with? That's the way it turned out. If you like a heated and passionate disagreement, I highly recommend listening to RBTN #67.
As with all good disagreements, I thought of the real argument a few hours after it was over.
Before explaining, it's important to note that both Jay and I first met Hansell when he was a reporter for the NY Times. That's why, as often is the case, the discussion revolves around Times. Someday we'll figure out why the Times looms so large in all our discussions, but that's not what we discussed yesterday.
The crux of our disagreement is this.
I say that nothing appears on the pages of the NYT until a reporter at the Times has an epiphany about it. Saul says: "And isn't that what the Times is supposed to be?"
To which I resond: Emphatically, no. The Times is supposed to capture the events of our times. Hence its name. If it had been meant to capture the epiphanies of a few reporters, it might have been called "Our Epiphanies" and the motto might be "All the things that occur to us, when they occur to us, and not a moment before."
So I didn't say any of that, because I let Jay steer us into an idea I proposed to the Times in 2002, that they offer a Times-hosted site to anyone they quote, which of course is a tactic for achieving the kind of mix I was looking for and does nothing to explain why this is something they should have wanted to do. (BTW, to Jay who asked for a reference to this proposal, I found couple. Expand this paragraph on the scripting.com website for details.)
The idea was first raised at a dinner meeting on January 23, 2002. I mention the dinner in this blog post.
The idea is explained in an October 2006 post on Scripting News. "...when a person is quoted in a Times piece, a few days after the article runs, a person from the publishing side contacts them, congratulates them on being quoted in the Times, and asks if they want a blog. No strings attached, you can say anything you want on your blog, no editorial review, and no cost to you. We get to run ads on your blog, they won't be intrusive, much as we run ads on columns by regular NY Times columnists. The reason this works is that it includes the reporters in the vetting, ultimately it's their decision who gets to blog under the corporate masthead, which is important in an organization where the talent is so important to its success. But they also have to deal with competiton from a new source, their sources. I think it's really clever, and the first news organization that does this will have a leg up on all the others."
But to really nail it, consider that the motto of the Times is "All the news that's fit to print."
Which is so fundamental that it deserves an acronym: ATNTFTP.
It suggests a breadth of coverage. The first word isn't modest -- it isn't "some of the" or "most of the" or "a good cross-section of" -- it's "all."
Now this is why I find it so frustrating that the only new media ideas that appear on the op-ed pages of the Times are those that appear obvious to David Carr. Not that Carr isn't a very clever writer and speaker. He certainly is quite creative, but not in what's possible given the new distribution and authoring technologies, that have been developing for decades. But the limits he imposes on what the Times and can and can't do are far more restrictive than the mission the Times is on, ATNTFTP.
Because the Times has drifted so far from ATNTFTP, it can take ten years or more before a news-related idea that's actively being pursued by the tech industry to actually appear in the pages of the Times. This is not doing a service to anyone, certainly not to the members of the Times community who don't draw a paycheck from the Times, and probably not even to those who do.
Since the birth of the web, it's always been the next step for the Times to open the windows and let the fresh air in. They have a beautiful office, but the news isn't happening there, it's happening everywhere but there. Yet to read the Times you would think the opposite.
Now to the why of it. Why should the Times have aspired to be the all-inclusive place where people go to find out what's happening in the world, through the Internet. I think that the answer is self-evident. You can hear the tale of woe for the "news industry" on the op-ed page of the Times and every other newspaper. And on the business pages, and the technology pages. Even in politics and culture, the Internet is usurping the former role of the Paper of Record.
I think history has shown over and over, that you must rise to the challenge of new technology, or be marginalized by it.
You don't read about the demise of social networks on the social networks. Instead they have grown from a few million users just a couple of years ago to hundreds of millions of users today. They are beginning to exert the kind of political and cultural power that the Times used to. How do I know? I read about it in the Times.
As I said to Saul, I have a window on my desktop computer that scrolls the latest NY Times articles in realtime. I keep moving the technology and keep making offers to the Times. I see the value of what they do, but I want more of it, much more. I want their process to influence the processes of everyone else. But I'm losing that battle and I know it.
That is the point I keep trying to make: Let's work together.