Panic, Dissent, Faith

Having spent the first 50 years of my life as a hothead, I’d love to live the next 50 years in a state of equanimity — or at least be less hotheaded than heretofore. In that spirit let me share snippets of two talks that I did not attend with an observation made by another writer. All three acquired thoughts focus on a lofty point — the future of journalism.

First the “panic,” which is not my word, but how Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, a global advertising agency, characterized the current mindset of the suits and spreadsheets who run mass media.

“There are major changes and we don’t understand the speed and scale at which they’re taking place,” Sorrell is quoted in a Reuters article summarizing his talk at a conference sponsored by the Internet Advertising Bureau. “I think there’s a certain amount of panic among media owners … Most of these companies, ours included I suppose, are run by 50- or 60-year-olds who have trouble getting it, and who really don’t want to see change on their watch.”

The dissent occurred at a different conference, sponsored by the Online News Association, where a panel discussion entitled “Journalism in 2010” apparently provoked disagreement to the point of rancor. ONA conference reporter April Chan provides a dispassionate account of the exchange among a panel featuring Susan DeFife, President and CEO, Backfence ; Neil Budde, News Director, Yahoo; Robert S. Cauthorn, President, CityTools; and Lockhart Steele, Managing Editor, Gawker Media — with “moderation” provided by Jeff ( Buzzmachine) Jarvis. Rafat Ali provides some pithy commentary and a link to a panel podcast.

Yet why should it come as any surprise given that pinning down the share of journalism today, much less the form it may take five years hence, is like trying to describe a ghost. Consider this definition offered by San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Steve Winn, in an essay on the Judith Miller affair:

“Journalism is ultimately an act of faith, both for those who create it and those who consume it in any form. We all believe, at some level, that the truth is not only worth pursuing but even — occasionally and imperfectly — achieved. It is, at best, a precarious enterprise, a minefield of complications, unexamined motives and multiple ambiguities. It’s entrusted to a group of people that the general public tends to regard uneasily.”

What a lovely thought, and one I am proud to report was written by a colleague (my work as a business scribe in San Francisco supports this hobby). Indeed, Winn’s essay was singled out for note in the uber-gossip forum, Romenesko.

So in the new spirit of equanimity which I hope will prolong my life, or at least make my remaining days more pleasant, let’s keep the faith — and in the meantime keep your overhead low, because there are category five hurricanes out there pounding our current business models.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media

(Note: My equanimity temporarily deserted me this morning when various electronic and familiar mishaps required me to post an unedited and unliknked version of this entry, and apply the polish later.)