A few weeks ago, journalist Ken Davis convened the Chicago Journalism Town Hall, which was supposed to be a thoughtful gathering of journo-types, and instead became something of a point-avoiding Twittering clusterfuck about whether or not to save print media, and a tone-deaf discussion of milking money out of blogs. (I was invited, but didn't go.)
In the endless recapping and recapping of recapping that followed, something Mike Gebert said about something Whet Moser said stuck with me (forgive the Franken-quote):
The first [reason that "traditional journalism, in 2009 AD, is boring and kind of uninformative"] is because sometimes, [the bloggers and other writers working for free] are the very experts who, in past days, journalists would have called for a quote. In that case journalism is just another middleman displaced by the internet.Whenever the notion of middlemen comes up, I look fondly to one of my pet factoids. It's the etymology of the word "vicar," the common term for the presiding clergyman in an Anglican church: the word originates in the Latin vicarius (which also give us "vicarious"), meaning "representative," or one who acts on the behalf of another. A go-between, a literal lieutenant, between God and the masses.
This always struck me as an attractively literal job description, and while it's generally applied only to Anglicanism, it's a term I much prefer to the Catholic "priest" ("elder"). As soon as you start thinking of a priest as a go-between, a lot opens up: his role is to access God's word and prepare it for his congregants, pulling out the important bits, synthesizing disparate elements, interpreting and contextualizing, and spoon-feeding if necessary.
With that in mind, what Mike and Whet discuss about journalists being rendered redundant (say that 3 times fast) by sources taking the press into their own hands makes the ecclesiastic analogy fall on your head like a ton of bricks: After a millennium and a half of relying on the vicarious function of the priesthood, who lived set-apart lives and spoke their own language, in 1517 the Protestant Reformation sprang up with a mighty force. It was, essentially, a revolt against the very notion of the church as a go-between, it was the common person demanding his own direct line to God.
(An interesting little sidenote here is that much of the unrest that preceded Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door and setting off the whole fireworks show was The Papal Schism, in which three men simultaneously claimed to be the true Pope, and in the wake of which the Church as an institution was seen as horrifically corrupt, user-unfriendly, and more concerned with its own hierarchy than with the transmission of the word of God to the people. Cough, cough. In the face of unreliable authority, is it any wonder that people wanted to take the pursuit of religious truth into their own hands?)
It's a sly little coincidence that much of the effectiveness of the Protestant Reformation can be traced to the advent of, wait for it, movable type. It's not just a blogging platform, folks: Gutenberg printed his famous bibles in 1455, and the resulting explosion in literacy (both biblical and common) was instrumental in undermining the necessity of the priesthood — when every man owns his own bible, printed not in Latin but in his own tongue, he can do his own textual analysis, he can draw his own synthesis. Why rely on a rarefied cadre of specially trained go-betweens to tell us exactly what the takeaway is — why not have access to the entire story yourself, and come up with your own opinions?
So we all know how the Protestant Reformation turned out. The Catholic Church's monopoly on Western European religion was completely undone, and after the Thirty Years' War the Treaty of Westphalia laid down the groundwork for what would eventually become the modern notion of Freedom of Religion. The Pope was not happy about this, and called the treaty "null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all times," which sounds a lot like what some old dead-tree journalists say about the internet. (But then there's the next line in the Wikipedia entry: "European sovereigns, Catholic and Protestant alike, ignored his verdict." Heh.)
If it's not abundantly clear here, dead-tree journalism is the Catholic Church, readership is The People (later The Protestants), and bloggers are, well, God. (Okay, okay, to be more specific, "bloggers who are the people who dead-tree journalists would use as sources, i.e. celebrities, experts, politicians, and others" are God.) I can keep drawing analogies, here: The move to tabloid formats and popcult subject matter? Vatican II, a concentrated effort to re-attract former Catholics via such lures as dropping the inaccessible Latin liturgy, i.e. taking a page from Protestantism. Newspapers poaching stories from internet sources without acknowledgment or attribution? Priests molesting little boys. Etc, etc.
Thing is, despite it all, the Catholic Church still exists. If newspapers want that kind of longevity, they can't make the mistakes that the Church did when presented with the downfall of their monopoly. Newspapers won't ever again be the only game in town, and their current tactic of ignoring that fact and pretending that no, actually, yes they are, isn't sustainable. They'll have to change their tune. Their survival as an institution isn't about the feel of paper in your hands, or the fact that your daddy and your daddy's daddy were newspapermen and they ran the presses with their sweat and blood. It's now about playing fair with the blogs, the web journals, and the publicly-accessible primary sources. It's a numbers game — believers or readers, same difference.