The Death of Print Media is Basically the Protestant Reformation

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.


Anonymous said...

I don't buy that all bloggers are God, but maybe you kind of are.

Mr. B. said...

This analogy is incredibly apposite. I love it.

It's interesting to note that vicars are a Protestant institution. In fact, every Protestant denomination today has its version of priests and vicars. Maybe contrary to what proponents hoped and opponents feared, the Reformation did not eliminate the role of the religious middleman. I don't think the internet will eliminate the role of the information middleman.

The primary sources that journalists used to quote are now speaking directly to the masses via the internet. But these primary sources are self-interested, often-contradictory human beings. Because they are NOT God, and don't speak with a single voice, we need people who can filter, present, and mediate their views for us.

We need journalists.

The market for Catholic priests may not be what it used to be, but the market for Protestant ministers and vicars will probably do fine.

Michael said...

Which makes journalism one big Trollope novel, I guess.

yr hmbl & obdt svt,
the Revd Obadiah Slope

Eric P said...

I thought I had read that if papers stood on their own, they would be profitable enterprises, but since they are now parts of consolidated megacorps, they are thought of as not performing to an acceptable margin and thus they are "dying."

I don't know the factual validity of this statement, but if this is indeed true, then does the model continue to actually work and should media just divorce itself from a mega-corporation existence?

Bill Daley said...

Don't forget, the Protestant Reformation sparked the Counter-Reformation in the Catholic Church. I think it's brave of you to do a Protestant-Catholic comparison on St. Patrick's Day, never mind the bloggers as God analogy. Me old grammy must be spinning in her grave. :-)

helen said...

Oh my gosh, Bill, I hadn't even thought about today as St. Pat's. I'm not even wearing green!

I think a journalistic counter-reformation would be phenomenal, actually. For all that I live on the internet, I've got a bad habit of being a lazy thinker, and good journalism helps do some of the thinking for me. The thing with a counter-reformation, though, is you've got to realize you got schooled by a reformation in the first place. Newspapers are working /against/ news alternatives, instead of with them, which is going to make everything more difficult for everybody.

Michael said...

"I thought I had read that if papers stood on their own, they would be profitable enterprises, but since they are now parts of consolidated megacorps, they are thought of as not performing to an acceptable margin and thus they are "dying." "

I doubt this is true, since the collapse of classified ad revenue has been such a hit to them.

The ultimate point of my piece Helen linked to is that I believe newspapers will have to shift from serving a mass audience-- something that began for them 40 years ago when their top advertisers the big downtown department stores started dying; it long predates blogs-- and start serving niche audiences. My rather more prosaic analogy was that they need to stop being Sears with something for everyone, and start being like a mall, full of microtargeted shops.

Newspapers will have found salvation, of a sort, when they talk to the people who are most interested in things on as high a level as the best blogs reach. This will be great for the writers at newspapers, as they'll be talking to a better audience to write for (smaller, but better). Unfortunately, first their corporate masters are going to waste a lot of money and effort chasing the lowest level and least interested people with freebie rags, and some of them will die in the process.

Bill Daley said...

I don't know if all newspapers are working against new alternatives. There's quite a bit of muscle at the Tribune working/looking/examining all the options. They're also trying to open minds to new ways of doing business. Take Twitter. I tell people all the time that Twitter requires a different pt of view than regular newspaper writing, blogs, radio, web, tv. You got to tell the story a different way & that's cool. Of course, as I've noted before, some media types have just "discovered" Twitter & new media and dropped it like a bushel of hot potatoes so they could write a col or two. I say to them, give it a chance. Experiment, have fun. I think you'd agree.

Eric P said...

"I doubt this is true, since the collapse of classified ad revenue has been such a hit to them."

So true. Hadn't realized to consider that.

I now recall that I had read my statement on the internet. In a blog post.

Joseph said...

By your own analogy, though, wouldn't print journalists (priests) stealing stories from expert bloggers (the Tetragrammaton) not be "clergy molesting little boys," but "priests molesting GOD HIM/HERSELF"?

Scott said...

Brilliant! I love the analogy and the implication that a revolution is imminent - the signs are all around. Great analysis.

Paul Gowder said...

Newspapers poaching stories from internet sources without acknowledgment or attribution? Priests molesting little boys. Etc, etc.

I just felt that line needed to be pulled out and highlighted for awesomeness.

Shawn B in Cali said...

Yes, I agree with Mr. B and Scott. Brilliant, Helen!

Nichols-Belo said...

What about radio? NPR provides me with at least 50% of my news content and I'm pleased to note that Renee Montagne, Scott Simon, and colleagues continue to interview the wise, the knowledgeable, and at times, the inane (regardless of their presence in the blogosphere.) So who are the radio journalists in this schema?