Seth Finkelstein's Essays - The Internet and the Journalistic Pyramid


[This was written in commentary about ]

[Concerning the influence of the Internet on journalism]
[Posted to a computers and policy list]

Date:         Sun, 5 Dec 1999 03:27:56 -0500
From:         Seth Finkelstein
Subject:      Drudge and the more things change, the more they stay the same

        Here, in one simple picture, is what has happened (apologies for
the ASCII-art limitations)

Text-primary media, pyramid of influence:

Once was:               Now, with Internet is:

        *                                      *
       / \     NYT                           /' `\          NYT + MSNBC
      /   \    Slick Mags                  /'     `\        Mags + Salon
     /     \   Community Papers          /'         `\      CP's + Slashdot
    /       \  Leaflets                /'             `\    Lf + Mailing lists
   /         \ Subway standers       /'                 `\  Subway + USENET
   -----------                       ----------------------

        Each level represents maybe a factor of 10 gain in effective audience.

        The key to realize about this is that IT'S STILL A BLOODY PYRAMID!
Yes, it's gotten wider, so there are more slots. Yes, that trickles
down, which means there are many more low- and mid-level reporter
jobs, so people who couldn't get a spot before will now be able to
find one. But, really, so what? "There's more jobs for journalists"
isn't a battle-cry of revolution.

        Consider this part of Frank Rich's article:

   "The liveliest independent journalism sites spawned by the Web, such as
    Salon and Feed, are not so much primary news sources as havens for
    sharp commentary and analysis, like print magazines such as The New
    Yorker or Harper's."

        That's right. Those sites aren't taking on the New York Times,
they're one level down in the food chain, the "commentary and analysis"
ecological niche, just like the New Yorker or Harpers. The pyramid at work.

        And the pyramid is why I keep saying the famous-EFF-Staff-Counsel's
theory about the net and libel is somewhere between ludicrous and cruel.
If you get smeared by someone a few levels up the scale, you have
about as much a chance of fighting back effectively as standing
outside a subway handing out circulars can refute, e.g. Harper's
magazine (hey, you could potentially reach a whole city that way,
which is competitive with magazine circulation figures, so it's equal).

        Matt Drudge wasn't proving anything about "every citizen can
be a reporter, can take on the powers that be." What he did was to
be, frankly, an excuse of the powers that be. The story of Monica
was not something unknown. It was, at the time, being very carefully
examined as to whether it would be considered what I call media-true.
If something is media-true, people who report rumors and gossip about
it are rogues, but not madmen. If it isn't media-true, then writers on
the topic are dismissed as conspiracy-theorists and worse.

        What Drudge did was to break a story that was, by the powers
that be, not suppressed, but just on the cusp of being considered
media-true. He thus provided an excuse for the powers that be to go
with the story, by serving as a kind of moral scapegoat (Don't blame
us for writing articles on semen-smeared dresses and cigar antics, we're
just talking about what this outsider rumor-mongering guy has published,
who us, we had to do it, it's a story ...). Frank Rich almost says this:
"How he changed the press is self-evident.  The elevation of rumor and
gossip to news is now ubiquitous in mainstream media; few except
professional worrywarts bother to complain any more.".  Now, this did
NOT start with Drudge. He's just a convenient scapegoat. And when his
usefulness here faded, so did his reflected press exposure.

        I think the real milestone was that an Internet site was now
considered enough of an excuse, kind of like the tabloid _Star_ story
about Clinton and Gennifer Flowers (which seems to have been more
right than was granted at the time, but do people give the _Star_
credit? No, no hype in that). It may be a dubious achievement, but
still a more accurate one.

        Now everyone seems to be re-discovering media influencing strategies,
pranking, maybe trying to do the web-equivalent of underground papers.
That's all fine and dandy, but once more, IT'S STILL A PYRAMID! It's the
same game, just a different territory. People attempting to move up a
a level, or trying to attract the notice and favor of the higher-ups,
and it all has a cost, and can a particular group pull it off ...

        The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Seth Finkelstein  Consulting Web Programmer, not media material