Dealing with free information

I Want Media gives us a look into the intriguing mind of Michael Wolff, a media columnist for Vanity Fair, in a Media People feature called, “Free Information is Now the Topic in the Media Industry.” Wolff was the featured speaker at the 2005 SIIA Information Industry Summit in New York City, and his speech and Q&A session produced some noteworthy thoughts, including the belief that media companies can’t seem to hold an audience anymore.

Why can’t anyone hold an audience? Well, people can’t hold an audience because there’s lots of competition and lots of other things to do. And media companies can’t hold an audience because what they produce is shit.
It’s hard to disagree with that.

Wolff’s most interesting idea involves the difference between paid and free information Websites. He looks at the Wall Street Journal and says they’re no longer a part of the discussions about important matters.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking what happened because I know a lot of people at the Journal, and it feels to me from a journalist standpoint something of a puzzle and a little bit of a tragedy. And I think that the answer is the online thing. I think the fact that the Journal felt that it was powerful enough to charge, and for a long time everyone regarded the Journal’s activities online as the ultimate. They had unlocked the puzzle. In fact, I don’t think they did. I think they locked themselves into a puzzle.

While the New York Times on the other hand became this ubiquitous information brand. It became finally the national information brand. And it did this, I think, because it was free. So free is the word. And free is what I want to talk about — free information, which in the media industry is now the topic, the theme. This is the thing that is unavoidable, that everyone has to deal with.

I believe this observation is right on the money, and that the matter of free information is one that all media companies must address.

For all the thoughtful commentary in this speech, however, Wolff resorts to institutional thinking when it comes to the blogosphere. He doesn’t even like the word “blog” and calls to mind a scene from the film Doctor Zhivago “where the professionals and the intelligentsia are reduced to having to walk with the hoi polloi, and that’s what I feel when I’m forced into this blog stuff.” But his real trouble is with the lack of authority that he feels the blogosphere creates.

…what it sets up is this constant second guessing of information. Which is not necessarily bad but it does lower the value of all information. You undermine that authority of information. But having been around this business now for some time I’ve learned that nothing lasts too long. By all rights, 18 months from now we should be looking back at this and all kind of embarrassed to say the word blog — I hope.
Not hardly, Mr. Wolff.

This kind of thinking always flows from the Modernist view that hierarchy and order are necessary attributes for a workable culture. And that always includes a deep distrust of people — especially everyday people. It was from them (and their myths and emotion) that Walter Lippmann sought escape in his ideas about who should run things.

I choose to view things differently, and that’s one of the reasons I’m so supportive of the blogosphere, be it national, international or local. I trust us to always get it right, though the journey may be bumpy at times. I’d much rather have it that way than deal with Lippmann’s elites. After all, they’re the ones producing the shit, right?

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