Curmudgeon: It’s What’s For Dinner

Posted: July 19th, 2008 under Uncategorized.

More articles about the noxious effect of curmudgeons on the newspaper industry. This meme has really taken off in the last couple of weeks; I sense a great deal of pent-up frustration on both sides of this ideological debate. If this were an ABC Afterschool Special, the solution would come when both sides reach a crisis point where they realize that the other side isn’t all wrong, and at about minute :58, we’d have a wide-angle of the warring camps laughing and hugging it out.

I’m not sure that kind of cliched happy ending is possible, or even desireable here.

Vickey Williams of the Readership Institute tries to come up with the “Can’t we all just get along?” moment
in a recent blog post, first defending the Millennials:

The bad press turned nasty with the recent release of a book by Emory
Professor Mark Bauerlein speculating that this could be the Dumbest Generation.

But
I think there’s much more to this generation, and that they can offer
traditional news organizations invaluable help as they try, in chaotic
times, to invent the future. The question is, will existing newspaper
culture let them?

And then, to be even-handed, wags a finger in the Millennials’ direction, basically advising them to work with the clueless old coots in the newsroom, in some Digital-to-Deadtree intellectual barter system, wherein the plugged-in 1337 kidz teach gramps how to use Twitter in exchange for the key to bribing Sgt. Schulz with some strudel to bring in the big story that blows the lid off this here town…

Partner with a younger staffer for mutual benefit: In every newsroom
I’ve been in, veterans said they have certain skills knowledge that
goes untapped – often in topics where younger staff, when polled, said
they want help. Tips on storytelling in trade for a Twitter orientation? It could work.

Ouch.

Maybe my early career experiences have too strongly soured me on the toxic effects of the newsroom sourpusses. But I spent way too long a time at the mercy of some deeply damaged individuals who had inhuman drive and persistence – but used it to claw their way to a position where they could drain their radiators all over everyone and everything they came into contact with. I’ve walked dogs with weak bladders & overactive territorial imperatives that peed on less landscape than those curmudgeons. Every new idea of expression of belief in New Media … splat. Mocked, run down, soaked in cynicism and discarded as being not worth the time, and doomed to fail.

Jeff Jarvis over at Buzzmachine points out
that not all salty old newshounds are clueless about technology (I sense a harrumph from the greybearded pundit), nor are all apple-cheeked interns free from the instinct to protect tradition at all costs. OK, fine, perhaps the blanket generalizations are not warranted, and yeah, I’m sure there are always exceptions to the rules everywhere. But Christ, can’t we just try to get away from the Old Media thinking that we have to try to do a he-said she-said on every contentious issue? Isn’t that one of the things that’s brought us to this situation in the first place – wishy-washiness?

I have to agree with both of them on their core premise, though – they both point out how the time is past that the newspaper industry could afford to coddle the voices crying out against real, core, fundamental, daring changes. Of insisting on the half-hearted half-measures as a means of mollifying the curmudgeons. Of reflexive caution, playing it safe, trying to be prudent.

We’ve come to the part of the movie where the hero is pointing out to the frightened civilians that there is no alternative to crossing the rickety rope bridge over the crevasse, because everything on that side of the gorge is on fire/blown up/overrun by bloodthirsty Martians. In the next year, papers will either start to invest in really radical re-inventions of themselves, or they will gutter out into messy puddles like a bunch of burnt-out candles. Candles that once proudly provided illumination to their communities … existing only as twice-weekly direct-mail supermarket flyers and loose agglomerations of desperately underpaid semi-pro bloggers.

In my consulting work, I’ve seen newsrooms completely at war with each other. Newsrooms where the mossbacked conservatives hold up their years of service holding others accountable for their actions – as reasons that they should be exempt from the changes sweeping the industry. I’ve tried to control meetings where the New and Old Media stood on either side of the room, hurling insults at each other, screaming and shouting out charges and counter-charges, trying to pin the blame for failures on the other faction(s).

Such newsrooms are not happy places. And yeah, given the options available to content producers with multimedia expertise, this kind of warring over very basic concepts is indeed chasing away the very people that the industry needs most if it is to survive.

Convergence is no longer optional.

The curmudgeons – and maybe we should come up with some other appropriate terminology – cannot be allowed to take this entire industry down with them – no “Media empire makes a good shroud.”

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