Legendary New York Times obit writer Alden Whitman once observed, “Death, the cliché assures us, is the great leveler; but it obviously levels some a great deal more than others.”
So, if the business of Internet content is dead, as John Motavalli contends in Bamboozled at the Revolution: How Big Media Lost Billions in the Battle for the Internet, who got leveled the most? According to the author, all the major online media outlets got blindsided, with the exception of AOL, which was spared because it made tons of money and swallowed a media empire in the process. And Motavalli, who watched the rest of the industry unravel while working as a consultant for various online interests such as Hachette Filipacchi Magazine, has no trouble placing the blame squarely on some easy targets while missing the larger problems plaguing the e-scape.
While I am no fan of big media executives, I find the suits versus the khakis (i.e., techies) paradigm to be a little simplistic. Especially when Motavalli forgets to include the third party in this drama, the other khakis (i.e., the low-level journalists or, in techie terms, the “content providers”). But perhaps more egregious than underestimating the technological investment required to keep pace was the underestimation of the intellectual investment that Internet journalism mandated, including recognizing the pandemonium that digital media would unleash. It’s not a unique irony that Motavalli would diminish the most obvious explanation for Big Media’s loss to the Internet Hydra, but it is curious that he misses altogether the impact of journalistic ethics (or lack thereof) in the age of culpability.
For nearly two years, I toiled in the news department at Fox News Online–first as a copy editor until my title inexplicably jumped to news editor shortly after being hired, and eventually as the books section editor. From my vantage point, I quickly came to the conclusion that bad journalism was dooming the business of Internet content.
When I started at Fox in the fall of 1998, things were promising enough. During my first week, Monica Lewinsky was testifying before Congress, and unlike the Fox News Channel our coverage was fairly sober, as we relied mostly on wire copy. The person I reported to was a bricks-and-mortar journalist, having worked for five years as a copy editor at the Wall Street Journal. We spoke the same language, and he didn’t stare blankly when I asked him a question about a topic like libel. But within months, a disturbing pattern emerged: The people with traditional journalism experience were pushed to the margins, while the people with none were promoted. My supervisor was moved to the features department, while I suddenly found myself reporting to a novice with little more than a stint at Soap Opera Digest to his credit. I began wondering if my traditional credentials–five years of newspaper experience and a master’s degree in journalism from NYU–were working against me.