Platform 9¾ at the media junction

[ with apologies to H. Potter and J.K. Rowling]

It’s been hot where I am, for most of the last week – blisteringly, sinfully, mind-numbingly hot. But is only weather to blame for the last thread here and its cousin on @ISA’s site seeming not merely Dali-esque but downright fantastic?

As I swelter, I’m up to no more than sharing three jottings related to those posts – what an old friend calls ‘perspective pills’:

1. The ideal of the Fourth Estate – especially as the exclusive preserve of print newspapers — is virtually dead.

I’ve discovered that that’s a forgone conclusion for the über word nerd William Safire (well, he does have an army of paid researchers doing his digging – and yes, they make me jealous). Mea culpa, for brandishing that once-noble phrase in an earlier post. Safire’s Political Dictionary says in the entry for ‘fourth estate’:

The press, a dated phrase now often used in sarcasm.
The phrase was used to put the press on an equal footing with the greatest powers in a nation; in the twentieth century it was taken up by many editors in descriptions of the importance of journalism. The phrase lost its vividness as the other ‘estates’ [clergy, nobility, commoners] faded from memory, and now has a musty connotation. In current use ‘the press’ usually carries with it the aura of ‘freedom of the press’ enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, while critics of the press usually label it with a sneer, ‘the media,’ originally popularised as an advertising term.

Safire and his researcher-moles have settled not on Burke — who usually gets the credit — but William Hazlitt (who might or mightn’t be related to our @Hazlitt on this site) as the coiner of the term. In an 1821 essay, the great contrarian and stylist described one William Cobbett — a pamphleteer with the heart and mind of a first-rate blogger — as follows:

His blows are as hard, and he himself is as impenetrable. One has no notion of him as making use of a fine pen, but a great mutton-fist; his style stuns his readers, and he ‘fillips the ear of the public with a three-man beetle.’ He is too much for any single newspaper antagonist; ‘lays waste’ a city orator or Member of Parliament, and bears hard upon the Government itself. He is a kind of fourth estate in the politics of the country.

2. No one seriously young has the faintest idea of why ‘Fourth Estate’ once made ink-stained hearts beat faster.

From a passing mention of a blogger making a splash in Manhattan – where you once went if bent on getting rich-and-famous in Old Media, and now do better even if you’re already thriving in New Media, according to the (of course wholly unbiased) New York Times:

“I would never get my company involved in a print product,” she said over a Prince song. “That is just a very expensive way of soothing your own ego and feeling important. I can’t see any value in that.”

3. Some stunning parallels – down to the precise words — between today’s shift in media power and the mid-20th-century transition from radio to TV

… in an exemplary, clear-eyed and whinge-free column by Terry Teachout. Confirming that Mary Dejevsky was wrong to laugh at American newspapers for losing money in digital media experiments ten years ago, he writes in ‘The New Media Crisis of 1949’:

Network TV lost vast amounts of money in its early years. It was only because the existing ­radio networks were willing to subsidize TV that it survived—leaving CBS and NBC at the top of the heap in the ’50s and ’60s, just as they had been in the ’30s and ’40s. The old media of today have a similar chance to prosper tomorrow if they can survive the heavy financial losses that they’re incurring while they develop workable new-media business models.

In that watershed year:

At year’s end, a survey of 400 TV owners in Washington, D.C., told the tale: Adult attendance at movies was down 72%, while 36.7% of TV owners attended fewer baseball games. Meanwhile, the average amount of time that these Washingtonians spent listening to radio each day had plummeted from three hours and 42 minutes to less than half an hour.
“Maybe we old people can’t adapt successfully to video,” said Jim Jordan, the star of “Fibber McGee and Molly.”

His conclusion:

Established radio performers […] flourished well into the ’60s. Everyone else— […] — vanished into the dumpster of entertainment history. The same fate awaits contemporary old-media figures unwilling to grapple with the challenge of the new media, no matter how popular they may be today.

… When I was sixteen, rows of ink on newsprint smelt as sweet as fields of lavender; a lilac bush in full bloom — or my vase of freesias on a hot day, like this one. Enough with the soppy sentiment, I tell myself: out with the old; in with the new.


Filed under Editors and editing, The blogosphere, The Guardian

11 responses to “Platform 9¾ at the media junction

  1. ISA

    William Cobbett — a pamphleteer with the heart and mind of a first-rate blogger


    But Wordy, don’t you feel sometimes that we are not actually living in our time. There is this Internet technology which has given bloggers a democratic voice, as you constantly point out and the established media can’t seem to create enough bottle necks in order to be able to channel this writing.

    This is a scrap for attention.

    But we aren’t living in the world we should be living in. The media doesn’t live in modernity it lives in the choppy wake of modernity.

  2. Hazlitt

    Ping !!!&&%ç%&………No relation Wordy!!!!!!!

  3. Hazlitt

    It’s good to realise that the BBC are “impartial.”
    Hazlitt and Cobbett would be proud of Tony Benn:

  4. … much to think about in these suggestions and parallels … thank you both. . .

    , yes … although it’s not technology giving democracy a voice that I want to stress now, as much as the next step Old Media must take — which is to link to _our own sites_, where we speak on our terms, and bear the responsibility for our own words — no matter how awkward and disagreeable we are … which means, for one thing, that they can save a lot of money on moderation. . . I even have quite precise ideas about how an interlinking ‘model’ could work financially, for them and us.

    Ah … that dulcet ping … 🙂 …welcome back, @Hazlitt, you’ve been sadly missed here. . . Am sure you’re mistaken about your ancestry … but are spot-on about Wedgie.

    Thrilled that you’ve made him our very first YouTube moving ‘pinup’. What a clever man that is — and a good one. . . Yes indeed, he has the soul of a great blogger/pamphleteer — though he was moonlighting as a TV hijacker in the glorious clip. . . One detail with special resonance was that he was doing that to the BBC because he loves the BBC.

    Inter-linking, inter-linking, inter-linking … ‘cross-platform’ linking, as the techies say … has to become Old Media’s new mantra.

    Without that, we’re all reduced to unpaid click-monkeys, moderated into submission.

  5. ISA


    Good idea. So what you are saying is that whatever we post should be linked to an individual sort of general blogging account so that technically it wouldn’t be appearing on the Guardian (for example) at all, but link into one’s blog.

    Better. Pikebishop, the right wing libertarian, made it clear to everyone that whatever we posted on the Guardian web site was the property of the Guardian. This is an IP issue. So if the Guardian clarified that the comments page of the poster was in fact their own page in a similar way to the pages of a blog and that the Guardian was merely the host then moderation …

    But the Guardian would still have the right to let X or Y post appear on their pages, the right to choose their associates, so to speak, but I see that it would lead to a change in attitude.

    Wordy the pioneer.

  6. Pioneer … zounds, @ISA … Do you want to see me with arrows sticking out of my back?

    @MrPB is absolutely right … but retaining ownership of our words is only a minuscule – if critical — part of the argument and scheme for inter-linking.

    So what you are saying is that whatever we post should be linked to an individual sort of general blogging account so that technically it wouldn’t be appearing on the Guardian (for example) at all, but link into one’s blog.

    No, not quite that. . . I don’t see our individual blog sites as part of The Guardian’s or indeed any other newspaper’s empire.. . With cross-platform linking we’d be saying, … sorry, rich kids, we’re not coming over to _your_ house only, to play… We’re taking down the fences between separately owned back gardens to make a playground in which we’ll all have a chance to thrive and help make up the rules.

    But even that is only one small segment of the model we’d need for the power-sharing to be commercially viable for us and them … The trouble with the planners in the Old Media establishments is that they haven’t — like you, me and a few of our comrades — put two years into intensive commenting and blogging … and can only conceive of the future from their side of the fence dividing OM from NM people, …so from an antiquated perspective.

    …For instance, the Guardian’s übermenschen might ask, (i) if it’s not our site, what would supply the frame for interlinked blogs? …. and (ii) but how would we make any money from the common playground? – and I have some ideas for answers to those questions. . .

    (A former (older and senior) colleague and good friend was a deputy ed on a broadsheet (excellent views of St. Paul’s and the river from his office) … charged with masterminding its internet strategy. Unfortunately he died a few years ago, or I’d have taken my model to him. .. I’ve considered showing it to your friends in the towers, but their internet strategist/chief’s ranking of a print archive over digital search media was … shall we say, a trifle discouraging. . . Unless of course the policy was set by someone else.)

    I noticed that Cif has taken to asking bloggers there what they want to read about, on the site …… Do they understand that from a New Media perspective, that looks too much like:

    Please give us your ideas, so that we can …

    … continue to perform with you as audience, basking in your applause

    … own your words

    … earn money from ads from your obliging clicks

    … & then tell you what you can and can’t say, by aggressively moderating your comments (inventing comments for you, when we feel like it .. )

    The obvious answer: thanks, but no thanks, to being your unpaid click-monkeys . . . but may we discuss the alternatives?

    Don’t think of me as a pioneer — rather, as a refusenik rejecting the simian option, … and mostly as someone trying to be constructive … say, another yeoman builder-conceptualiser of the blogosphere. . . How do you like the idea of us being digital stonemasons for the great (secular) cathedral called the internet?

  7. ISA

    “With cross-platform linking we’d be saying, … sorry, rich kids, we’re not coming over to _your_ house only, to play… We’re taking down the fences between separately owned back gardens to make a playground in which we’ll all have a chance to thrive and help make up the rules.”

    Please elaborate. Think of this as a Socratic dialogue.

  8. ISA

    I’ll be Phaedrus:

    So, Wordy, if “every speech must be put together like a living creature, with a body of its own; it must be neither without head nor without legs; and it must have a middle and extremities that are fitting both to one another and to the whole work” then what would the head, body and extremities of this creature called “cross platform blogging” be?

  9. Dear Phildrus,

    (i) not here
    (ii) not now
    (iii) watch this space … where I might or might not roll out the whole scheme …

    .. since I want to put it in the hands of an institution as keen as we are to find a way forward that treats bloggers with the utmost respect.

    Getting there means that bloggers must also act from a clear understanding of our value to commercial sites like newspapers. Anyone who hasn’t seen the statistics from The San Francisco Chronicle posted here a few days ago, please take at look at Bloggers can be choosers.

    No moderation without collaboration
    : how’s that for a slogan? — well, I know you can do much better …

    … and now I really must adjust my toga, as it’s nearly hot enough to fry a chip butty here … oops, deep-fryers haven’t been invented yet, have they … ?

  10. Old Media people need better arguments to persuade the world of the villainy of New Media.

    It does no good to complain about the aggregators and curators of the net. Not just because cross-referencing is of the essence of the web — d‘oh! — but because journalism itself has always been a copy-cat business, … like so much scholarship. Think of George Steiner quoting ‘a Jew-hating Austrian politician saying, “Scholarship is simply what one Jew copies from another.“’ . . . I‘m only ever disgusted by people who don‘t give their sources credit for ideas and information.

    … In the latest kerfuffle about someone who should surely have sunk from public notice forever long ago, Old Media folk are avidly feeding off a Vanity Fair piece — as far away as Switzerland, I discovered in the process of deleting the Tages-Anzeiger with other unused old bookmarks.

    Vastly entertaining to see Redneck capitalised, as in ‘dieser Redneck aus Wasilla in Alaska’ … how _does_ capitalisation work in German? … something I’ve never worked out.

    Ein schöner Redneck aus Alaska

    … Idylle ist implodiert

    … ………………………………but Google‘s version is even better:

    A nice Redneck from Alaska

    Idyll is imploding …

    The idyll is implodes in the meantime: Levi would not dream of showing on a stage with the former governor of Alaska. They in turn would let him throw out of the hall. For Levi, this redneck from Wasilla, Alaska, she pelted with journalistic hand grenades. In the glossy magazine Vanity Fair, he takes out about Sarah Palin. First he made her a grandmother, now the talk of the nation.

    Then in another newspaper, a columnist pretending to be outraged on Palin’s behalf turns out to be thrilled by the gun-toting ex-governor’s alleged ignorance of guns … and smacks her lips, understandably, over this tidbit:

    It’s hard to totally resist an article that has sentences that start with: “In early August, before I went hunting and Sarah was picked, Bristol and I were at a tattoo parlor in Wasilla. …” Or information like the fact that baby Tripp’s middle name is Easton in honor of “my favorite hockey-equipment company.”

    … and in The Times, where I first learnt about the latest additions to Palinalia, this was the most delightful detail … er, stolen … from Vanity Fair :

    Exhausted, or bored, by her duties as head of Alaska’s state government, Mrs Palin would return home most days by 5pm to take long baths and watch home improvement shows on television, Mr Johnston says.

    … ……………………………………one clean – or cleaner — politician, at any rate. . .

  11. Pingback: A prize-winning journalist becomes the latest casualty of free-speech suppression at Guardian News & Media « acciaccature

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