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Belmont Club

Final Performance

December 26th, 2012 - 3:39 pm

The dinosaurs are on short rations. But even the little mammals  are finding it hard to get enough food. This is the landscape of 2013 and while nobody knows yet how it will turn out the prospects are not encouraging.

First let’s examine the condition of the giant saurians. Real Clear Markets tracks Europe’s continued economic decline. The days when it expected to conquer the world from Brussels are over. “One has to hope that the markets are right in betting that Mrs. Merkel will be able to hold Europe together in 2013. However, policymakers in the United States would be ill-advised to base their policies on the assumption that all is going to be well in Europe next year. Since all the signs are pointing to a deepening economic recession and a further deterioration in Europe’s political environment that could lead to another intensification of the Euro crisis.”

In other words Europe may survive, but don’t bet on it. Nor on the flashy and glitzy world of the media which is already writing its own obituary. Everything is failing, according to Matt Haughey. Not only are the papers going bust, so are the blogs, Twitter and Facebook. “The disruptors are getting disrupted” he exults.

What I’m noticing now is the feeling that the disruptors are beginning to be disrupted themselves. Many of the companies labeled Web 2.0 in the mid-2000s are either no longer with us (Friendster, Bloglines, etc.) or were long ago sold off and subsumed into larger companies. The rise of blogs in the early 2000s seems to be following an opposite trajectory in the early 2010s. Social media/software is taking over not just blogging, but search, and events, and existing location-based startups. Even the giants of the social space aren’t showing signs of blockbuster success beyond their registered user numbers (Facebook is struggling with revenue and its stock price, Twitter is slapping ads on everything and hoping for the best).

The wolf is at the door of every media undertaking. Paywalls will be erected everywhere say pundits, to keep the lupine interlopers out of doors. But some enterprises have already been given up for dead. Martin Lagevald says the dead tree press is as good as pushing up daisies: “the business model for seven-day printed newspapers in most markets is toast”.

If it’s any consolation, so is the daily news. Heidi Moore says “newsrooms will be less about the day’s news — much of which has already been taken out of our hands by the 24-hour, minute-by-minute news cycle — and become more like a war room, or a science lab, where teams of researchers think about how to contextualize, present, illustrate, and spread key information, whether it happened that day or not.”

There may in fact be no more reporters as we know them. People calling themselves journalists will be aggregating video and reports from social media. The New York Times is now creating products where information comes entirely from the readers. “Although it was curated and edited by us, the content came from readers and it was a really striking and pretty incredible piece of journalism. I would expect to see a whole lot more of that.”

Journalism is becoming an appendage to an entire industry based on tapping into the stream of consciousness of the person in the street. News has been redefined away from what Presidents and business leaders say to what what the crowded masses are thinking to-day.

They include Geofeedia, Spundge, Twitter Search, Instagram* and RSS feeds, for example, to find out what people are talking about when a story breaks, and “potentially tap into users who are on the scene”.

News will come from mobile devices, get processed by ‘journalists’ and then turned around and redelivered the same way. There may still be role, some say, for quality controllers. The ‘social news agency’ Storyful does nothing but verify “stories, images and videos for news outlets.”

Another trend of 2012, particularly around Hurricane Sandy, has been that the journalist’s role has moved to sometimes stopping the spread of information. “It is very counter-intuitive for journalists as we don’t like to kill a story, we like to spread a story, but this year we have seen a lot more journalists, people like Storyful, like Craig Silverman in the US, the efforts of The Atlantic during Hurricane Sandy, dedicated to debunking, calling bullshit on the hoaxes, making sure that they stop the picture of the five foot shark in a flooded garden in New Jersey”. “We are starting to see verification processes scale,” Little added. “Simple tools from Google Maps all the way to TinEye, which helps detect false imagery, are becoming more and more a staple of the journalist’s tool box.

But as the news cycle quickens it will converge to real time and verification will rely more on the online reputation of the source, or the collective collateral of unknown sources, than any fact checkers.  It’s getting to the point where people who want a career in journalism are best served by majoring in information technology. The day of the pure wordsmith is dead.

Maybe that’s because there are no more press releases to rewrite. Oh they still exist, but they mean less and less. Right now the big worry is how anyone is going to get paid. They’re agreed ads don’t work. Nor do pay walls. And as for selling papers at newsstands, forget it.

Still everyone’s cheerful. But it is a forced kind of gaiety, the sort that assumes that things will work out simply because they have to.

About the best that media prophets can come up with is that they’ll operate like Reddit, whose Gold Membership lets you pay not to receive ads and to “belong”. Belong to what group is not specified. But in the future what were formerly called newspapers will charge you for the privilege of being in the company of social friends.  When Reddit was running out of funds, the solution, it announced, “was its for-pay Gold program.” What do you get from it? Nobody can say, but its it’s better than anything else the NYT can think of right now.

There are a few perks like receiving exclusive access to new features before public release, surfacing content from up to 100 Subreddits, access to a super secretive members-only lounge whose existence is neither confirmed nor denied by Reddit, and a few other goodies.

It is clearly an attempt to create a kind of private currency or barter system. But it is redeemable only in the world of Reddit. Taken to the limit that kind of world will fragment a formerly homogenous public into private clubs each with their own memberships, rules facts and chits.  Sort of like a gentleman’s club in 19th century Pall Mall without the gentlemen.

The “gentlemen” are having it rough. They no longer make the news. They can only detect it by putting their finger on the pulse of social media. Yet the little mammals aren’t that much better fed.  And there is precious little pulse. Someone stole Christmas. With the gloom thick in the air  Jordan Weismann at the Atlantic argues that it must be the Republicans who ran off with the Holiday Cheer.

Reuters reports that, according to early data, the U.S. may have just experienced its weakest holiday shopping season since the woeful days of 2008, when the country was still dealing with, you know, a financial crisis and a recession. Holiday-related spending from late October through Christmas inched up 0.7 percent this year, down from last year’s 2 percent growth, according to MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse. Other sales trackers found similarly meager results. ….

Santa, Rudolph, Dancer, and Prancer also appear to have collided head on with the fiscal cliff. Americans are watching the negotiations in Washington carefully, and after months of shrugging them off, recent surveys show the impasse in Congress appears to finally be taking a psychological toll on country, making everyone feel a bit nervous about opening their wallets.

So just raise Obama’s credit card limit and happy days will be here again. But that’s too facile an answer. I’m not sure even Weismann believes it. Maybe there are just too many virtual things — like printed money, Reddit Gold Membrships, diplomas in gender studies,  Obamaphone giveaways — chasing fewer and fewer tangible objects. We’re in the last stages of a bubble and you almost hear it start to pop. There is not enough real stuff left in the landscape to redeem the all the appetites that have been whetted over the years.

The year 2013 may be the one in which the public — monitored via Twitter — either decides it ain’t working or to enrol in Obama’s Federal Gold Membership.  The one that gets you a front row seat to his special inner sanctum of 150,000 people.

If that doesn’t sell well then … maybe the new year won’t be one in which the world actually prospers, but it may be one in which it finally decides it needs a Plan B. There are some solutions that fail not for lack of trying but because they would never work.

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