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Media companies are in really, really serious trouble. Solutions currently in vogue: charging for content, reorganizing news organizations as nonprofits. And, of course, “link journalism.”
“Link journalism” gets to call itself journalism because it’s linking done by journalists. Here’s how the theory works: The journalist scours the Web for stories and blog posts, links to them, and provides some analysis or snark on why the item in question is worth a click. By putting all the links and comments in one place, the thinking goes, the journalist/aggregator (choose whichever term fits your self-identity, whether that be journalist or new-media avatar) provides a valuable service to readers, drives traffic, and boosts revenues (though not necessarily of the site the link journalist is working for).
Another term for this activity that’s popular among today’s digital cognoscenti: “curation”—-as if all these pieces of garbage on the Web were worthy of the most delicate and sophisticated aggregation methods.
For a love letter to this journalistic model, see this Steve Rosenbaum piece in the Silicon Alley Insider. Rosenbaum cheerily argues that journalists have “always” surveyed the media landscape and passed along the useful tidbits to readers; now, with the Web, it’s just easier.
Rosenbaum runs a company that—wait for it—“curates” video. I predict vast popularity for a video site where users can upload videos, comment on them, and add them to their Web sites. Especially if its name is YouTube or Hulu.
(Rosenbaum uses two clichés in his second paragraph, says something called an “overwhelming explosion” in content is going on, places punctuation inside and outside quotation marks as the fancy takes him, and occasionally spells “curator” with a capital “C” to emphasize its importance. Also, he fails to mention in his post that most of the companies he cites as exemplars of “curation”—-Taste of Home, Bicyling, New York Magazine, Zappos.tv, and Jones Soda—-are customers of his Magnify.net. A curator might not have a problem with that, but an editor just might.)
Just think about the possibilities: If Rosenbaum manages to proselytize enough influential people, fantastic things could start to happen. Companies could launch new products that follow this curatorial model. They could hire some staffers and perhaps get some financing.
Oh no! That might be a problem, because financing lies at the root of all the problems that Rosenbaum is supposedly providing a solution to, problems that no one can link their way out of: debt.
The advertising crunch is serious. But it alone isn’t killing papers. The real cancer is the unsustainable levels of debt used to acquire other media properties. This paper was nearly sunk by debt. Tribune Media Services is $13 billion in debt. I couldn’t link-journalism an accurate picture of the New York Times Company’s corporate debt quickly enough to meet the fast-paced demands of today’s changing media landscape, but a series of brave acquisitions—the half of the International Herald Tribune it didn’t own, About.com, the Boston Globe, and, don’t forget, the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette—-hasn’t really worked out. I could go on, but enough linking.
I’m not too worried about that company’s flagship paper, but I’m worried about this one, and lots of others. Former CP editor David Carr recently wrote about the Austin (Texas) Chronicle, which the article’s subhead calls a “thriving weekly with a mission.” The Chron‘s response to the recession? No layoffs, no plans to do so. Might have something to do with the fact that it owns its building and has no “significant debt.”
Americans are slowly coming back around to the biggest lesson of the last depression—-if you don’t have the cash, don’t buy it. I hope that sinks in to media businesses. It would be a shame to have to sit down on Sunday morning to read the week’s best curation. Sorry, Curation.