When Journopreneurs Attack

I took aim at the “entrepreneurial journalism” trend, as well as its leading thinkfluencer and advocate, Jeff Jarvis, in a new essay for The Baffler. The piece has provoked quite a response (although nothing yet from Jarvis, who’s been busy fumbling around with a new printer).

Digital First Media CEO and CUNY journalism school advisory board member John Paton did not care for my characterization. I wrote that Paton “may have consumed more of the tech-cult Kool-Aid than any preceding old-media executive.” Or perhaps what perturbed him was my statement that innovation “is the new code word for ‘looming layoff massacre designed to accelerate the upward transfer of wealth.”

In any case, Paton implied on Twitter that I have “achieved nothing” in life, unlike real doers such as himself. After a little prodding from skeptical followers, he went on to boast about his board memberships (all prominently featured in his Twitter profile) and the fact that he personally funds two student scholarships.

Touché, John: You definitely make more money than I do.

Our exchange, which caught Jim Romenesko’s attention, is here.

I was glad to see more substantive responses from two outspoken proponents of the do-more-internetting school.

Writing for CJR, where she has an online column, magazine editor and blogger Ann Friedman offered a stirring [defense]((http://www.cjr.org/realtalk/responsetothebafflerjourno.php?page=all) of “digital journalism” — not the thing I criticized, but whatever, I’ll take it.

I thought Friedman said her piece effectively enough, but she seemed to read over the caveat at the beginning of my essay. Granted, it was short:

When established institutions fail, as old-fashioned newspapers and broadcasters have, it’s smart to seek out new ideas.

My problem isn’t with the existence of computers. My problem is with bad ideas like entrepreneurial journalism as it is being sold to students and young people at the start of their careers.

Friedman has a hope-for-the-best approach (naturally. She edited GOOD magazine before it was closed and condemned to an afterlife as a “platform“):

I believe most entrepreneurial journalists when they say they’re sincerely interested in both preserving the traditional values of this profession and acknowledging the new ways people find and consume news. I have to, because there’s no going back.

This is fatalism, and it should be rejected.

Since the dawn of Facebook we’ve heard one version or another of Friedman’s argument, which is basically “adapt or perish.”

I’m saying: I have been to the other side, and the deal with the all-powerful technoplex is not “adapt or perish” it is “submit, then perish” — or, as they used to say at Microsoft, embrace, extend and extinguish. I think it’s past time not only for journalists but for all those accustomed to earning a living from creative work — musicians, artists, photographers and filmmakers — to fight back against the forces that seek profit from the destruction of their “obsolete” industries.

As I wrote on Twitter, there’s no sense in talking about new business models — the preoccupation of entrepreneurial journalism — until the playing field has been leveled. Currently the tech monopolies can kill startups on a whim.

Fatalists, this is my mantra: Antitrust. Regulation.

(To which I should add: Re-engineering. As one tech-savvy reader pointed out, the computer-to-computer networks we all rely on today could be redesigned in ways that favored creators instead of favoring middlemen. But that is a longer story for another time.)

Another response to my Baffler story came from Dave Cohn, who founded the now-moribund crowdfunding site Spot.Us before eventually joining a news startup by the “can has cheezburger” guy.

Cohn wasn’t named in my piece but I gather that he felt attacked because he has called himself an entrepreneurial journalist (and evidently is on good terms with Jarvis).

Cohn’s blog post is somewhat meandering, but the crux of his argument is that journalistic in-fighting isn’t productive because, after all, “we are on the same team.”

No. No we are not.

How could anyone do so much as flip through the television channels and conclude that all media people are “on the same team”? Glenn Beck, Anderson Cooper, Jon Stewart — on the same team? Jonah Goldberg, Amy Goodman — same team? Two editors at competing websites — same team? Two reporters in the same newsroom — same team?

No, no, no, no, no. I am decidedly not on the same team as any number of people who call themselves journalists, regardless of whatever modifier they slap before that word.

Some people who hide behind the label of journalism are little more than shills, propagandists and political operatives. I am not on their team. Some generally adhere to the accepted ethics and practices of journalism, but through laziness, incompetence or unexamined prejudices, spread a great deal of misinformation. I’m not on their team, either. Some just like to be in the club. No thanks.

Hell, I’m not always on the same team as my editors. One great reporter recently laid out how 90 percent of American editors are afraid of a good story. The reality is that there is no team.

Cohn himself illustrates that point. To journalists of all ages whose career prospects have all but vanished due to aggressive monopoly-building by a few giant tech companies, he writes: “Cry about it.”

That’s some attitude toward a class of workers who’ve suffered pay cuts and layoffs and face a future full of terrifying insecurity, even penury. After that callous comment, he complains that my tone in The Baffler piece was insufficiently diplomatic (which would not surprise regular readers of The Baffler). As my new friend John Paton says, “good luck with your career.” Pray you never get disrupted.

I confess I was disappointed that I’ve yet to find a critical response that addresses the substance of my argument, which is that entrepreneurial journalism is an oxymoron that comes bound with a destructive ideology. I’ll depart now with the conclusion of the original essay. I think it still stands:

For those invested in the ideology of entrepreneurial journalism, the time has come to face facts. Perhaps the individualistic mythology of entrepreneurship, with its emphasis on big exits and one-time windfalls, is in irreconcilable conflict with the public-spirited mission of journalism. And perhaps, as Michael Wolff and others have argued, online journalism simply cannot break even. Seriously confronting those two possibilities could set the whole blinkered “future of news” conversation on a more promising track, but it may spell the end for the multi-level marketing network of journalism-as-sales franchise.