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Media

March 31, 2009

Blogging Journalism's Downfall

Portfolio's Media Blogger Jeff Bercovici pessimistically prognosticates the future of his industry.

David Goldenberg

Jeff Bercovici learned a few things from his brief tenure with the now-defunct Radar Magazine. First, he found that digging up dirt on his industry can pay; Radar founder Maer Roshan hired him away from Women's Wear Daily after Bercovici uncovered a few of the machinations behind Radar's relaunch. Secondly, he learned that his profession is on some very thin ice; Radar shut its doors soon after Bercovici helped launch it yet again.

Jeff Bercovici
" Some days covering the media seems like it's starting to feel more depressing than it's worth."

Jeff Bercovici

Now that he is Portfolio's media blogger, Bercovici puts both of those knowledge nuggets to use every day as he documents the goings on of an industry that appears to be heading off a cliff. In one post, he'll needle a magazine for putting an ad on its cover. In another, he'll talk to feuding executives from a recently deceased media company. In the interview below, which has been edited for clarity, Bercovici tells Gelf about the decimation of the journalism profession and explains what comes after the grieving process. You can hear Bercovici speak, along with fellow media reporters Hamilton Nolan and Seth Mnookin, at Gelf's inaugural Media Circus event at JLA Studios in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 7th.

Gelf Magazine: Could anything have saved Radar?

Jeff Bercovici: I can't say definitely that there's anything that could have been done to be saved. Probably not. That's not to say that there weren't things that could have or should have been done differently. My view is bound to be web-centric, so it's no great surprise for me to say that we should have put more resources into the website and maybe not have been so quick to restart the print magazine. Maybe there was a small window of opportunity to have some kind of TMZ-like overnight success if we'd been producing more original web content, but that said, we could have had 100-percent flawless execution and still just gotten completely swamped by this economy.

Gelf Magazine: I'm a bit surprised you would have had them stay online longer, considering that you wrote something a little while ago about how going online-only doesn’t look like it's going to work for a lot of major papers.

Jeff Bercovici: It's a pretty different economic model for a couple reasons. What I meant by that post more than anything is that if that model does work, it won't be a newspaper. Say the Seattle Post-Intelligencer website works, it's not going to be as though the P-I survived online. It's a new entity that bears the name of the P-I. Newspapers have to be general and they have a lot of legacy costs that a startup doesn’t have. On the other hand, they are locally targeted, so that's an advantage. I wouldn’t say that web content businesses can never make money because I think they can and will.

Gelf Magazine: Is it going to be from advertising?

Jeff Bercovici: Geez, I don’t know.

Gelf Magazine: Is there going to be a way for small- to medium-sized sites to make money on the web?

Jeff Bercovici: I think so. It's over the horizon, so I don’t know what it's going to look like, but it's not going to be as though in the future companies are going to be willing to spend money to acquire new customers. It's just a question of what it's going to look like. Ad formats online are still really primitive. Is there anything more ignorable than a banner ad? Or a pre-roll ad?

Gelf Magazine: Is there anything newspapers can do to save themselves in the near future?

Jeff Bercovici: Just in the last few weeks, I've become more of a pessimist about the economics of the newspaper business. I was talking about this with John Yemma, who's the editor of the Christian Science Monitor, and we came to the conclusion that there's nothing that anyone can point to right now that suggests that the business of journalism isn't going to contract by something like 90 percent. That's not to say that it is going to contract by 90 percent, but there's nothing you can point to right now that suggests an alternative.
Right now it's kind of an inventory problem. There's too much inventory to start with and then each piece of inventory is multiplied by 50 as it's disseminated across various aggregators and blogs and so forth. One way to look at all of these companies going out of business—not that I'd say it's a positive development—is that it's cutting this surplus of inventory. There is a natural level of demand for journalism. It's just how low do we go before we find out what that natural level of demand is?

Gelf Magazine: Do you find it personally painful to be chronicling the demise of journalism?

Jeff Bercovici: Yes very much. Some days it seems like it's starting to feel more depressing than it's worth. On other days it feels like we've almost turned a corner where everyone accepts that this is just horrible. So now that we've gotten a start on the grieving process for our industry, we can begin to think reasonably about what comes next. And that starts to be an interesting conversation.

Gelf Magazine: So are there any journalism success now that provide a window to the future? Maybe the Huffington Post?

Jeff Bercovici: HuffPo's interesting. People are always pointing HuffPo and saying, "We're going to be the HuffPo of this," but the reason that HuffPo's a success is that it's number one. There can only be one number one. There's also Slate. There are a few ways that it's probably a smarter model than what a lot of other places are doing. By far not the least of which is that they're allied with a big company that has a lot of revenues coming from a non-journalism source.

Gelf Magazine: So you think the future of journalism is for a media outlet to find a giant company to subsidize it?

Jeff Bercovici: Kind of. I think that diversifying is also important. I had a recent story about how Life.com relaunched. It's primarily ad driven, but in addition to that there's a custom publishing component where you can order photo books and magazines from them. I think we'll see a lot more stuff like that.
Everything that you can picture there will be there, but at least for the foreseeable future, there will be less of it. Will there be big general interest newspapers, whether they're printed on paper or not? Yes. Will there be small niche sites? Yes.

"There is a natural level of demand for journalism, but how low do we go before we find out what that level of demand is?"
Gelf Magazine: Are things going to become more advertorial?

Jeff Bercovici: Oh god yes. My hope is that as it does proliferate through news content, that at least it's completely labeled.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think it's a false dichotomy to draw a line between bloggers and writers or do you think there's something to that distinction?

Jeff Bercovici: In practice there is a distinction. It depends how you define yourself as a blogger. I recreate that definition every day. Sometimes what I do is really "bloggy" in that it's just aggregation or commentary and sometimes what I do is completely traditional old-school reporting. Most often, it's probably a blend of the two.

Gelf Magazine: So it doesn't bug you when people call you a blogger?

Jeff Bercovici: There are times when I feel like people are going to make assumptions based on my identifying that way, but what can you do?

Gelf Magazine: You tend to pick on some writers (including Malcolm Gladwell) more than others. Do you worry about your colleagues getting pissed at you?

Jeff Bercovici: If I worried about it too much, then I couldn’t do my job effectively. I'm aware of it, and there are times when I feel like I'm not really doing myself favors in the long run, and then there are times when I do feel like I'm doing myself favors in the long run. Because there are people like [Radar founder] Maer Roshan who see a reporter out there digging up uncomfortable facts or voicing uncomfortable truths and he says, "That's a person I want to hire, even if I'm the one whose facts he's digging up." I try not to let it dissuade me from writing things that ought to be written.

Gelf Magazine: Do have any sense about where your traffic comes from? Is Gawker a big source?

Jeff Bercovici: I don’t think Gawker is a huge traffic driver for me. I sense that Gawker readers are Gawker readers, and they don’t tend to click through the links a lot. I think that is partly by design for them. My big traffic drivers are getting links on Drudge or HuffPo. A lot of the political sites tend to be pretty good feeders, like Andrew Sullivan or Think Progress. Those are much bigger than Gawker.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think citizen journalism has a future?

Jeff Bercovici: Citizen journalism might also be another false dichotomy. It wasn’t my original observation, but I think there's going to be a wave of deprofessionalization of journalism. The dividing line between who's a journalist and who's not a journalist is already pretty blurry, but it's going to get a lot blurrier. Journalism as a stand alone middle class career, given the economics of the news business, those sorts of jobs are going to become a lot scarcer. There's going to be a lot more people who make part of their living through journalism and part of their living another way. Do we call those people citizen journalists or not. If a journalist gets laid off and now does a blog on the Daily Beast—maybe they're getting $200 an item, but they're making the rest of their money as a consultant—is that person a citizen journalist or is that person a professional journalist? My guess is that citizens who are truly just complete amateurs aren't going to be contributing a huge amount of our news in the future.

Gelf Magazine: So you don’t think that everyone's going to be a journalist, but that almost no one will be a full-time journalist?

Jeff Bercovici: A lot of people will be demi-journalists.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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