Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Timesmen in the Twilight Zone

New York had a short squib a while back on how Gay Talese is working with Leslie Gelb on a documentary about the New York Times' "struggles in the digital age." Talese's quotes are a case study in the faulty thinking that's hobbling journalism's ability to find its way forward.

Let's go through them, one by one. And, to help make the point, let's imagine that, instead of a journalist at the turn of this century, he's a horse-and-buggyman at the turn of the last one, when the automobile came on the scene, and see what his quotes would have looked like.

New York: Why are you doing this documentary?


Talese today:

“[The documentary is] about why the Times is having difficulty attracting readers when in my opinion it’s still a very good paper, and about the difficulty of convincing young people to read it."


Horse-and-buggyman:

"We're trying to understand why we're having a hard time getting young people to drive buggies, when we still have so many fine horses and solid buggies."


New York: Is it because young people are reading the paper online? / Is it because young people are driving automobiles?


Talese today:

“We’re not interested in their Website. We’re interested in our insights as veterans of old-fashioned journalism.”


Horse-and-buggyman:

"We're not interested in their automobiles. We're interested in our insights as veteran horse and buggymen."


New York: Do you read the Times site occasionally? / Do you ever take trips in automobiles?


Talese today:

"Never, and I never will. I don’t even have a cell phone. I don’t deal with the technology. I don’t even know how to go into the Web. Maybe Gelb will do it. I insist on being with the people I’m writing about.”


Horse-and-buggyman:

"Never, and I never will. I've also never ridden in a train. And I have no interest in those flying machines either. I insist on having an initimate relationship with my mode of conveyance."


Am I getting my point across? Talese and others who think like him need to, put simply, get over it. Yes, the New York Times is a fine newspaper. But it's a newspaper. It doesn't matter how good it is. Its days are over. Those who care about journalism, and journalism done well, must let go of the thing that performed such a valuable service in the past, and of which they were masters, and use all their insights and intellectual power to figure out how to do all of this using the tools of the future.

Photo courtesy of: Welfl. Creative Commons license.

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