JULY 28, 2009 2:46PM

The MSM is dead! (Wait, am I MSM?)

Rate: 11 Flag

Maybe one of the reasons it's so hard to figure out what the Future of Journalism is going to look like is that none of us agrees on what the Present of Journalism looks like. At least we don't agree on what to call it.

Wired editor Chris Anderson, making the rounds to promote his book "Free," told Der Spiegel that he refuses to use the words "journalism," "media," "news" or "newspapers" because "I don't think that those words mean anything anymore. They defined publishing in the 20th century. Today, they are a barrier."

A little case study. In her post about the New York Times' plans for charging for online content last week, Katharine Mieszkowski included a link to Jeff Sonderman's history lesson at NewsFuturist about the price of newspapers.

She wasn't the only one to do so, and the next day Sonderman dug into his analytics and wrote a post, headlined "How viral ideas spread online," about where the links come from when a piece breaks big.

His conclusion: "Ideas like this spread through social networks, peer-to-peer, then find their way into blogs and MSM sources next." MSM is how the cool kids say "mainstream media." Keep in mind Sonderman's conclusion is from a sample size of one, but it tracks with plenty of other anecdotal experience.

He writes that his initial tweet about his post was re-tweeted around, first among friends, then by big-time journalism thinkers Jay Rosen and Jim Brady. Eventually the post "got the attention of some mainstream news sites and blogs, including The Guardian, Media Bistro and Salon."

Wait a minute. Salon? Mainstream?

Media Bistro, a company that provides services and hosts events for media professionals, is big but hardly mainstream. A quick survey of my non-media friends revealed nary a soul who'd heard of it, and even some of my friends in the business don't know it. The Guardian is a big ol' honkin' legacy-media newspaper, though also a major and innovative player online. It's as mainstream as mainstream gets.

But Salon? Interesting question.

So I asked it. I asked my friends, co-workers, Facebook friends and Twitter followers if Salon is mainstream media. And the answer came flooding back: We don't know!

Actually there were as many different answers as answerers, and that's the real answer. About as many people said yes as no, with a few tap-dances around the question mixed in. But everybody had one thing in common: Their own custom definition of the word "mainstream."

Some people based their definition on ideology, some on circulation, others on revenue. Some used quality as a yardstick, others judged by how often representatives of the joint show up on TV. There's no such thing as mainstream anymore, one friend said. Another said Salon is mainstream, "but a kind of MSM 2.0."

Anderson comes across as a jerk at the beginning of that Der Spiegel interview. "Let's talk about the future of journalism," interviewer Frank Hornig says, and Anderson pouts, "This is going to be a very annoying interview. I don't use the word journalism." He also doesn't use those other words: media, news, newspapers.

But behind the rudeness, he has a point. What do these words mean? If everyone with a smart phone is a journalist, what is journalism? Never mind mainstream media, if anyone can reach the worldwide world instantly with start-up costs in the tens of dollars, what is media?

I don't agree with Anderson that these words should be jettisoned. There are babies in that bathwater. But it's telling that so many of the words we use to describe communication have lost so much of their meaning.

That's something to keep in mind any time you hear the pessimists moan about how the Web and free content and citizen journalism are destroying quality journalism, and also when you hear the optimists reassuring you that everything's going to be all right, that we'll figure it all out and it'll be great.

I'm with the optimists, but remember: Our world is so disrupted, so chaotic, so new that we really don't know what we're talking about.

Shoot, we don't even know what the words mean.

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"media" has always been a miserable word, even if you ignore the singular/plural headaches.

Today, the same word means "news distributors" to "mainstream" people. But use the word "media", among software developers, also means "recorded audi0 or video data." And then there's an even older usage among hardware engineers, to whom "media" means "the thing you store data on" (like a disk or a tape).

The vocabulary confusion you record is real. But our words have always harbored much more ambiguity than we think...
Well, Salon has been referenced on the floor of Congress, has been used as a jumping-off point for newspaper stories (e.g., the VA hospital scandal), and Joan Walsh appears regularly on TV. Maybe it's just me, but when you start getting cross-pollination between "traditional" media--newspaper, radio, television--and web media, you're definitely bumping up against "mainstream." HuffPo, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (U.S. Attorney scandal), Andrew Sullivan (Iran election), and Nate Silver (election polls) all seem to be in this category. In my view, anyway.

Not you personally, though, King. Santa Cruz alumni (other than Dana Priest) don't generally get high-level exposure. Sorry, dude. Maybe Joan will ask you to pinch-hit for her on Hardball or something?
I haven't heard a convincing argument as to why or how Salon is "maintstream." I'm all ears.
What's interesting here is that the questions presented here are, on their face, so basic that they almost seem silly.
The questions seem basic because it is a valid and important underlying question that, as you say, is still being answered.
In a way we are seeing the tangible deconstruction of language and meaning in regard to information. Derrida would have loved this. He also would have had an interesting thing or two to say about all this.
Interesting and thought provoking post.
I often mention the MSM, and I have a pretty good idea who I mean. It's a fairly limited group: American news organisations and reporters with a national audience.

So the MSM would include the national broadcasters, as well as newspapers like the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal (and possibly, though not definitely, a few others). Time and Newsweek would qualify, while Salon would not (but Joan Walsh might, due to frequent TV exposure). Drudge, DailyKos and Huffington are on the waiting list for membership...

These institutions are few in number, but have great influence on the political debate. And they do seem to follow the same script to a remarkable degree. But you can agree with them and still not be part of the MSM. The reach is the thing, not the output.
I'm kind of surprised that Salon would think of itself as alternative. Liberal, yes. But in general your readership is educated baby boomers. You adhere to mainstream standards of journalism (and I mean that in a nice way.) Features are, I assume, fact checked. Nobody, save Camille Paglia, is invited to rant too freely or ridiculously. And your editor in chief is asked regularly to represent sane, intelligent opinion.

When I think of alternative journalism, I think of journalism that is risky in both good and bad ways. The last really bad risk Salon took was publishing that RFK vaccination piece. And even that was done in tandem with Rolling Stone.

Face it, Salon is good. And it's safe.
I wish Marshall McLuhan were alive to read this. :) Excellent post.
I don't agree with Anderson that these words should be jettisoned. There are babies in that bathwater. But it's telling that so many of the words we use to describe communication have lost so much of their meaning.

I wonder how long it took after the invention of the printing press for words like "scribe" to be replaced by "typesetter" or "editor" or for a word like "scriptorium" to be replaced by "publishing house" or "magazine."

I think Anderson's point is a solid one. We are in a new world with new rules. Scribes and scriptoriums died with the invention of the printing press, and newspapers and "journalism" died with the invention of web 2.0 blogging platforms. What replaces it may look similar, as the new "publishing houses" looked similar to the old "scriptoriums" but it will be something wholly new, directed toward the new technology while jettisoning the assumptions of the old technology.

MSM journalists today who insist that blogs are destroying their craft remind me of scribes railing against the new Gutenberg press because it put them out of a job. Ya, the new web is going to put people like that out of a job, but we shouldn't worry about them any more than we should have worried about the scribes who couldn't get their head around Gutenberg's new press.
What Media? Corporate sponsored, controlled and manufactured media. What media are we trying to save exactly. If the Media were doing its job people would not be trying to fill in the holes. I say power to the people!!
Hm. Do journalists sacrifice the right to be called "people"?
It's not that the words have *lost* their meaning, that they've been deconstructed, but rather that they've accreted so *much* meaning. That in turn requires a bit more work to tease out which meanings we wish to convey.

When I say "journalist," I mean someone who gets paid to write about current events (the news). I'm not claiming that "journalist" doesn't have other meanings, but anyone who reads *me* at least knows what I mean now when I say that Kaufman is a journalist whereas I am not.

Not using words is kinda stupid, in my opinion, especially for someone who is in the business of using words.
I think Salon is mainstream, and it is lucky you got in the game so early. Everything is moving online and has been for over a decade. People talk about the death of the newspaper and traditional sources, but it is just the same economic trend. Borders and Tower Records loses to Amazon or download sites like iTunes. The news is more current online than overnight papers. We are a virtual society and paper media is vanishing for the most part. Magazines are still holding their own, but do I want to constantly recycle the Philadelphia Enquirer, or simply go online and find links from Yahoo or any number of online news sites linking to the AP, Reuters, etc? People don't want to wait for the pony express anymore. Telegraph, telephone, fax, radio and now the internet provide instant information.
What's "mainstream" or not, I think, all depends on your perspective. It can't be measured by the particular medium involved, anyway. There are still a whole lot of non-mainstream print products out there, for instance, while a whole lot of Twittering and Facebooking and such is naked marketing/brandbuilding by individuals and institutions surely looking to go mainstream, if not already there. I think it's more the message than the medium. And while it doesn't happen often enough anymore, I think newspapers and magazines, just like blogs and web sites, can offer non-MSM messages. (Another philosophical question: If newspaper journalism is dead, is it still mainstream?)
Reporting reporting about reporting.

The most correct thing said in the interview was that " There is no law that says that industries have to remain at any given size." Businesses will come and go, people with jobs will lose them and new people will discover new ways to make a living at this. It's just the way time goes. I understand many journalists find this an important issue to think about and discuss, but there is very little to actually do but wait and see.
Just read Anderson's post. To be perfectly honest, he comes across as arrogant and over-opinionated, which makes me severely doubt his observations.
I think Anderson's a little too enthralled with his own mythic guru-hood these days.
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