OK, old media defenders. Let's hear you on the case of Condé Nast trying to keep its own journalism out of Russia.
Let's hear about how long track records of publication, big, expensive newsrooms and stables of press-freedom-safeguarding lawyers serve as foundations for the difficult work of investigative journalism, while bloggers and other new-media types are -- what was it? Ah, I remember -- "a bunch of pipsqueaks out there talking about what the real journalists do."
Condé Nast's GQ magazine hired veteran war reporter Scott Anderson to write about Russia. His piece, published in the U.S. September issue, is about a series of bombings in Chechnya that killed hundreds of people. Those attacks have been blamed on Chechen separatists, but Anderson quotes a former KGB agent at length, on the record, implicating then-Prime Minister, now President Vladimir Putin.
As David Folkenflik of NPR reports, the Russian government has been known to "turn up the heat" on journalists when it doesn't like what they write or say. The heat can take the form of defamation lawsuits or, even more punishingly, politicized audits that can, in the words of one expert, "paralyze a publication for months and send advertisers fleeing."
A top lawyer for Condé Nast, which publishes Russian editions of several of its magazines, including GQ, issued a memo saying the September U.S. edition of GQ should not be distributed in Russia, nor should the Anderson article be posted on the Web site or allowed to be shown to Russian officials anywhere. Condé Nast executives and lawyers refused to talk to Folkenflik, he reports.
It's a paradox of legacy media: The very things that make expensive journalism possible in the first place -- corporate and legal muscle -- began working against that journalism as soon as it saw daylight because the journalism threatened to damage the corporate and legal muscle.
Folkenflik quotes Jane Kirtley, an attorney and professor of ethics at the University of Minnesota journalism school, criticizing Condé Nast by saying, "It goes with the territory of a news organization to speak for those who can't speak —- and to bear the consequences."
Kirtley also points out that as a practical matter, trying to throw a blanket over the story won't work. "These stories will get out, they will get read in Russia," she says. "They're being somewhat naive to believe that by limiting this to their American edition that somehow they're preventing this from being read."
And that's where new media comes in.
Gawker grabbed a copy of the magazine, scanned in the story and crowdsourced a translation.
"In an act of publishing cowardice," Gabriel Snyder writes, "Condé Nast has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent Russians from reading a GQ article criticizing Vladimir Putin. As a public service, we're running it here and ask for your help in translating it."
As of 2 p.m. EDT Friday, about an hour and a half after Snyder's original posting, he updated to say that volunteers were at work translating the piece. Gawker's headline was in Russian, and a translation of the opening page of the print piece was already online.
So yes, Anderson's piece cost a lot of money. He likely commands top dollar and he had to travel to Russia and spend some time on the story. No one's pretending that sites like Gawker are currently able to produce much or even any of the kind of important journalism that Anderson practiced here. The problem of online journalism needing to come up with a business model is real.
But once the story was in print, who was doing the real work of journalism? The pipsqueaks!
Of course, if and when the new media types, the bloggers and citizen journalists and all the rest of that crowd, put together a workable business model and become able to do expensive, investigative journalism of the kind Anderson did for GQ, they'll be in danger of becoming beholden to the business side as well. Nothing about being online, rather than in print, would make a news organization less likely to want to protect its legal and business interests in the same way Condé Nast has done in this case.
But can the Case of the Cowering Corporation move us off of this idea that legacy publishers, with their big newsrooms, deep pockets and powerful lawyers, are necessary for important journalism to happen? All that's necessary is a desire to see it and some money to pay for it. Once someone has those things, it doesn't matter what form the published work takes, how big the newsroom is or what's been published in the past.