Has the digital medium become the message?

David Carr writes about Ezra Klein’s departure from the Washington Post. Klein, the Post’s highest profile blogger, is “going to Vox Media, the online home of SB Nation, a sports site, and The Verge, a fast-growing technology site.”

In making the switch, Mr. Klein is part of a movement of big-name journalists who are migrating from newspaper companies to digital start-ups. Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher left Dow Jones to form Re/code with NBC. David Pogue left The New York Times for Yahoo and Nate Silver for ESPN. At the same time, independent news sites like Business Insider, BuzzFeed and Vox have all received abundant new funding, while traffic on viral sites like Upworthy and ViralNova has exploded.

All the frothy news has led to speculation that a bubble is forming in the content business, but something more real is underway. I was part of the first bubble as a journalist at Inside.com in 2001 — an idea a decade ahead of its time — and this feels very different.

The web was more like a set of tin cans and a thin wire back then, so news media upstarts had trouble being heard. With high broadband penetration, the web has become a fully realized consumer medium where pages load in a flash and video plays without stuttering. With those pipes now built, we are in a time very similar to the early 1980s, when big cities were finally wired for cable. What followed was an explosion of new channels, many of which have become big businesses today.

The same holds true for digital. Organizations like BuzzFeed, Gawker, The Huffington Post, Vice and Vox, which have huge traffic but are still relatively small in terms of profit, will eventually mature into the legacy media of tomorrow.

More and more, it’s becoming apparent that digital publishing is its own thing, not an additional platform for established news companies. They can buy their way into it, but their historical advantages are often offset by legacy costs and bureaucracy.

In digital media, technology is not a wingman, it is The Man. Kenneth Lerer, manager of Lerer Ventures and one of the backers of BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post, says that whenever he is pitched an editorial idea, he always asks who the technology partner is. How something is made and published is often as important as what is made.

Carr declares: “Great digital journalists consume and produce content at the same time, constantly publishing what they are reading and hearing.”

That’s true if “great” means popular and fast.

But speed is the fetish of the digital religion and there’s no merit in being able to get everything fast if the price is that it becomes stripped of value.

The commercial success of digital journalism may well depend on the creation junk media that’s just as palatable as junk food — cheap, fast, and with little nutritional value. But maybe what we really need is something less tailored to mass appeal — a counterpart to the slow food movement, where content is carefully prepared, chewed slowly, digested well, and less inclined to cause heartburn.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email