Register stumbles lead to strong words between media thinkers

aaron-kushner-usc.jpgClay Shirky is an NYU academic who has been analyzing the intersection of media and technology for a long time. For whatever reason, on his blog he went on a rant Tuesday about the failure of other media pundits to call bullshit on the Aaron Kushner experiment at the Orange County (and now Los Angeles) Register. He reduces the future of journalism to a battle between what he calls realists and nostalgists. (That simplification is disappointingly generic — I thought Shirky was a deeper thinker than that. But whatever.) And he complains that media analyst Ken Doctor, who has had the most access to Kushner and has written the most about the Register, and the Columbia Journalism Review's Ryan Chittum misinformed their readers by failing to call out Kushner.

There’s no nice way to say this, so I might just as well get to it: Kushner’s plan was always dumb and we should celebrate its demise, not because it failed (never much in doubt) but because it distracted people with the fantasy of an easy out for dealing with the gradual end of profits from print....

People who ought to have known better, like Ryan Chittum at Columbia Journalism Review and Ken Doctor at Nieman, wrote puff pieces for Kushner, because they couldn’t bear to treat him like the snake-oil salesman he is....The really terrible thing is that both Chittum and Doctor understood from the beginning what made Kushner’s plan a disaster. They just couldn’t bring themselves to give it to their readers straight.


What happened to Chittum and Doctor is endemic to media reporting generally — an industry that prides itself on pitiless public scrutiny of politics and industry has largely lost the will to cover itself with any more skepticism than sports reporters rooting for the home team...When you have an audience mostly made up of nostalgists, there’s not much market demand for unvarnished truth. This kind of boosterism wouldn’t matter so much if it were only reaching weepy journos whose careers started in the Reagan administration. But the toxic runoff from CJR and Nieman’s form of unpaid PR is poisoning the minds of 19-year-olds.

Chittum's immediate response was quick and on Twitter.

He followed up with a regret for the FU, by the way. Shirky wrote a whole new blog item to further detail his case against Chittum. Then today Doctor wrote a long retort, Print still matters, even if some would like to believe it shouldn’t.

I have to say, I find it funny to be called an apologist for the legacy news industry, as Clay Shirky suggested in an overnight post....

I call ‘em as I see ‘em — the dunderheads and the dreamers, and all in between. My quest remains the same: finding new and more sustainable ways to pay good journalists to their work....I make no apology for my coverage. Could I have ramped up the skepticism 20 percent? Sure, and maybe I should have, but the balance of concern was there. As I covered Kushner’s Orange County Register revolution — and let’s recall all of it has happened in less than two years — I figured better to give the guy his rope, even if ends up wrapping it around his neck in record time. Better to do that then deride him out of the gate as a clueless print lover and let it go at that. Within the Register model, wherever it goes from here, there were and are many good ideas. We’re journalists. We should separate the wheat from the chaff rather than throw out the whole harvest.


Though Kushner’s recklessness now seems clear, as I detailed recently, there were plenty of speed bumps along the way, for anyone who took the time to read. Maybe it was the scene of the action — some 3,000 miles from the would-be epicenter of all news, Manhattan — that has something to with Shirky’s dyspeptic take.

In truth, the Register expansion was one of the biggest stories in the news business in the last two years. It represented both the largest hiring of daily journalists anywhere and served as a neat counterpoint to Advance’s day-slimming strategy. What some people miss in the Register staff hiring is that much of it simply replaced Register journalists who’d been lost in the Great Recession and bankruptcy....

More deeply, the digital-or-die argument just seems tired.

In short, Doctor sees print revenue remaining part of the equation for many media companies, while Shirky seems to argue there the debate is binary and there is only one right way to see the future (and that anyone who doesn't see it his way is just an old nostalgist.) Whichever side of that debate you take, notice that no one outside of Santa Ana is arguing anymore that Kushner has some magic formula for success that deserves patience.

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