By the power invested in the media

By the power invested in the media

According to the list makers at ‘Forbes’, I am the 50th most powerful person in the world — not as powerful as the Pope (No 5) but more powerful than the president of the United Arab Emirates (56). ‘Vanity Fair’, another arbiter of what matters, ranked me the 26th most influential person in the country.

‘The New York Observer’, narrowing the universe to New York, put me 15th on its latest ‘Power 150,’ a list that stretches from Michael Bloomberg to Lady Gaga. New York magazine asked Woody Allen to name the single most important person in our city; he named — aw, shucks — me.

The world conspires to convince me of my significance. A respected Hollywood screenwriter has purchased an option on my ‘life rights’ (a Faustian-sounding transaction, yes?) so that someone can portray me in a movie. When I did a radio call-in show a while back, a media reporter considered it an event of such urgency that he live-blogged the entire hour. Whatever I do, or don’t do, seems to be an event. Recently my sleepless wife sent out a midnight Twitter post — ‘Insomnia. Who else is awake?’ — but she inadvertently sent it on my Twitter account rather than her own, prompting a global Twitter forum on my state of mind.

You may ask yourself, as I often do: What the hell? I run a newspaper. I haven’t cured a disease, governed a country, built a business, discovered a galaxy or written a series of books about wizards or vampires. What makes me so important?

But these days even asking the question marks you as out of touch, the kind of naïf who thinks Bill Gates’s value to the human race increased when he moved from algorithms to poor children. It’s a media world, kids, and media begins with Me.

My putative status as the 50th most important person on Planet Earth derives in part from a belief that the editor of an important newspaper does not merely harvest the initiative of hard-working journalists but personally directs a vast, global conspiracy. I don’t. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

The other, more insidious reason that I have been deemed more important than the founder of Amazon (66th, says Forbes) or Hosni Mubarak (unrated, presciently) is that our fascination with capital-M Media is so disengaged from what really matters.

Much as the creative minds of Wall Street found a way to divorce investing from the messiness of tangible assets, enabling clients to buy shadows of shadows, we in Media have transcended earthbound activities like reporting, writing or picture-taking and created an abstraction — a derivative — called Media in which we invest our attention and esteem.

Possibly I am old-fashioned, but in these days when actual journalists are labouring at actual history, covering the fever of democracy in Arab capitals and the fever of austerity in American capitals, the obsession with the theoretical and self-referential feels to me increasingly bloodless. Then again, I am somewhat complicit on this score; as this magazine lands on doorsteps, I am due in Austin to be interrogated once again about ‘The Future of Journalism’.

Of course I care deeply about ‘The Future of Journalism’, and I know the upheavals in our business matter a great deal. But the orgy of self-reference is so indiscriminate, so trivialising. We have flocks of media oxpeckers who ride the backs of pachyderms, feeding on ticks. We have a coterie of learned analysts — Clay Shirky, Alan Mutter, Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and the rest — who meditate on the meta of media.

Devaluing institutions

By turning news executives into celebrities, we devalue the institutions that support them, the basics of craft and the authority of editorial judgment. (If I were vapourised by aliens tomorrow, my family would miss me, but the 1,100 journalists of ‘The New York Times’ would not miss a deadline.) Some once-serious news outlets give pride of place not to stories they think important but to stories that are ‘trending’ on Twitter — the ‘American Idol’-isation of news. And we have bestowed our highest honour — market valuation — not on those who labour over the making of original journalism but on aggregation.

‘Aggregation’ can mean smart people sharing their reading lists, plugging one another into the bounty of the information universe. It kind of describes what I do as an editor. But too often it amounts to taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own website and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. In Somalia this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.

The queen of aggregation is, of course, Arianna Huffington, who has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your website and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come.

How great is Arianna’s instinctive genius for aggregation? I once sat beside her on a panel in Los Angeles (on — what else? — ‘The Future of Journalism’). I had come prepared with a couple of memorised riffs on media topics, which I duly presented. Afterwards we sat down for a joint interview with a local reporter. A moment later I heard one of my riffs issuing verbatim from the mouth of Arianna. I felt so ... aggregated.
Last month, when AOL bought ‘The Huffington Post’ for $315 million, it was portrayed as a sign that AOL is moving into the business of creating stuff — what we used to call writing or reporting or journalism but we now call ‘content.’ Buying an aggregator and calling it a content play is a little like a company’s announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter.

Then again, some of the great aggregators, Arianna among them, seem to be experiencing a back-to-the-future epiphany. They seem to have realised that if everybody is an aggregator, nobody will be left to make real stuff to aggregate. Arianna has therefore hired a small stable of experienced journalists, including a few from here, to produce original journalism about business and politics.

There is no question that in times of momentous news, readers rush to find reliable firsthand witness and seasoned judgment. (In the first hour after Mubarak fell, ‘The Times’ website had an astounding one million page views, and friends at other major news organisations tell me they enjoyed a similar surge.)

I can’t decide whether serious journalism is the kind of thing that lures an audience to a site like ‘The Huffington Post’, or if that’s like hiring a top chef to fancy up the menu at Hooters. But if serious journalism is about to enjoy a renaissance, I can only rejoice. Gee, maybe we can even get people to pay for it.