Thursday, November 27, 2008

Jeff Jarvis: The Web Guru

Jeff Jarvis: The Web Guru

If you wanted to wipe out the American media establishment in one blow, you might have targeted the Grand Ballroom on the third floor of the Plaza hotel at around 9 a.m. on Nov. 12.

The Foursquare Conference was organized by media mogul Steve Rattner’s Quadrangle Partners, and had the kind of exclusive list Mr. Rattner is known for. Barry Diller attended the conference, as did Lachlan Murdoch, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and Tribune chief Sam Zell.

It was just the place for Jeff Jarvis, the tall 54-year-old professorial-looking guy who was looking intently through unfashionable glasses at the participants of a panel discussion on the state of American media, from his perch up front.

The blogger, professor and media consultant has, through his Web sites, seminars, journalism classes, panel-discussion appearances and the occasional flame-war, preached for some time now the gospel of New Media. These days, it’s taking hold—and not just among the patchwork constituency of media studies majors, technophile utopians and media malcontents left and right. To oversimplify it: The old business of journalism has failed. It was full of monopolies, a lot of egos, a lot of overhead; presided over by a medieval guild of protectionist editors, copy editors, managers; staffed by reporters who were doomed to stand alongside “competitors” to cycle out the same press-conference reports for only marginally different audiences.

A new model of journalism, one that starts in his West 40th Street classroom, begins with new ideas, a smaller staff, and a direct cooperation with the public to contribute stories, ideas, videos and more.

If newsrooms are getting smaller, anyway, it’s time to rethink them. Critics, opinion writers, lifestyle writers are all a waste of space. In an industry with few resources, throw them overboard first. Editors just get in the way. They should teach the public how to report for itself, instead of coming between them and the news.

On a recent Friday evening, he was sitting with a glass of red wine in a corner booth at Lindy’s, the fading retro commuter bar inside the Hotel Pennsylvania across the street from Penn Station.

Beginning from a premise anyone can accept—truisms, critics might say—he builds his argument subtly—insidiously, again, a critic might say.

“We should embrace change,” he said. “Instead, too often we fight change. That’s the nature of organizations and institutions that hold power. Change might mean losing power. The great and magnificent irony of online—this would really send [Ron] Rosenbaum’s spine up—is that in my blog, in what I call Jarvis’ Law, is that I say if you give people control, we will use it. If you don’t, you lose us. The counterintuitive way of the Internet age is when you give up control, you win. The old way was to maintain control to win.”

Mr. Jarvis speaks in short, PowerPoint-ready sentences. And that’s because he often gives them! About a month ago, he organized a CUNY conference that developed models for a new newsroom.

In one session, a group convened concluded that you needed only a few dozen people to cover the entire city of Philadelphia.

“This city used to have 400 in a newsroom, now we have 35,” he said. “Surely that’s not enough to cover news in this community. But! You have the opportunity to create new networks. Which would include, yes, bloggers and freelancers and could also include recently laid-off journalists who can start their own businesses.

“Is the new model better or worse?” he asked. “The first answer is, that’s irrelevant. This is how people connect with each other for information now. Having said that, it’s better. I have more sources for information than I ever had before.”

Editors, he argues, can be cut significantly, because they don’t create value the way reporters do.

“Community organizers” is the term he uses for the editors of the future: the people who teach “citizens” how to call and verify information; how to do sourcing; all those things you would learn on the first day of your CUNY J-school class.

These ideas, which he’s been trying to sell to journalists for years are resonating now, with their cash-strapped publishers: opening up journalism, albeit in a careful way, to the masses. If it seems unlikely that a major news organization like The Wall Street Journal would turn its editors into community organizers, that might just be because they’re not that interested in finding new jobs for the editors they want to chuck.

“We’re always looking to streamline the editing process,” said Alan Murray, the executive editor of, in a telephone interview. “Look, this is a challenging time for our economic models, and we certainly don’t want to reduce the reporting we do, and we’re looking for efficiencies all over the place.”

To meet Mr. Jarvis is to wonder how he can have become the bogeyman to so many in his profession. He is tall with that recessive posture that is meant to compensate, the body repelling the attention his ideas so readily attract. He has a good face, not a frightening one; when he speaks on anything, however small, the circumspection and intentionality ripples around his gray-stubbled, professorial face.

But his is a model of journalism that gives a lot of old-school journalists a vague feeling of nausea.

Mr. Jarvis had shown up at the Foursquare conference pretty revved up by one of them, Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum (formerly a columnist for this newspaper), who had referred to Mr. Jarvis in an excoriating piece as a wannabe Marshall McLuhan who is “visibly running for New Media Pontificator in Chief.”

“He’s become increasingly heartless about the reporters, writers, and other ‘content providers’ who have been put out on the street by the changes in the industry,” Mr. Rosenbaum wrote. “Not only does he blame the victims, he denies them the right to consider themselves victims. They deserve their miserable fate—and if they don’t know it, he’ll tell them why at great length. Sometimes it sounds as if he’s virtually dancing on their graves.”

“Sadly, Rosenbaum doesn’t debate the idea and history and fate of journalism, which might be productive or at least provocative,” Mr. Jarvis wrote in a response to Mr. Rosenbaum on his blog, early the following afternoon. “Instead, like a pissy third grader, he attacks me. Because of my opinion, he says he doesn’t ‘like’ me anymore. Take that, Jarvis! You can’t sit at my lunch table ever again! He reminds me of that same third grader who, when he doesn’t study for a test and sees the results of his inattention, whines, cries and stomps his little feet, declaring, ‘It’s not fair.’ No, kid, life ain’t.”

And added: “Whether we save all the journalists today is entirely another matter and not my goal. Rosenbaum believes that makes me heartless. I think it makes me realistic. And we need some realism in this business.”


A lot of the graves Mr. Rosenbaum accused Mr. Jarvis of dancing on were dug by Sam Zell, the flame-throwing owner of the Tribune Company, which includes the L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun.

Mr. Zell has said in interviews that his purchase of the Tribune company has been “the deal from hell.” He’s cut hundreds of jobs at all of the Tribune’s newspapers, including more than 250 jobs this year in the L.A. Times newsroom, and has cut roughly 500 pages for news each week from the company’s newspapers. He also hasn’t exactly been the biggest fan of his reporters! Back in February, he yelled “Fuck you” at one staffer, and in a trip to the Tribune Company’s D.C. bureau, he told reporters that the system they had set up—little fiefdoms fighting for turf—were, essentially, an embarrassment.

It’s been enough that a group of current and former L.A. Times staffers have filed a class action lawsuit against him for damaging the “reputation and business of the company.”

“The institutional integrity of the Los Angeles Times and other Tribune papers is being seriously damaged piece by piece,” the complaint reads in part, between claims about complicated corporate buyout issues that are probably what landed them in court in the first place. “Certain foreign bureaus and the Sunday opinion and book review sections of the largest newspaper in America’’ second largest media market—the Los Angeles Times—have been closed down. Numerous veteran reporters have been terminated … The Los Angeles Times Magazine now reports to the business department rather than to the editorial department, a clear violation of journalistic ethics.”

As Mr. Jarvis watched, Mr. Zell took the stage at the Plaza to answer a question put to him in the panel discussion. There were too many editors at his newspapers; a ridiculous number of them! How can they ever have expected to be competitive with all those editors?

Mr. Zell is not popular with most journalists, but not many journalists were there. When the panel had broken up and it was time for questions, Mr. Jarvis was one of the first to volunteer himself.

“Hi, Jeff Jarvis,” he said. “Mr. Zell, first, I may speak for others here when I say I wish you would do this more often and talk publicly more often. It’s great fun. I’m a journalist, and I got attacked in Salon this morning, or Slate this morning—I get them confused—for holding journalists responsible for the fate of journalists. Is it possible, do you think, to change the culture of journalism? What’s the major changes that need to be made? Are you making any progress in changing that culture, and, if so, how?”

Mr. Zell had a rather long response, but among his observations was that “the newsrooms have basically never recovered from Watergate, and everybody wants to be Woodward and Bernstein, and that’s the definition of success.”

This was an invitation-only affair, and the invitations weren’t given lightly; no press was allowed to cover it in the traditional sense, though Ms. Lipman was allowed to post some stuff on her Web site in exchange for sponsoring the conference.

In the back of the room stood New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Sitting up with the panel was Tribune Company owner Mr. Zell.

“At the FourSquare conference, two or three executives or former executives from big media companies came over to me to say how appalled they were that Zell never said the word ‘journalism,’” said Mr. Jarvis later in an interview with The Observer. “All kinds of things. And I said, ‘Name me three disrupters in the American news business.’ Silence. Zell is a grand disrupter. He may not be the disrupter you choose, but he’s one we have.”

But to us, Jeff Jarvis looks like the real thinker, the real disruptor. Mr. Zell is just his accidental amanuensis.

“He’s always been ideological,” said Nick Denton, the publisher of the Gawker Media blog empire and an old friend of Mr. Jarvis. He said it was he who introduced his friend to the convept of blogging years ago. “He’s settled into his role as being the—what is it? He’s like the defector. There are other Internet ideologues and other Internet supremacists, but of all the Internet supremacists, he is the one who has betrayed his origins in print. Of all the people who grew up in newspapers and magazines, he is the one who has most clearly abandoned them. Over the last five years, he has slammed newspapers and magazines print as being useless and unable to change. And doomed.”

Jeff Jarvis worked in print for years. He worked with the San Francisco Examiner, where he wrote a column up to six days a week—with his words counts coming in at around 1,500 words per column. He was an editor at the Daily News, a TV critic for both People and TV Guide, and he was also the founding editor of Entertainment Weekly for Time Inc. before—as often happens to launch editors—he was shown the door roughly six months after its launch.

In the 1990s, he worked with Advance Publications to help Condé Nast’s Web sites, and for its newspaper sites.

He found blogging in 2001 after he was in a PATH train when the first plane struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. After pulling together some quick reporting, he took to the Internet. Eventually, his blog, BuzzMachine, was born out of that.

For years since then, Mr. Jarvis has been on the margins with those citizen-journalism guys who you’d see linked on Romenesko, or occasionally pop up on TV. He’s had a media column for The Guardian, he worked for Advance Publication for years, and he’s done a little consulting with The Washington Post recently.

But for much of the last three or four years his pronouncements have fallen on deaf if polite ears in the media establishment. He’s a nice guy, but a bit … strident.

“We won’t save journalism the way it was,” he wrote on his blog back in March of 2005, sounding a little less confident than he does nowadays. “We shouldn’t if we could. The business must change. Some in newsrooms think they should not change, that change is sacrilegious. Of course, that’s ridiculous. From a consumer perspective, if the habits, needs and abilities of the audience change, then so must journalism. From a business perspective, if every other industry in this country has gone through restructuring as it finds new ways to do business, then why shouldn’t journalism? From a journalistic perspective, well, wouldn’t you hope that journalists would be the most curious, the most eager to explore the new? O.K., that last one is a straight line.

“But here’s the news: I am starting to see executives in old, big media figure this out and seek out this change. Will it work? Who the hell knows?”

Three and a half years later, it’s old news. Mr. Jarvis’ message is penetrating.

“I think he’s done a good job translating Internet commonplace into language that traditional publishers can understand,” said Mr. Denton.

Even at the heights of American journalistic success, the air is getting thin. The Times Company stock has lost roughly 65 percent of its value this year, Standard and Poors lowered the company’s credit rating to “Junk” bond status and its marketing capitalization is dangerously close to falling under $1 billion. Last week, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. announced that there would be a 75 percent cut to the company’s dividend, the pool of income that brought the Sulzberger-Ochs family $25.1 million last year.

Mr. Sulzberger, who attended that session at the Plaza and is a personal friend and former colleague of Mr. Rattner, stood near the back and left shortly after that Q&A session, his reaction inscrutable to our spies in the room.

“He’s an ideologue,” said Jon Landman, deputy managing editor for digital journalism at The New York Times, who is answerable for much of the newspaper’s own emergent Web strategy, when The Observer interviewed him on the phone. “And the world needs ideologues. He has bright ideas. I would say, actually, he’s a utopian.”

But when utopians win, he said, “they turn into Mao Zedong.”

“Jarvis’ own career depends on a permanent revolution,” said Mr. Denton. “He needs it to be 1792 [in France] so he can continue to get his consulting gigs and so people can listen to him when he says, ‘The system is broken! It’s broken!’”


On a recent Wednesday afternoon at the CUNY School of Journalism, Jeff Jarvis sat at the front of a classroom, conducting a three-hour seminar on entrepreneurial journalism.

Mr. Jarvis was listening to each of his 10 students, one by one, give presentations on Web sites they will compete for funding to develop.

They were listing specifics on how much traffic their site would generate, where they’d get ads—a lot of them think Nike!—and how much it would cost to get their site going. One person wanted to create a site that would report news from Washington Heights; another wanted to create a New Yorker-like news site in Denmark that would start with virtually no overhead and open its editorial meetings to the public.

The workshop was meant to prepare the students for a final presentation next month to determine who will win the grant.

As each student presented, the classroom looked less like a grad seminar than it did the set of a reality show, like Project Runway. Student prepares news outfit; advice is handed out; judgment is rendered.

And Mr. Jarvis was playing the role of the tough-love, good guy Tim Gunn.

“I really think you’ll need to whiteboard this,” said Mr. Jarvis, in an incredibly deep anchormanlike voice, to one student.

Mr. Jarvis is preparing to send out the next generation of journalists. Also revolutionaries: This is the generation that will finally transform journalism, and rescue it from financial failure, topple its accepted hierarchies and put the field back at the service of the people.

But for most newspaper editors, he remains like that lovable and incredibly intelligent Marxist history professor from college, whose ideas leave a lasting imprint but whose total philosophy reeks of a certain simple-minded completism.

“He’s an all-or-nothing thinker,” said Mr. Landman. “I think subtlety isn’t his greatest virtue.”

“I still think his concept of a minimally edited, largely self-regulating information world tilts too far toward a romantic’s vision of anarchy,” wrote Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, in an email. “And the proliferation of blogs, while wonderful in many respects, has yet to make a compelling case for the wisdom of crowds. Sometimes citizen journalism resembles mob journalism, or vigilante journalism.”

“On the growing role of editors and reporters, I think directionally he’s right but he may take it farther than I would take it,” said Mr. Murray, the Journal editor.

“I respect Jeff’s thinking, but I don’t mean to say for a second I agree with it all,” said Jim Willse, the editor of the Star-Ledger whose newsroom is getting a 40 percent cut. He has worked with Mr. Jarvis off and on for the last three decades. “He’s not given to understatement. I think he and I part company on a number of points that he makes. One of them is the reliance on whatever the phrase of the moment is—citizen journalism or pro-am journalism—and I think that in his enthusiasm for a new newsroom model he undervalues the worth of good old-fashioned reporting.”

“For someone like me who is living the life of newspaper editor in difficult times, Jeff is a very valuable source of ideas because he’s lived the life of mainstream media as a magazine editor, columnist and an entrepreneur,” said Mr. Willse. “He’s not just sitting in the bleachers bloviating about media transforming. He’s got a good grounding in the economics of it.”

“Over the years he and I have edged somewhat closer,” wrote Mr. Keller, the Times editor, in an email. “Not to put words in Jeff’s mouth, but he now, I think, acknowledges the utility of professional judgment, skills and standards in helping an audience navigate the new information world, and the advantages of having stable institutions to pay for such things as a Baghdad bureau and to protect First Amendment rights in court. In turn, I’ve embraced the value of the audience as a participant in gathering, truth-squadding and appraising information.”

“That is bullshit,” Mr. Jarvis said when we told him what Mr. Keller had said. But, it seemed, he was directing the charge at us. “That is journalistic cliché. That’s what every story tries to do: create a conflict. That conflict doesn’t exist. We’re all trying to figure what to do about it, and we all should have different answers and experiment with those answers. To say it’s traditional against something else is bullshit. And you can quote me on that. That’s dangerous.

“I’ve been forced into this blogger-versus-MSM thing for a while and I refuse to play the game anymore. I don’t give a damn if Bill Keller is closer to me or I’m closer to him. The question is: What are we all doing to advance this? I am delighted to see The New York Times advance in many, many ways. I think they’re brilliant.”

– By John Koblin

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