Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Kos and "Community"

Kos has an interesting take on a Howie Kurtz lament about the decline of media. Here's Kurtz:

Newspapers are probably dying as a mass medium, except perhaps for elite or specialized audiences. Cutting down forests, printing the product and trucking it across the region no longer make economic sense. What is lost is the sense of community when everyone read the daily rag.
This is what Kos quoted. I think this is a bit unfair, though, since it was in the context of these preceding grafs:

The online cacophony that would follow the demise of newspapers would be fast, furious and fun, insightful and opinionated. But let's face it: Who would pay for a Baghdad bureau, or even a bureau in Albany or Annapolis?

I still have the buffet mentality, the idea that news, sports, entertainment and so on can make for a tasty package. Buffet folks like to get a fill, a briefing, a contextual sense of what's important. But so many others in the iTunes age would rather cherry-pick, clicking on one story and rushing off, window shoppers who rarely come inside.
Now the argument makes a bit more sense. The internet really does change the way you engage with the news; it tends to make you focus more on individual stories and issues, removing the gestalt of stories you get with a physical newspaper. Couple these individualized stories with comment threads, and you have serious tunnel-vision.

But here is Kos' response:

Groan. This "sense of community" bullcrap has been also spouted about the rise of good television. You see, in the 60s, 80 percent of Americans watched one of the three networks' nightly news. I mean it was just the three -- ABC, CBS, and NBC. It was a world in which Walter Conkrite could turn on the war in Vietnam, and the rest of the country would follow suit. If you're a media type, that's the ideal -- unparalleled influence and access to a vast national audience.

But cable TV, and then satellite TV, became hugely popular because people weren't happy with the limited crap provided by those three networks. Now you have hundreds of channels, most focused on narrow niche topics that were otherwise ignored in years past. For example, as I type this I'm watching coverage of the Giro d' Italia on Universal Sports -- a network focused on less popular but niche-y sports like diving, international hockey, sailing, track and field, mountain biking and cycling. It's the first time I've ever been able to watch the second most important cycling event in the world on television, and all because of the creation of yet another niche network. So the more the merrier!

Same thing has happened in print, with niche media proliferating on the web, and people unhappy with their local coverage splintering off to read about the stuff they are most interest in. So that "sense of community" thing? It never existed. Newspapers have always served the wealthiest members of their communities -- the people that will buy the stuff that advertisers were peddling. So ethnic communities have always been underserved. In San Francisco, Asians make up over a third of the population -- the largest single ethnic group in the city -- yet the San Francisco Chronicle doesn't have a single Asian columnist in its stable. Do you think the Asian community sees the Chronicle as a member of its community? Of course not. And given they were traditionally a relatively poor immigrant community, the Chron had little interest in engaging that part of the city.

All around the country, you see the major metro dailies completely ignore entire chunks of their cities. Why do you think the New York Times writes story after story after story talking about those poor unemployed Wall Street types no longer able to buy caviar or $800 doll houses for their daughters?

The reason alternate media has taken off was because the traditional media didn't deliver a product people wanted. If people felt a "sense of community" from their newspaper, perhaps they may have stuck with the product. But they don't, hence it's easy to toss it aside for the countless alternatives at the public's disposal.

And these new niche publications online are a community of their own, based not on geographic proximity, but on shared interests.

So I have no idea what Kurtz is talking about when he decries the lose of "sense of community". I have found far more community online than I ever did in those dark, pre-internet days.
Well, first, of course YOU have, kos. You run the most successful liberal blog in the world, that has a giant dedicated community. Those people who aren't Markos Moulitsas may differ about how much community they've found online.

Markos also misses the point. Kurtz is lamenting the way that things like the news brought people together. Because everybody saw the same stories and heard the same takes, they had the same rough understanding of what was going on in the world. Yes, that understanding was often blinkered, xenophobic and overly conventional, but it was shared. Shared experiences are extraordinarily important.

Those shared experiences are gone. People are more atomized than ever, thanks to the abundance of choices of media outlets, with the attendant breakdown of what the hell "media" is supposed to mean. They often have little to do with their community; kos' assertions aside, it's the local media that have been taking it in the shorts. That segment of the alternative media that isn't either funded by hooker ads or wealthy sponsors has been having a rough time of it lately, and replacing it with bloggers simply isn't going to cut it. We aren't you, kos.

Sure, it means that people who have been underserved by the previous community's media outlets now have ones to call their own. And, yes, they read/watch/listen to it. But does that mean they've been included into the broader media? No, of course not. They're as isolated and atomized as everybody else, focusing on their own community at the expense of others.

Saying "well, the newspaper was only serving the elite" is just foolish, too. I don't disagree that that was the case. But even after all this time, the the "media outlets" and "communities" on the Internet are still dominated by wealthy white males. If you want to bring the poor in, then don't give them their own little playground to be subsequently ignored by the guys with the money. Bring in publicly funded media, the Yin to the atomized Internet's Yang.

I get what he's saying. I get why he's saying it. And certainly Markos should be the champion of internet communities, he's had whole conventions named after him. But tunnel-vision is part of the problem, kos. Not the solution.

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