Thursday, March 10, 2005

Putting your money where your foot is

"Who deserves to make money from what?"

I asked myself that question recently, just after I asked myself, "Should we put entrenched newspaper columnists in the stock, or just take away their salaries?"

The Internet has made the newspaper columnist obsolete. In the boring world of sociology, we call this "cultural lag": when material culture (communications) moves faster than non-material culture (hiring practices). It's the same reason most weddings are so boring: we use the same format we've used for a hundred years--back when the bride's and groom's family and friends lived in the same town and knew each other--and crammed a bunch of random co-workers, sorority sisters, and midwestern cousins into it, usually with a bad seating arrangement, topped with awful dance routines. If I ever get divorced, my divorce party is going to be exactly like everyone else's wedding.

Anyhoo...columnists.They're obsolete. With all the different and increasingly complex issues the average Engaged Citizen must consider these days, why do we have the same people weighing in on all of them? These people are paid to talk, not to know anything. If they are paid to know anything, they are paid to know extremely little about a lot. I don't mind Krugman on economics, or George Will on baseball (okay, I do, but for balance's sake...), but I can't bear to read one more inch of print on David Brooks's opinion on stay-at-home moms or the pathetic things Maureen Dowd does to keep her boyfriends around.

The only reason these people are still in the papers is because the wiring of our brains. If we see a face often enough, we develop a connection to it. The more exposure your brain has to anything, the harder that thing is wired into your brain, and more likely it will attach itself to other associations in your brain, including emotional ones. You're loyal to your local baseball team for the same reason that you keep reading those columnists. You've seen them so often that you've developed a connection. This is what makes a celebrity different than any other person. People become enamored of celebrities because they see their faces so often. You're exposed to it over and over again, and it becomes familiar. Why does your 11 year old daughter dress like a slut? Because the celebrities she follows dress like sluts. In reality, is that celebrity any different than any other human being your daughter knows, say her cousin or her dentist? No. It's just that she and the people she associates with see the celebrity much more often than their cousins or dentists.

The same with these columnists. Our brains want to see them there, just because they've been there before, and they match well with other things in our brain. But should newspapers really pay people to say what they think about something they don't really know much about? Especially when any semi-literate bag-of-bones (say, me) can set up a blog and express his opinion for the world to hear?

No, they shouldn't. Newspapers already accept op-eds from experts on certain issues. They should do that exclusively. Get rid of these hacks. Let them set up their own blogs and find something useful to do in the world.

The media and the blogosphere can't get enough of themselves right now, and everyone is making it seem like journalism needs to reinvent itself to make room for blogs. The truth is, only larger organizations have the resources and layers of review to do good, in-depth journalism. If we leave journalism to the blogs, to move past the occasional fact-check takedown and do real, accountable journalism, they are going to have to build up an organization to the point where they are no longer a blog but practically (gasp) mainstream media.

What blogs are doing is keeping the larger, self-accountable organizations more honest, and making the paid blabberati obsolete.

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