Elitism: A fork in the road for journalism

If there's one idea that's stuck in my head after the Future of Journalism conference at Harvard's Shorenstein Center, it's the notion of elitism.

Elitism is high political insult these days, if you believe what you hear from the babbleonians on cable TV's "news" channels. Various anti-Obama forces are painting him as elitist. Personally I'd much rather have a smart self-made elitist as president than an American aristocrat who's as dumb as a bucket of hair. Does that make me an elitist? Is elitism such a bad thing?

(For the record, I too went to Harvard. Three times! But I was just visiting!)

But I'm specificially interested in how elitism applies to journalism. Once again, I hear the prescient voice of Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson: "...a print-only newsletter for the elite and the elderly."

At the conference, Phil Meyer described one evolutionary path for newspaper journalism that leads to a specialized focus on the elite -- the layer of society that actually follows and cares about civic news. Such a niche might be narrow, and an elitist publication with an elitist business model might be more like a magazine, publishing infrequently, presenting thoughtful long-form journalism, but powerful nonetheless if you follow Meyer's theory that influence is a primary product of newspapers.

Yet it's striking that this is opposite to the course being taken today by struggling metropolitan newspapers as their debt-laden owners desperately seek for a way to stay afloat.

Let's watch as the Tribune Company recasts its sagging metros. My prediction is that they'll go for shorter, punchier, more populist themes, aping USA Today circa 1982 in an attempt to hold onto the one-size-fits-all business of the past. Faced with a fork in the road, they'll choose not to emulate the Economist. And they're going to be savaged by critics who will say they're "dumbing down" the newspaper.

Is that the right path for a marketplace that's shattering into a thousand specialties? Is it the right path for print, a medium that's optimized for discovery yet handicapped by always being 18 hours behind the times? I suspect it may lead to short-term gains only, if at all. The marketplace will be the judge, and it can be far more cruel than media critics.

I don't mean to bury print as a medium for populism. The free subway tabs show that it still works -- quite well, in fact -- for short attention span journalism. And "one product for everyone" still works if you zero in on a geographic niche with hyperlocal journalism.

But I think the clock is running out for super-regional, super-general newspapers.

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