It’s their stuff. We’re just putting it online.

Recently, I had an epiphany.

I’ve written before about the tension between print and online media and so have many others of course. Let me once again here mention Robert Hernandez’s still recent and still wonderful clarion call to print media. I linked to it before, but in case anyone was too lazy to read it, here it is once more and here’s my favorite part of his fictional dialogue with an Executive Editor or other top decision-maker at any news org:

Look, the biggest obstacle in journalism right now isn’t whether people trust “us” or not. It’s not even the revenue crisis we are all facing and feeling every day.

The biggest obstacle is… you.

[Awkward pause]

Then, if the person hasn’t left the table, I’d say:

I can continue trying to explain these concepts to you, draw my little pictures, employ my weird (often pop-culture drenched) analogies… all to get you closer to understanding these concepts.

Or, you can just admit (and hopefully be okay with) the very strong possibility that you may never really understand.

But, also, realize that it’s not about you… it’s not about you understanding.

That spending time on trying to have you understand, so you can approve, has delayed and hurt us for SO MANY YEARS. We can’t afford that time any more.

Please know that you have a very important role here, but trying to be the visionary when you don’t understand is not that role.

Take that leap of faith by putting your trust in the people who are just as passionate, concerned, obsessed about journalism as you are… trust those “Web people.”

You see, I’d say, that for each category I described, there are amazing Web journalists doing work that is changing our industry, but leadership hasn’t noticed, let alone appreciated it.

I have yet to read anything else that sums up the print/online problem so succinctly. 

So let’s get back to my epiphany. I recently had someone kindly try to tell me that look, print people see things a certain way and it’s just not going to change anytime soon. “It’s their stuff. We’re just putting it online.” When I thought about this further, I thought YES!!! That’s it exactly and therein lies the problem. That single, solitary quote can explain every source of friction between print and online people at a media organization. It helps explain why the print people are ultimately in charge of content creation and delivery. It helps explain why print people drive the development of new content. It helps explain why print people set the tone of a media organization. And let’s be honest, it helps explain a great deal more as well.

Think about it again. “It’s their stuff. We’re just putting it online.” They created it, they own it and they’ll tell you what to do with it. This makes perfect sense to them and why shouldn’t it? They created  this stuff so they should be in charge or what happens to it.

But of course we know this apporoach is problematic. Putting aside for a moment the notion that this thinking presupposes that “web people” have no idea what to do with content, is it even the way art is normally handled? An artist paints something and then a gallery or museum curator decides where to hang it, in what frame, with what lighting, etc. An musician records a song, but their record label may decide whether to release it and a radio DJ will decide whether to play it and even if they play it, when and how often they’ll do so.

Why does all this happen? It happens because while artists are good at painting and musicians are good at making music, they might not be equally good at promoting or selling their work, deciding how to present it to an audience, etc. Now, it’s true that some musicians and artists are good at all of the above. But this is rare and anyway, a gallery owner or a record label exec is just not going to take that chance (or else no one might see that painting or hear that song EVER).

Writers are their own sort of artists with their own artistic temperments. I know, because I’m one of them :-) But what I also know is that these days writing isn’t enough. Writing has to also be seen by the right audience, at the right time, in the right format and in the right environment. And that’s just for starters.

So why do artists, musicians (and we could add filmmakers, dancers, etc) allow their work to be so readily handled by others while writers hang on to it for dear life? And why do people who know better allow it to happen? Maybe you can explain it to me, because I don’t have the first clue.



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