The Sheer Stupidity of Newspapers These Days

The most heated topic in the blogosphere this week was the announcement by James Lileks, one of the world's most popular bloggers, that his longtime employer, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, was taking away his print column and putting him back on the reporting beat.

This announcement, which first appeared late Monday night in Lileks' column, initially drew shocked disbelief, then an explosion of anger — mostly in the form of letters to Lileks in support (including one from me) and to the Star-Tribune in righteous fury. On his radio show, Hugh Hewitt devoted a couple hours of precious airtime to the news.

Such an outpouring seemed to astonish even Lileks, whose blog about his daily life, typically featuring his dog, Jasper, and daughter "Gnat," have become staples of many readers' daily lives. Hewitt, I think accurately, compared it to the New Yorker asking E.B. White to switch to restaurant reviews, the L.A. Times transferring Jim Murray to the county government beat, or -- in an analogy especially appreciated by this longtime Northern Californian -- to the San Francisco Chronicle asking the late Herb Caen to give up his column and cover the police blotter. Even Dave Barry waded in to shake his head at the sheer stupidity of newspapers these days.

One of the reasons for this intense reaction is that for most of us in the rest of the world, the only thing we know about Minneapolis these days, and certainly about the Star-Tribune, is what we read in Lileks.com. In other words, James Lileks is far bigger than the newspaper that employs him, is its single most effective bastion against falling subscription revenues, and is its most powerful marketing and promotion tool.

To rip that platform out from underneath its single most important asset now makes the "Strib" the poster child for the astonishingly stupid and suicidal decisions made by newspapers in the 21st century.

The Death Process Sped Up?

It's only been a couple of years since I first made the prediction, which earned me a ton of brickbats in the media, that newspapers were dying, and that only a handful would survive this decade, and that even those would be utterly transformed.

A crucial reason for that, I said at the time, was that as newspapers began to spiral down, they would lay off their top talent first and be unable to recruit the best and brightest of the next generation. The result would be a rapid collapse of the intellectual capital in those institutions. In other words, they would grow dumber and make more and more stupid mistakes.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune is sad proof of my prediction. I now put it near the top of my doomed list.

In the meantime, Lileks has been buried in suggestions for what he should do next with his career, most of them involving signing on to some other publication. But no one has suggested what seems to me to be the obvious solution for both him and his newspaper: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune should simply let its employees go work at home or at Starbucks, sell off its building and printing plant, and use the resulting revenues to buy editorial space on Lileks.com.

Lileks already got more readers than the Strib, and they are certainly more loyal. And, of course, his site is actually growing. But best of all, his business judgment seems far superior to the clowns currently running the newspaper.

Seems to me like a win-win for everyone.

Time Warner the Victim?

As long as we're on the subject of the stupidity of media executives, my favorite quote of the week came from Richard Parsons, CEO of Time Warner Inc., speaking at the annual National Cable & Telecommunications Association conference in Las Vegas.

According to Reuters -- a fact that may give Parsons plausible deniability -- Parsons said, incredibly, "The Googles of the world, they are the Custer of the modern world. We are the Sioux nation. They will lose this war if they go to war. The notion that the new kids on the block have taken over is a false notion."

In assessing a statement like that, it's hard to know where to begin. But let's try.

First of all, with its mixed metaphors and pretzel logic, this quote alone ought to be enough to make both the board and the shareholders of Time Warner a bit nervous about who is piloting the ship.

But more than that, as others have noted elsewhere, it was the Sioux who lost the war. Comparing yourself to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at Little Big Horn may sound noble and heroic, but the final tally was that the Sioux were driven onto reservations, Crazy Horse was murdered and Sitting Bull ended up a novelty act in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show (and then murdered).

Is this really the analogy he wanted to make?

But leaving aside Parson's nearly fatal foray into historical allusion, the very notion of Time Warner being a victim in all of this is pretty hard to swallow. Ten years ago, when Time Warner ruled American media, it wouldn't have even cared about an upstart like Google. Now, suddenly, it's trying to portray itself as a David against the Google Goliath of Mountain View, Calif.

Sorry, but no tears here.

The truth is that Time Warner, along with the rest of the media giants, was too technologically unsophisticated to recognize that when it handed over all of its information search operations to that funky little Silicon Valley company with the cute name, it was also handing over a very large chunk of its advertising revenues. Now that these corporate giants have realized their mistake, and have recognized to their horror that it may be too late, they are presenting themselves as the tiny band of heroic survivors of a sneak attack.

Frankly, if anybody looks like the 7th Cavalry these days -- surrounded, beleaguered and doomed by the arrogance of its leaders -- it's Big Media.

The Evil Overlord of the Mainstream Media

If the demotion of James Lileks is this week's blogosphere scandal, last week's was certainly the mess at Digg.com, where its online community decided to post the security code trade secrets of the HD-DVD industry.

Those of you who read my column last week will remember that my primary objection in all of this was that the founder of Digg, Kevin Rose, instead of making a good faith effort -- even a doomed one -- to halt this activity, instead decided to join the mob. It was an irresponsible, and unprofessional, move that, I predicted, might well lead to the end of Digg.com itself.

Well, you've probably read that the HD-DVD folks are now preparing to sue. And though I've never been a fan of anti-copying software, believing it to be a waste of time, I do believe the industry is well within its rights to bring such a suit -- and will likely win. The Digg community may well have just committed the first Web 2.0 suicide.

But that's not what I want to write about. As you can imagine, my column created a bit of an uproar in the blogosphere, with any number of future cubicle dwellers and corporate slaves calling me (self-employed for all but four of the last 27 years) a reactionary and a tool of big capitalism.

But what I found most amusing was a comment by a blogger at Boing Boing saying that s/he had discussed my column with Drew Curtis, founder of the hugely popular Fark.com, and that Drew had replied, ominously:

"The article questions why Digg censors spam and porn, but not the HD-DVD key. I think mainstream media is now going to use this as an excuse to turn on Web 2.0. They've been waiting for the opening, and now they have it."

Dear reader, I have to admit it is true. I thought I had effectively disguised myself as a middle-age suburban dad out in California, sitting in my underwear writing this column at 1 a.m. on Wednesday nights. But now, I've finally been unmasked as the Evil Overlord of the Mainstream Media!

I'm free, free! Free at last to emerge from the shadows and send my millions of minions out to do my evil work. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Tad's Tab: The latest from the teen tech trenches, from Michael Malone's 15-year-old son, Tad Malone:

In my ongoing effort to find music without the help of the p2p music networks, I came across (www.g2p.org) This site gives you the opportunity to search through Google for many file types, including music, ringtones and e-books. There seems to be nothing illegal about it, because you find the files through Google. Best of all, g2p makes the process both easy and painless.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the ABCNEWS.com "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.