Welcome to the Letters to the Editor page . . .from Hell.
Much has been written in the last few months about the blogosphere beginning to supplant the Mainstream Media. I suspect most people who read these stories are either (rightly) skeptical, or optimistic about the wrong things.
For example, the chances of amateur bloggers taking over the everyday job of reporting the news are pretty darn slim. For one thing, good reporting typically takes several people -- a reporter in the field, sometimes a researcher or two, a photographer, a copy editor, a section editor and either a city or managing editor -- to report the story, gather supporting information, edit to the right quality and size, take photographs to accompany the piece, write the headlines, pour it into a larger editorial format, run it by the legal department (if necessary) and check it one more time before final sign-off.
That's not to say that everyday folks can't do all of these jobs -- as we saw with the online amateur coverage of the Iraq elections, they certainly can, and they can do it well. But to do this kind of reporting, at a high level of excellence, day in and day out, is very difficult -- requiring reporters with years of training, skilled editors and talented (and fast) photographers -- which is why even the MSM, for all of its resources, still manages to screw it up on a regular basis.
A guy in his pajamas, with a baby crying in the next room, just can't match that kind of professional firepower, and, given the economics of the blogosphere, probably never will. As I've noted in the past, if a consolidation of the blogosphere occurs, and the more successful bloggers begin to band together to pursue larger audiences and real advertisers, they might be able to give newspaper front pages a run for their money. But by then they will have become what they seek to replace.
Replacing the Op-Ed Page?
By comparison, I've never had any doubts that the Web will overrun many of the back sections of daily newspapers and, once broadband becomes pervasive, most of local and national television news as well. Throw in pod-casting and RSS, and we won't much need radio or magazines either. In my own life, I've gone from reading three newspapers per day, and subscribing to 40 magazines per month, to essentially reading none at all …and I'm an old newspaper reporter and magazine editor. But what's the point? I can get the same information I used to get from newspapers much more easily -- not to mention more accurately and more timely -- on the Web, be it Little League game scores, movie times or local real estate prices. Furthermore, I can also get information off the Web that I never could before from any source. Last season I followed the career of a friend playing AAA baseball in Tucson, Ariz., by going to MinorLeagueBaseball.com and following his performance inning by inning, in real time. A decade ago, I would have had to wait a week for the box scores in the Sporting News.
But the newspaper section most obviously overrun by the Internet is the editorial page, that dreary wasteland of anonymous opinion pieces endlessly restating the status quo and dusty syndicated columns harrumphing over this week's unacceptable turn of events. One might have expected that the addition of thousands of independent essayists unanswerable to the Establishment, the owners or the advertisers, would have made the boring world of Op-Ed a whole lot more fun. The big surprise is just how high the quality of much of this writing is; a lot of it superior to what appears in the MSM -- thanks, no doubt, to the fact that bloggers usually have the perspective that comes from other careers, are not being forced into the cognitive straitjacket of always having to write the same length (in the newsroom we used to call the dazed look on veteran columnists 'the 1,000 word stare') and are able to post only when the mood strikes rather than sticking to strict deadlines.
But the one part of the newspaper that I never thought about in light of the cyberspace revolution is that most disreputable (and disrespected) ghetto of every newspaper, big and small, the Letters to the Editor page. You know what I mean -- and it never seems to change -- a couple angry letters from the left and couple more for balance from the right, a letter thanking some official for helping in a time of need, a reminder to remember some event nobody will actually remember, and some nutball spouting about some Big Issue over which neither they or the readers have any real control. Even editors, truth be told, rarely read the letters, but just check them off to fit pre-selected viewpoints, show they are listening to the community and give angry readers a futile safety valve.
Meanwhile, while none of us was looking, or was celebrating the rise of the blogger, the letters to the editor page, thanks to the Internet, is enjoying a Golden Age. To see this for yourself, don't just look at big posting sites, but dive into the 'comments' section of your favorite blogs. Read the comments for a given topic at Fark.com or Ain't it Cool News. Some items will draw the virtual equivalent of hundreds of letters to the editor. The numbers grow by the week. Better yet, these posting have none of the inhibitions found with people carefully writing and rewriting a physical letter that will have to be addressed and stamped and put in the mailbox in hopes of pleasing some distant editorial authority. Cyberletters to the Editor are quickly dashed off -- often obscene, hilarious, full of typos and dripping with passion. They are the real voice of readers. That's what makes them so much fun -- and such a nightmare to us writers.
You see, in the old days, we journalists could always dismiss a few negative letters about our work as the product of cranks. But with the Internet there is no place to hide.
Flood of Responses
I got a reminder of that a couple weeks ago. You may remember my column, "RIP Microsoft," in which I wrote that my reporter's instincts were unexpectedly telling me that Microsoft was in decline.
I thought this piece might be a little controversial. But I'd forgotten one of the new rules of cyberspace: there is nothing more powerful than a meme whose time has come.
Within minutes of its posting on ABCNews.com, the story raced up to near the top of the list of the most e-mailed stories. Within hours it was popping up on scores of news aggregator sites. By late afternoon the blogs were picking it up, adding their own commentaries. Some called me an idiot; others said that it was about time somebody said the truth; still others announced that I was merely confirming what they'd been saying for months.
Then came the postings -- at some sites by the hundreds. Most started out either agreeing or disagreeing with me, but all soon headed off into various tangents about the superiority of Apple products, bad service experiences with Microsoft, the (evil) genius of Bill Gates, or how Microsoft was a juggernaut that would never ever be stopped.
Some posters read the bio that ABCNews.com attaches to my columns and assumed that, because of my history, I must know what I'm talking about. Others, who had obviously never read anything I've ever written, immediately denounced me as an "Apple plant" (my wife burst into laughter hearing that one). The more astute commentators said that I was just a bored columnist looking to stir up trouble; and some really clever ones searched the Net to discover that I'd made the same prediction about Apple a few years back.
By the next day, it was becoming apparent that I had just written one of the most linked stories on the Internet that week. Just Google "Silicon Insider: Microsoft RIP" and look at the results: hundreds of sites linking to the story, thousands of letters-to-the editor "comments." And if the range of these sites is amazing --from the expected gloating Linux sites to a really bizarre white supremacy site -- the range of comments is truly astonishing.
And a bit intimidating. I'm not sure I could take a constant diet of this kind of attention. That's probably why last week's column, about controlling political advertising on the Internet, was so boring, and so like all those newspaper columns I despise. But at least nobody wrote to curse me out.
Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. He has covered the Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 20 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 has hosted two national PBS shows: "Malone," a half-hour interview program that ran for nine years, and in 2001, a 16-part interview series called "Betting It All: The Entrepreneurs." Malone is best known as the author of a dozen books. His latest book, a collection of his best newspaper and magazine writings, is called "The Valley of Heart's Delight."
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.