Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Kinsley On Journalism, Not The Economy


You really could not expect two journalism lions like Michael Kinsley and Phil Bronstein to not talk about the state of newspapers, could you?

Kinsley, the purveyor of nearly every medium of journalism, spoke to The Commonwealth Club Tuesday about the demise of newspapers while finding optimism in journalism's future online, in a conversation moderated by the editor-at-large of the San Francisco Chronicle.

With fresh news that Kinsley's old boss during his stint on the editorial pages at the Los Angeles Times filed for bankruptcy, the topic was on the minds of both.

Kinsley's contentious stay at the L.A. Times occurred among infighting with the new owner, the Tribune Company, and a radical and unsuccessful idea to allow readers to make additions to editorials using technology made famous by Wikipedia. In his conversation with Bronstein, Kinsley did not mask his anger towards Zell, who purchased the Tribune media empire two years after Kinsley left the Los Angeles Times.

“I was prepared until today to think that Sam Zell wasn't totally evil,” said Kinsley before adding, “I think Zell should be taken out and shot.”

Kinsley criticized the Tribune's decision to put ownership of the company under employee stock holders, while noting many of the former employees offered buyouts are now unsecured creditors since the bankruptcy.

Some of the more thought-provoking moments of the hour-long program were Kinsley's view of the future of his craft. He does not believe that newspaper companies will die, but newspapers will, and he thinks the key to the future may be discovered by a no-name.

“It will probably be a company that nobody has heard of. Somebody is going to crack this nut,” said Kinsley. He believes whichever successful model that arises will ultimately be replicated or bought by a larger company like the New York Times.

It might be wise to heed Kinsley's advice when it comes to imagining the future of journalism and the internet; Kinsley is about the closest person to a sage of cyberspace. In 1996, he founded Slate, the web's first online news magazine. He did note that some of his ideas were a bit conventional in hindsight.

Initially, he conceived the site's content to be printed weekly similar to a magazine, even including page numbers.

“The conventions of print have been in place for centuries and to the point that you don't even think about,” said Kinsley, “The internet is starting to develop some conventions like that, so that you don't have to be Gutenberg to start a publication.”

At one point, in reference to a recent Time column where he wondered whether there were too many blogs, one audience member jokingly asked whether he was also against the printing press. He said he was not and said the piece was a bad attempt at humor and reiterated his belief in the future of blogging.

“Something like that is where this whole thing is going to end up,” said Kinsley, “It's probably going to evolve in some ways to the whole blogging world where amateurs sitting in their boxer shorts opining. It might not be so terrible.”

When the discussion turned to economic matters, of which Kinsley was expected to speak, he said “I don't think anything that has happened certainly so far really threatens capitalism. Capitalism is here to stay.”

With Congress immersed in talk of bailing out the automotive industry, Kinsley wondered why until the bankruptcy of the Tribune Company no one has called for assistance of the newspaper industry, and he ridiculed cable news talking heads (of which he was one once, as the liberal side of CNN's Crossfire) who are clueless on the financial crisis.

I think it is very funny to watch all these shows during our current financial crisis and you'll find some funny stuff there,” said Kinsley, “They don't have any idea and I don't either, and to hear them, you would think, they were masters of derivatives and how the auto industry works.”


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