Players: Gene Weingarten, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist at The Washington Post who doesn't understand lolcats (or readers' infatuation with lolcats); Ben Huh, CEO of meme network I Can Has Cheezburger? which gave birth to the lolcat.
The Opening Serve: "As you know, I sometimes worry aloud about my profession," wrote Weingarten at the top of his Thursday column. "In my hand is a report from the ONA’s [Online News Association] recent national convention in Boston ... the main message given to the conferees was that, journalistically, to attract reader eyeballs, you want to publish more pictures of bacon taped to cats." He then went after the man responsible for pork-sporting felines:
"Keynoter Ben — whose résumé emphasizes he is a 'journalism graduate' — got rich and influential as CEO of 'I Can Has Cheezburger?' a Web site featuring goofy pictures of readers’ cats. Yes, 'Who, What, When, Where and Why' has now been overtaken by 'Huh?'"
Weingarten's padded his lament. "Every time I write despairingly about what’s happening to my profession, there erupts an online clatter from younger journalists who contend I am a dyspeptic old codger ..." he wrote. Disclaimer out of the way, Weingarten defined what exactly irked him:
[T]his is complicated, but I think I have this right — you, the journalist, don’t actually exist. You are a composite of all the people who read you — with their desires channeled through you and satisfied by you and them together, working in tandem. You are them but not them, and they are you but not you, in a mystical nexus not unlike the Holy Trinity.
The Return Volley: Huh, a graduate from Northwestern's Medill, penned a response of his own in The Post. "Journalism still has much to learn about timeliness when an oft-awarded columnist like Gene Weingarten is 34 days late to a story," he wrote. "Journalism still has much to learn about reporting when the writer of the story was actually never present at the event." Huh finds "most journalism gatherings depressing and it’s not because their business is failing. It’s depressing in the way old high school football jocks commiserate at a dive bar talking about the glory days -- for the 30th year in a row." For Huh, the customer is always right:
When any company loses their competitive edge, they are wiped from the planet by those who better understand and better fit the needs of their customers. When an entire industry loses its competitive edge, cantankerous old fuds complain about the good old days using column inches ...
Gene is confusing journalism with the business of newspapers. Journalism is thriving, thanks to cheap and easy means of publishing like Wordpress, the huge interest by the readership, and increase in the diversity of opinions.
"What’s killing newspapers isn’t the lack of new ideas, it’s people who obstruct the change that’s required to survive," concludes Huh. "Well, that and the lack of LOLcats in the Washington Post." WaPo Opinion Blogger Alexandra Petri weighed in with a column of her own. She added:
What They Say They're Fighting About: Each other's credibility. In his description, Weingarten purposely contrasts bacon-wearing cats with Huh being a "journalism graduate." It's meant to be an equal parts takedown and personal embarrassment on Weingarten's part combined with a pinch of jealousy (Weingarten has no qualms referencing Huh's wealth and power). Huh gets in jabs of his own, by chopping down Weingarten for being a month late and not being present at the event he's reporting from--two sacred tenets of what Weingarten would consider "Old Journalism."
What They're Really Fighting About: Readers. Of course Weingarten and Huh are fighting about the state of journalism and of course that argument hit very close to home. But what it all boils down to is that both sides think they have their fingers on the pulse of reader interest. Both have different views on whether "the customer is always right" and "knowing what the customer wants" and both sides think the other is way off.
Who's Winning Now: Huh. Weingarten tries to defuse the accusation of being a dyspeptic old codger, but that does not prevent him from being one. Why does Weingarten's argument need a disclaimer? Before stating his own argument, Weingarten has already painted a picture of the old versus young, parent versus child, tradition versus trend, when the state of journalism is going to be determined by the people who do it, not those who debate about it at conferences.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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