Let's Talk About Us

The more journalism declines into depression, the more journalists obsess about themselves.

A few Mondays ago, the headline across the top of the Business Day section of The New York Times read: "176 Newspapers to Form a Partnership With Yahoo." To the left was: "Time Warner's Post-Synergy Success Story." Below the fold on the right, "For Fox TV, an Unusually Grim Autumn." And just beside that: "Old Moguls Never Die; They Just Get Private Equity."

That's a lot of media news, and it's no coincidence: As every careful Times reader knows, the Monday business section is designedly media-focused. And why not? New York is one of the great centers of global media doings, and the paper covers that world with intelligence and verve.

Still, if you were an alien life form just arrived in Manhattan from, say, South Dakota, you might find this a little strange. Out of every seven days of business coverage, the nation's premier newspaper devotes one day to the media. That's a big slice of the pie.

Think of all the other pieces of the economy that don't get such treatment. Oil is a huge, profitable business, one that touches everyone's life. Yet I know of no national news outlet offering a weekly petroleum section. Insurance? Farming? And what about the cement industry? A strange silence prevails.

I know, I know: That's all old hat compared with the sexy, celebrified, plugged-in world of information.

Yet, after a few hours in the echo chamber, everything else begins to seem weirdly fascinating. The only nonmedia story on The Times business front that particular day was about a copper mining company acquiring one of its rivals. Amid all of the buzzy media news, this "latest move in a series of mining and metals mergers" seemed wonderfully solid and real, especially next to this: "The long-term goal of the alliance with Yahoo, according to one senior executive at a participating newspaper company, is to be able to have the content of these newspapers tagged and optimized for searching and indexing by Yahoo."

The Times is not alone here, nor is intense media-gazing just a feature of business news outlets. These days, almost everything in the media seems to be about the media.

From Los Angeles to Philadelphia, newspapers are flailing—read all about it, in exquisite detail, in those papers themselves and everywhere else. Bloggers are a big media topic right now, but then so is citizen journalism. Or are they the same thing?

The end of a piece is no longer the end anymore. It's the beginning of a journey to other media places and experiences. Now you have the "opportunity" to comment and subscribe to the RSS feed. Or perhaps you'd like to send what you just read to Digg or Del.icio.us? It's all very happening, but sometimes I long for the days when the media weren't trying so hard to rope us into hanging around and doing all of this extra work. A story just ended and went out with the trash. Bye-bye. It was brilliant.

Media outlets don't only track the latest poll numbers of the president and Congress. How are the media doing? There are now polls on that.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Breaking News" ( September 5, 2006)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel

Remember the Katie Couric madness in September? Just a decade ago, would the debut of a network news anchor have occasioned all of that fervid reporting and chatter? True, it was partly about the idea of a woman as the new Cronkite. But did the media basically come to a stop for a week the first time a woman became the CEO of a Fortune 500 company that had nothing to do with the media? Do you even know who that woman was?

Of course, you're reading one of the symptoms of this disorder—a regular column of media commentary, devoted today to questioning the idea of media narcissism. Next week we'll discuss the media as simulacra of semiotic hyperstructuralism.

Media stories about the media were once the exception. The more journalism declines into depression and general dysfunction, the more journalists and other media types obsess about themselves.

It's all a kind of therapy. Maybe if we just discuss and link and analyze ourselves enough, we'll get out of this fix we're in. Besides, what's more interesting—other people's problems or your own?