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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Notes From the Crankosphere

Both Jay Rosen and Brad DeLong revisit the issue of Dan Froomkin's column at WPNI today, so I'd like to add my two cents.

Jay received a letter from Michael Powell, the New York bureau chief of the Washington Post, who says:
Perhaps, as you argue, separation of the corporeal paper and its Web off-spring spurs innovation; you make an intriguing case. And there are good arguments for retaining the creative and editorial tension. But many of us suspect that the Post maintains a separate web operation for another more prosaic reason. Our operation is a non-union shop, while the The Washington Post, to the enduring credit of the Guild, is a union shop. I love the creativity of our Web colleagues, and I would not stifle that. But I want them to partake of the same salaries and benefits and protections offered by the mother ship.
Oh be still my liberal heart. So the WaPo doesn't like this separation of church and state that exists with their online division because they want to share their union benefits with them? How touching! Let me pick the alfalfa sprouts from between my teeth and we'll celebrate with some tofu and Pete Seeger records while my boobs swing freely 'neath my Che Guevara t-shirt.

Let's clear one thing up right now. The reason the WaPo editors and writers pooh-pooh the blogosphere's concerns over GOP attempts to manipulate their content is not so much that they don't see it as a problem as it is beside the point as far as they are concerned. What they are actually distressed about is real estate. Prime online marquee Beverly Hills pricetag terra firma. And they are furious at the WPNI -- at war, as it has been described -- because they have no control over it.

Unlike the integrated shop at the NYT where Bill Keller could simply call over and pull the plug on a Froomkin, Len Downie does not have that ability. The WPNI is a new company, made up in large part by young, internet-friendly twenty-somethings who decide how the online edition is organized and who gets the big front page link. Because Froomkin's column is generated there, he always gets the front page link. If an article isn't on the front page of the online edition, it only gets about 10% of the traffic it would otherwise. Star reporters and editors like John Harris can call them up, bitch and moan, but from what I've been told in the end it is WPNI editor-in-chief Jim Brady who calls the shots.

As far as they're concerned, Froomkin is omnivorously eating up territory that should by all rights belong to them. Is Dan's column popular because it's well-written, informed and does an excellent job satisfying his readers? Not if you ask the Brahmins at the WaPo, who think it is simply a matter of prominent placement. Their egos render them fundamentally incapable of perceiving that Froomkin's column consistently ranks among the most highly trafficked because he asks the questions and connects the dots in a way that "straight-up Kool-Aiders" like Richard Morin fail to do.

They might want to know that from an online perspective, the Post is leagues above the NYT. The WPNI has made a series of excellent decisions that are sensitive to the needs of the online world and bloggers specifically. The Technorati tags they provide with each article mean that if I have the option of linking to a NYT article and a WaPo article, I'm always going to link to the WaPo because of the traffic it will generate. Not a great deal, but some.

The archives are also searchable, whereas the NYT makes you pay. I don't know how this affects them from a financial standpoint, but from a blogger standpoint we will always do our research in the WaPo archives first. Which means, once again, that they become the authority.

Their columnists are not behind a firewall, and as every blogger knows since the NYT put their columnists there they have dwelt in online purgatory. I have no idea what the statistics are but I'd say their work and ideas get about a tenth the discussion that they did previously.

The online version of the Post is also really easy to navigate, as opposed to the NYT which is clunky, slow and cluttered. Control may make the NYT writers and editors happier, but it hasn't done their readers any favors.

Harris calls us the "crankosphere" and Powell thinks we're stupid, that we're suddenly going to go all damp and start noodling to Phish because he uses the word "union." Well we're not the rubes that many seem to envision us to be, and if we get a bit "cranky" it is probably due to the persistent condescending tone. As Frank Probst said in the comments, "'crankosphere' is one way to think of us, but I think he'd be better off thinking of us as 'our readers'".

They should be thanking their lucky stars that the online staff keeps prepping them for life in the 21st century in a way that the NYT does not. If they want to unionize the WPNI, bully for them, go for it. In the mean time they really ought to climb up and view the world from a little higher perspective than the petty land wars that seem to render them clueless about the nature of the real problem at hand. Because I really can't imagine anyone envies the journalistic status of Newsmax or the Washington Times in a way that the recent squawkings of their various editors suggest.

But then again, I read Froomkin.