The Spectator

The Good Life of a New-Media Guru

Is Jeff Jarvis gloating too much about the death of print?

Take a look at this, from Jeff Jarvis’ blog BuzzMachine:

November 5th, 2008
I’m in the Emirates lounge getting ready to fly to Dubai for a World Economic Forum (Davos) meeting of the Global Agenda Councils. I’m on the one devoted to the future of the internet, which is humbling. (Full disclosure: The travel expenses are paid by the airline and the government of Dubai.) I’ll report from there as wifi allows.

Jeff Jarvis is living the good life. (But he’s still humble—he says so himself!) Jeff Jarvis is the very model of a modern new-media guru. Do you know about him? He started out in print media but is now a multiplatform new-media consultant. If you work in media, you probably know his work. If you consume media, you probably should. He’s one of the leading Web futurists, one of the few new-media consultant types who came over from old media. (He was founding editor of Entertainment Weekly.)

After leaving EW in 1990, Jarvis worked as an editor at the New York Daily News and a critic for TV Guide. Then he took to blogging and—eventually—blogging about blogging, and now he can often be found consulting about new media and giving media-futurist speeches to international forums and self-proclaimed new-media “summits.” Recently he has even begun to host international forums and self-proclaimed new-media summits, when not directing J-school programs focused on new media (at the City University of New York) or raking in consulting fees from old-media giants like the New York Times and Advance Publications, the parent company of Condé Nast.

Jeff Jarvis seems to be seeking to be your Marshall McLuhan, and he’s convinced a lot of media corporations to pay him consulting fees to tell them what is happening with these new intertubes—and what should happen.

I used to like Jeff Jarvis: I’ve never met him, but I felt I knew him from his blog, which I’ve read fairly regularly since he began blogging eloquently about 9/11. I’ve often enjoyed his opinions and, especially, his crankiness. I loved what he did to Dell when the company failed to fix his computer: He called it “Dell-Hell” and used his blog to mobilize the Dell-discontented multitudes to make the company pay attention to their “service” pledges. (He must have had flawless service in the Emirates lounge.)

What I liked about his blog was that it was personal and immediate. He’s a natural at the form, with an ability to entwine his life and those of the rest of us in his musings. Here is a guy who literally took 9/11 to heart: He was on a PATH train near Ground Zero that morning and developed atrial fibrillation in the aftermath, a problem that still afflicts him. *  He has been outspoken on the issue of anti-Semitism. And I never had a problem with his championing the idea of taking bloggers seriously and using the Web to find a new way of making journalism viable in the 21st century. He was right about the potential of the Net when I was still being a Luddite about it. (After all, I’m a blogger, too, these days.)

But something has changed in the last year or two: He’s now visibly running for New Media Pontificator in Chief. He began treating his own thoughts as profound and epigrammatic, PowerPoint-paradoxical, new-media-mystical. He acquired the habit of proclaiming “Jarvis’ Laws” of new media, acting like a prophet, a John the Baptist if not the messiah. (Although he knows who the messiah is. He’s about to publish a book of Google worship—What Would Google Do?—that makes that clear.)

Meanwhile, he’s become increasingly heartless about the reporters, writers, and other “content providers” who have been put out on the street by the changes in the industry. Not only does he blame the victims, he denies them the right to consider themselves victims. They deserve their miserable fate—and if they don’t know it, he’ll tell them why at great length. Sometimes it sounds as if he’s virtually dancing on their graves.

Consider Jarvis’ response to an essay by Paul Farhi that suggested the current crisis in journalism might not be entirely the fault of journalists. Jarvis parried with a cruel, disdainful rant contending that writers and reporters deserve their fate:

The fall of journalism is, indeed, journalists’ fault. It is our fault that we did not see the change coming soon enough and ready our craft for the transition. It is our fault that we did not see and exploit—hell, we resisted—all the opportunities new media and new relationships with the public presented. It is our fault that we did not give adequate stewardship to journalism and left the business to the business people. It is our fault that we lost readers and squandered trust. It is our fault that we sat back and expected to be supported in the manner to which we had become accustomed by some unknown princely patron. Responsibility and blame are indeed ours.

I have a strong feeling that when he says “we” and “ours,” he really means everyone but him and his fellow new-media gurus. Not all reporters had the prescience to become new-media consultants. A lot of good, dedicated people who have done actual writing and reporting, as opposed to writing about writing and reporting, have been caught up in this great upheaval, and many of them may have been too deeply involved in, you know, content—”subjects,” writing about real peoples’ lives—to figure out that reporting just isn’t where it’s at, that the smart thing to do is get a consulting gig.

But Jarvis believes the failure of the old-media business models is the result of having too many of those pesky reporters. In his report on his recent new-media summit at CUNY, he noted with approval one workshop’s conclusion that you’d need only 35 reporters to cover the entire city of Philadelphia. Less is more. Meta triumphs over matter.

It makes you wonder whether Jarvis has actually done any, you know, reporting. Particularly when he tells you that in doing his book on the total wonderfulness of Google, he decided it would be better not to speak to anyone who works at Google, that instead he’s written about the idea of Google, as he construes it, rather than finding out how they—the actual Google people—construe it. What he’s done, Jarvis claims, is to “reverse-engineer” the reality of Google. This means deducing how Google got to be what it is and do what it does by conjecturing about its effects from the outside.

Allow me to make a conjecture: Did Jarvis sound out Google informally and get rebuffed, prompting him to “decide” he wouldn’t talk to them “on principle”? Of course, I could ask Jarvis about this, but that would be mere “reporting”; it’s more fun to “reverse-engineer” his decision.

Yes, by Jeff Jarvis’ logic, the hardworking reporters now on the street were fools: They didn’t spend their time figuring out how to multiplatform themselves. I think of that guy John Conroy, who wrote about police torture for years for the Chicago Reader, which is now bankrupt and had to let Conroy go just as—after years and years—Conroy’s reporting (100,000 words!) on the subject was vindicated and an official investigation began at last. Dedicated guys who did great work at the dying dailies are being made to feel by Jarvis that they deserve to be downsized. Yet who has the most honor, the men and women who did the work or the media consultants who mock them?

Here are a few excerpts from Jeff Jarvis’ blog over the last month that illustrate his self-congratulatory attitude: First, the demise of a venerable print daily (and the suffering of who knows how many families) causes Jeff Jarvis to reflect on how right Jeff Jarvis was and is and probably always will be:

The Christian Science Monitor is turning off its press and going fully online. I heard about this at my conference on new business models for news last week and said it makes perfect sense.

Next his international audience of Rich Guys Who Want To Understand This Internet Thing calls:

I need to write an essay on a bold goal for the internet for a World Economic Forum (aka Davos) Global Agenda Council on the future of the internet. My thoughts:The internet is a right.I can’t imagine a bolder notion than that. Or maybe it’s not so bold. …

Then we travel with Jarvis to the Frankfurt Book Fair, another example of the downfall of print and the rise of Jarvis:

The Frankfurt convention grounds are also jammed with books from all around the world. What struck me was the optimism of it: all that work to create books on the hope that someone would read them. And they make fun of bloggers for whistling in the wind.I was there on Saturday to speak with Wolfgang Blau, editor-in-chief of Zeit Online for what turned out to be a sizeable audience. …

Note his dim view of the “book people” and their foolish romantic optimism. These poor fools; they might as well be making buggy whips. Sure, they do serve some purpose—merchandizing his book—so it’s good they’re still in the foolish business long enough for him to monetize their death. But otherwise, if they don’t make big profits, dead-tree books are not worth doing, according to the new-media gospel.

Then it’s time for a little self-congratulation while scores lose their jobs:

Sometime ago, I used TV Guide as a cautionary tale to beware the cash cow in the coal mine. How now, said cow—which not long ago sold more copies every year than any other magazine—just sold for $1. Beware media and news companies that try to preserve their past: This could be you. Moo.

(I didn’t make up that “Moo.” That’s new-media wit.)

We can learn more about Jarvis’ ambition to guru-hood by studying his remarkable endorsement of the New Age boilerplate mysticism of Paulo Coelho, which we learn about as he shares with us the exciting experience of his triumph at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

In one of his Frankfurt posts, he discusses a talk given by worldwide best-seller Coelho. * (He claims 100 million books sold.) In his talk, Coelho advocated giving away the digital content of books for free as a means of boosting sales.

“That has certainly been Coelho’s experience,” notes Jarvis (who calls Coelho—I kid you not—”the Googliest author I know”). “Freely available electronic files have led to increased print sales in territory after territory—including the US, where [Coelho’s] The Alchemist has been on the NYT bestseller list for a full year even though it was among the first of his titles to be available online at Harper’s web site.”

Surely Jarvis is intelligent enough to see that the Coelho model won’t work for everyone. Sure, if you break through to New Age guru status and peddle the notion that everyone can discover their own fabulousness (from the jacket of the Alchemest, aka New Age Mysticism for Dummies: “A discovery of the treasure found within”), you’re more likely to have a audience that will support you by buying the hard cover to doubly reaffirm their vanity. (A new definition of “vanity press”?)

But what about a different kind of book? You know—a serious book. I just got in the mail a newly published book by an old friend of mine, Gordon Goldstein. It’s called Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, and it’ s likely to reopen still-unresolved debates about why we did what we did and the way we did it. It is, to put it mildly, no less deserving of attention than Coelho’s 100-million-seller. Will publishers pay writers to write serious books like this and then give them away for free?

If Jarvis values books (and I can’t help think that despite all the digital bluster, he’s an intelligent guy who likes reading), do we just listen to the market and focus-group what we should print and give away, which is likely to result in all Coelho, all the time, with maybe a little bit of Jarvis thrown in?

But Jarvis doesn’t seem to recognize distinctions of value. Or to have heard of Gresham’s law. (Trash drives out value.) Listen to his blog reaction to the recent bailout/economic meltdown:

Why wasn’t the government better at listening to the market? Did it ever ask what it should do? That’s not the way government thinks, but it’s the way it should learn to think.

Wait, did I get that right? The government should have “listened to the market,” the same market that created this debacle and came close to destroying the economy? It’s an example of his blind allegiance to the wisdom of the consumer, to quantity over quality and expertise. Everything else is elitism. He’s the Sarah Palin of gurus. The crowd is always right.

But what makes him wined, dined, and comped by Dubai to fly to self-proclaimed summits all over the world? It’s not just that corporations are dumb enough to waste what’s left of stockholders’ money to pay for someone to tell them to “listen to the market.” No, it’s Jarvis’ pretensions to guru-hood, his gnomic “laws” and pronouncements. Firing people on the writing side because of the incompetence of the business side is a long tradition in the media business, and Jarvis gives management a New Age fig leaf with which to shift the blame from their own incompetence.

He offers chestnuts like, “The link changes everything,” “Stuff sucks” (“Nobody wants to be in the business of stuff anymore. … Google’s economy is more appealing”), “Atoms are a drag,” and—yes, his contribution to the “X is the new Y” genre—”Small is the new big.”

Yeah, down with stuff! Let them eat fake. Sleep in buildings not made with atoms. Everyone should be a new-media consultant, and then we won’t need any media at all.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with Jarvis doing all this thinking and decreeing. He’s said some savvy, if unoriginal, things about journalism (advocating looking at the article as an ongoing process, not a product, for instance). He’s among the most rational of the new thinkers. But it’s the callous contempt for working journalists that grates. It’s a contempt for the beautiful losers who actually made journalism an honorable profession for a brief shining moment—well, longer than that—before it became a platform for “reverse engineering.”

Correction, Nov. 12, 2008: This piece originally stated that Jeff Jarvis was living near Ground Zero on 9/11. In fact, he was on a PATH train near Ground Zero that morning. (Return to the corrected sentence.) It also stated that Jarvis heared the Paulo Coelho speech he later wrote about on his blog. In fact, he read about the speech before posting on it. (Return to the corrected sentence.)