This Is the End


Markets, Risk and Human Interaction

February 6, 2009

Bloggers: The Sesame Street Generation Grows Up?

I spoke last night at a small gathering hosted in the Paley Center by the Financial Times. The topic was the current economic crisis, and the audience, and two of the three panelists, were what I guess is considered ‘of the journalistic persuasion’. Most all were in one form or other bloggers; whether they become viewed as journalists, time will tell.

We all know that the world of journalism has been turned on its head. All you have to do is hold up a copy of Time Magazine and watch it wave in the wind to tell there is a problem with the weeklies. And when there are murmurings of the New York Times shutting, you know we are in a changing world. Replacing traditional print journalism is the blogging community. Will the world be any different? And if different, worse off?

Here is my stream of consciousness view of blogs. I am employing a stream of consciousness approach in this post out of respect for my topic, because I want to write about blogs in the same way most blogs are produced and read.

When we were young, we – and I mean anyone in the baby boom generation onwards – were fed TV fare that included Sesame Street. Childhood education specialists discovered what would have been self-evident if they had any kids of their own, that kids have short attention spans and are attracted to movement and activity. So they helped design shows that fit what these unformed brains craved. A string of little spots lasting a few minutes each with frenetic activity, the cognitive equivalent of a string of Star Burst candies. Our brains liked it, but being fed it incessantly, didn’t see much need to develop out of that mode. So as we got older, we gravitated toward the adolescent equivalent, MTV. The average scene in an MTV clip was under half a second, the average clip under five minutes; it was Sesame Street on hormones – and we were now Sesame Streeters on hormones.

So what happens when the Sesame Streeters grow up and are looking for news – or, more precisely, are looking for entertainment in the ‘feel good’ form of news? It was a long time coming, but now we have it: blogs. When I jump from one blog to the next, the same neurons seem to be firing that did back in my Sesame Street days. Both in timing and content. Blogs are all bite sized – probably because of how we spent our formative years, our stream of consciousness episodes last about as long as the Sesame Street spots. And the content is mostly retread, so we get to read the same thing over and over again. Thus it is both easy on our eyes and our brains. And filled with attention-grabbing activity; since you can take leave of journalistic standards that constrain the traditional print journalist, you can be edgy, even insulting. How am I doing so far?

My book, A Demon of Our Own Design, was a finalist in the Business Books category for the Loeb Awards, so I got to attend the awards dinner. The place was packed with traditional journalists. I didn’t win; the person who did wrote about Tom Perkins building a really big sail boat – I still haven’t figured that out. But, anyway, continuing on with my stream of consciousness…. Many of the winners expressed their appreciation to their employers for allowing them the freedom and funding to work on the difficult and time consuming topic that led to their prize. Topics that uncovered business abuses through months of dogged investigative work. At that dinner I felt proud for the journalistic profession, because I was seeing the fruits of the labor of some of those who had signed up during the Woodward and Bernstein era, when many were driven toward journalism to improve the world, to speak for those who had no voice.

Will this role continue in the world of bloggers? If we are talking about factoids being thrown out into the light of day, the answer will be ‘yes’. A blogger can grab something that is predigested and put it into a post. So there is no reason Harry Markopolis’s whistle blowing analysis of Madoff couldn’t have found its way into the blogosphere, rattling around until it caught the attention of the mainstream media. But would a blogger have spent the time to develop such an analysis. Mainstream journalists missed on this one, but I could well imagine an alternative universe where the Madoff Ponzi scheme emerged through the efforts of an investigative journalist. Plenty of other things have.

What will the landscape of journalism look like in five or ten years, as the dinosaurs of print journalism breathe their last. Well, when the dinosaurs disappeared from the earth, the earth became overrun with rodents.