The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Buzz Off

Good luck well disguised.

The region's free paper Local Buzz, which bills itself as The Pioneer Valley's Online Journal of Culture, Commerce and Humor made a major announcement this week. They are literally living up to their slogan by killing the print version of their project and existing now purely online. Here is the key talent behind Local Buzz, jokingly posing with musical instruments.

Local Buzzers Greg Saulmon, Josh Thayer and Bill Peters

While this may seem like a logical extension of its mission, the statement by editor Greg Saulmon sounds wistful in parts, even to the point of suggesting something bad has happened.

If you were reading these words in print, you'd be reading the last physical issue of Local Buzz that will hit the streets. We are in the process of converting to an online-only publication. It's a challenging process, but it's ultimately one that will offer many opportunities for us to explore new ways of storytelling, and to build on the idea of "collaborative journalism" that we presented as one of the resolutions in our 01.08 issue.

I'd said from the beginning that I ultimately saw Local Buzz becoming a Web site that also published a newspaper, rather than following the obligatory newspaper-with-static-Web-presence model. I'll admit that I didn't expect that evolution to happen quite so suddenly. But, as my great-great-grandmother once told me, "When life gives you lemons, squeeze them into the eyes of your enemies." The time to innovate is now, and we're going to give it our best shot.

Okay, but I don't see any lemons! It gets worse:

Some words of gratitude are in order: to the advertisers who've supported us and allowed us to present these stories; to our contributors, who've given us far more amazing writing, photography and ideas than I could've hoped for, and who believed in what we were trying to do; and, most of all, to our readers. I hope you've enjoyed this little window into the region we call home, and I hope you'll continue to follow our online exploration of what it means to live in the Pioneer Valley.

What the fuck? That reads like an obituary! Let's clear the air here with a quote from blog guru Jeff Jarvis:

"Print is where words go to die."

The era of printed publications is over. All newspapers, not just Local Buzz but the New York Times, the Washington Post, all the magazines national and regional, everything, everywhere that is presently distributed by the printed page is going to follow Local Buzz into cyberspace or they are going out of business in less than ten years. There will be no exceptions. There is no third way. All that remains is the deathwatch.

So if the internet is the future of all media, the sooner one embraces that future the brighter that future will be for anyone who makes their living writing. Yet it is writers who often seem the most reluctant to make the transition. It's as if they feel that being online, as opposed to being in print, is somehow a step down. This despite the fact that the internet, with its global reach, far surpasses the distributive power of any publication. I hate to say it, but I think a lot of the hesitation is pure ego.

The old dying media system was extremely elitist. In order to communicate to a mass audience in the pre-internet days you had to have access to expensive technology. You had to have a printing press, or a broadcasting tower, and all the technical know-how, licenses and unionized employees that implied. That meant 99% of the public could not print an article or go on television or on the radio, making those who did have such access, namely the reporters and writers who worked for the people who owned the printing presses and broadcast towers, a power so enormous it was almost invisible.

They could decide what people read. They could decide what people saw. They could decide what people heard. What's news? What they said was news. What matters? They'll let you know. The relationship in the old media was of a small elite talking down to a mass audience that lacked any means of communicating in the same way. Therefore there was a real status to being a media person, since you had a voice nobody else had, no one of course except your other friends in the media priesthood, a membership you purchased with a pricey college degree.

But that's all over.

I have a friend who used to be a local music critic. His job epitomized the special status of the media priesthood. When he went to musical events everyone kissed his ass. The management of the club where the band was playing wanted to make sure he had a good seat, because a positive review in the paper would bring in more customers. The manager might even send a few rounds of free drinks over to my friend's table. The band itself couldn't wait to talk to my friend, since a good review in the paper would help their career. They would ask him to come backstage and meet all the stars of the band and of course there would be girls hanging around as well.

My friend got all this special treatment because of all the paying customers (and my friend the critic never paid) he was the only one among all the people in the room whose opinion mattered. If everyone in the audience loved the show, but the critic did not, then the whole Valley would hear that the show was bad. That was power, a power so pervasive he didn't really consciously recognize he had it until it slipped away.

When the internet came along my friend was no longer the only one in the room with a voice. The fans, the fanatical fans who know all the details of the band's history and were far more expert on the group than my friend could ever be, were writing reviews of the local shows that far surpassed what he could do in a ten paragraph review in the newspaper. The paper printed one picture from the show (not taken by the critic of course, union rules required a separate person, a photographer to do that) but the fans took their own pictures and put dozens up on their blogs. The fans in the blogosphere could collectively cover a show in far greater depth than what any newspaper critic could do. Audiences didn't need critics anymore, the audience itself was the only voice that mattered.

When my friend lost his job in a round of cutbacks designed to keep his paper afloat a little while longer, he said to me bitterly, "The internet has ruined everything!" Well, I guess if you're still paying off the loans on that journalism degree, only to see somebody who dropped out of college in their second semester who now has a blog readership bigger than your dying newspaper, that can seem pretty discouraging.

But actually if you put aside the ego and just embrace the new medium, the internet offers a writer far more freedom and economic opportunities than the old media did. If you are good, then you can attract an audience online. If you can attract an audience then you can sell that audience to advertisers. You can work without an editor and you get to keep the money from the ads for yourself. From a writer's perspective, what's there not to love?

Well, it's change and change is scary. You could be lazy at newspapers. Somebody told you what story to write, relieving you of the responsibility of finding a topic. Somebody else took the pictures. Somebody else took care of the profit side of things. For a long time journalism didn't change very much. You first learned how to function in a newsroom culture by working for your college paper, and the lessons you learned would serve you well in every newsroom you ever worked in for the rest of your life. Now the newsroom is dead, the modern media worker works from their home computer, gathers their stories on their own, takes their own pictures and video and sells their own ads - or has the Great God Google sell ads for them. We are all publishers. We are all photographers. We all broadcast on YouTube. We all sell ads. We are all media now.

So buck up Local Buzz people! Being kicked into cyberspace is like being told your family fortune, formerly invested in the Titanic, has now been invested in the Space Shuttle. In the race into cyberspace you're ahead of the New York Times, which will have no choice but to follow you there. Take advantage of being ahead of the curve. Don't waste energy yearning for an elitist media that is dying, and deserves to die.

As many of you know I started as a print publication called The Baystate Objectivist which debuted with it's first issue in November of 1991. I left the print world behind forever in 1998 when I went online with the Pioneer Valley's first blog, or so it would be called when the word blog entered the mainstream a few years later. At the time there was maybe only several dozen of us in the whole country. Before then people didn't know what to call what I was doing, the most common reference was simply to "that nutcase Tommy Devine."

That was ten years ago. It ain't so lonely out here on the frontier anymore. New folks keep showing up everyday. Soon there will be no place else to go. So make yourself at home Local Buzzers. I don't drink anymore but there's Budweiser in the fridge just the same. I don't smoke anymore either but I still have access to the best weed in the Valley. Help yourselves, crack a beer, light up and relax. Open your minds and dream a spell. The sky is blue, the hopes are high, and the party has just begun.

Some people said they thought I was being a little too snarky when I pointed out the absence of many black-skinned attendees at the Obama for President rally in Amherst yesterday. After all, everyone knows that aside from the students the population of Amherst consists primarily of rich white people. To make amends here is a picture of downtown Amherst's African restaurant Bakus which as you can see is prominently displaying an Obama sign in its window.

This afternoon there were ten or so people using the new ice skating rink at Amherst's Kendrick Park. Pretty much every time I go by there are at least few people on it, so I guess you would have to characterize the project as a success.

Finally, Amherst singer/songwriter Will Adams has a new video out, with images from the mighty Connecticut River.


Mary E.Carey said...

Inspiring! And you beat me to posting pics of people skating today.

Greg said...


Thanks for the words of encouragement.

I've had an odd career in Western MA media. I started out as a freelance blogger when MassLive was in its early days of blog-launching; then, I took this job in the world of print media. Now, I have the unique challenge of developing an online model for Local Buzz while still managing several other print publications and, in all likelihood, developing and launching even more.

The reason my message teetered on the wistful / obituarial side is that, in many ways, we'd finally hit our stride over the past 6-7 issues. We'd figured out what we did well, we were doing it, we were enjoying it, and more and more people were beginning to appreciate that. So while I agree that this move is well ahead of the curve in many ways -- well, we'd finally found our audience (or, they'd found us), so now we have the challenge of training them to remember to look for us online. Ultimately, any of the lemons I'm perceiving are matters of momentum, transition and resources.

I'm in complete agreement that print media is rapidly becoming obsolete; but, for the time being, it can serve as an effective marketing tool for driving your online traffic. Having those yellow boxes around town, and having new issues on the streets, was a good way to prompt people to remember to go to the Web site. There are, of course, other ways to do it, and that's something I'm confident we can figure out.

Thanks again for your thoughts; your post is exceptionally helpful.

-- Greg Saulmon