Traditional Publishers vs. Evolving Social (Media) Conventions

So the Editor in Chief of the New York Times went and wrote something that’s irritated a few of us Intertubes Types.

There’s a part of me that can’t get past the feeling we’ve stepped into a time warp. That this is a conversation more suited to five, maybe ten years ago, when those of us who worked in the nascent online wings of “traditional” publishing houses were viewed by colleagues as mad Che Guevaras; anarchists possessed of rebellious inclinations to set the building ablaze or gleefully slather all the telephone receivers with peanut butter.

As industries, news and publishing should have long since moved beyond the fact that the digital transition is happening and that adapting to the flow of history is the productive way forward, rather than sitting on the sidelines wagging fingers while revenue sails by. The audience chooses the time, place, and manner of the transaction now. Making money means dealing with them on their own terms.

Despite the gripes from folks like me, much of publishing’s leadership has actually acknowledged this sea change, at least in word. And therein lies the rub. For when it comes time to actually follow through with deeds their collective stomachs seem to turn, and out pops a piece like Keller’s. Somewhere there’s a block between thought and action.

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekco has put forth some supremely thoughtful comments regarding this cycle of acknowledgement and backsliding that continues to plague large institutional publishers. “[T]his angst is about conventions and conventions evolve which always horrifies those who have acquired privilege and power by mastering certain conventions while dismissing others.” She continues:

What we are seeing with social media is the public sphere, hitherto dominated by written culture, has been more opened up to oral psychodynamics. And this is particularly difficult to deal with for intellectuals who rely on their competence with, and dominance of, the written form as hallmark of their place in society.

A distaste with the cuisine keeps them from sitting down for the meal. Comfort with the style of these new interactions will only come with time and continued, full-on exposure. It feels inevitable, but it requires a true willingness on the part of these same publishers to rub elbows with the rabble. Just showing up to the shindig isn’t enough. We like handing our cash over to folks who actually want to talk with us.