My friend and colleague Abby Ellin, forty, an author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, also expressed dismay about the situation of Lost Media, starting with a reference to how publishers fawn over bloggers. Ellin was referring to the spate of misery-inducing book sales by bloggers of late, like the guy who founded the goofy Web site Stuff White People Like and subsequently landed a book contract on the subject for a rumored $300,000—although his publisher’s publicist has denied this figure without elaborating whether the deal was higher or lower. (And what, according to the book, do white people like?: “Whole Foods, Wes Anderson movies, graduate school, kitchen gadgets, Barack Obama, Apple products .”) It’s the kind of thing that makes earnest old-school authors like Ellin, whose book, Teenage Waistland, about the obesity epidemic, wonder about their life choices. As Ellin puts it, even though she is “fairly established,” she believes the articles and books she writes just aren’t “enough” anymore. It’s a jumbled zone for us to decode: “high”- or middle-brow journalism culture, like fancy journals or the newsweeklies, now often hire or utilize “low” culture, like unaffiliated bloggers, to take on the latter’s appearance of relevance and popularity. In fact, there are so many recombinant strains of expression that are now called “journalism” that, as Ellin tells me, it’s hard to know what is in one’s self-interest and what is laudable and what is possible and what is important. “Should I go to business school because everyone’s a writer now?” Ellin asks, her voice rising. “With all the blogs, I am a dime a dozen and I feel totally ubiquitous.”
Beneath the immediate professional anxiety, what profoundly troubles the people of Lost Media is that we feel as if we are on the brink of losing our “imagined communities,” the term Benedict Anderson used to describe publics that came to be through the common, general, circulation-enhancing “national print-languages.”
Found Media, on the other hand, tends to be unafraid and assured. Its avatars believe in creative destruction and distributed networks. They believe we must get with their verve-filled program right now. Still, while listening to some of their koans, I must admit that I expected to hear at least a few notes of loss. Weren’t any of them mourning the days when journalists might be revered or even when there was a drinks cart at Time magazine for the late shift? But they weren’t, partially because none of them could remember the time when you were served a bourbon while you were coming up with a headline, or even a time when you were promised retirement funds.
Robert S. Boynton, the director of the magazine writing program at New York University’s Department of Journalism, wrote in an e-mail that his students’ stake in the old system is “minimal,” so “they are less upset by its demise .We do our students a tremendous disservice when we promote the myth of a golden age, when everyone was a budding Joan Didion and every magazine was Esquire under Harold Hayes,” says Boynton. “The world of magazines has always been small and competitive, impoverished and uncertain.”
Another thing that protects the Found Media-ites from nostalgia is that they often don’t elevate the great writers of the past as those of my generation did. Cohn names Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, as an inspiration; he mentions Adrian Holovaty, a twenty-seven-year-old journalist and programmer who got Internet-famous for mashing up Google maps of Chicago with crime statistics reported by the Chicago Police Department to create a crime map. “I don’t have the Watergate fantasy,” Cohn said, distinguishing himself from his elders. His heroes, he said, are less journalists than those who “conceive of the changing role of the journalist.”
But Boynton, editor of The New New Journalism, argues that the young population of Found Media does honor some key values from the past. The parts of the old system “that they do hold dear—story, character, ideas, reporting—are the ones that will be most valued in the future.”