SXSW: What happens after the Times dies?

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It's become a truism to say that print is dying. But what happens when it really happens? A panel including New York Times media writer David Carr contemplated a very specific moment: if the Times were to go out of business.

Daily Kos blog impresario Markos Moulitsas said that criticism of media outlets are sometimes misconstrued as wishes for their death. New York-area blogger Amy Langfield posited that bloggers can't just replace the Times -- and she talked about a specific tale about someone trying to get one specific story covered when a NY Times reporter couldn't -- there just wasn't anyone out there with the pockets.

David Carr talked about being scooped by Gawker on the story of the shuttering of Portfolio magazine, thanks to the grind of the editorial process. But he also defended the paper's reach -- a list of stories only the New York Times can do: reports from Mexico's drug wars, or from Iraq; he described a sad future where there was no broad newspaper, only "verticals of interest," and that a lot of what succeeds online is stuff that "glitters" (those "Top 10 X" stories I mentioned in my last post).

Reason's Greg Beatto proposed a more crowdsourced model of investigative journalism, facetiously suggesting that if everyone in America did 30 seconds of investigative work a year, the Times could be replaced. Moulitsas used his site as an example -- with crowdsourced information emerging among his 30,000 readers about Sarah Palin in the immediate aftermath of her nomination for VP. Carr was less phlegmatic on the topic -- and felt there were problems with assembling bits in terms of knowing where the information comes from ultimately. This set off a bit of a contretemps between Moulitsas and Carr on whether the the sourcing for the Times is a root cause of their woes; this seemed to me to be wholly besides the point. The bad sourcing that caused the Spanish-American War didn't bring down print, after all. The root cause of the problems are economic, it seems to me.

And to Beato as well. He quoted Carr's column that "on the Web, pretty good is good enough." It costs money to make the product perfect, and Beato thinks that it can't afford that. Moulitsas felt that perhaps pretty good can be good because people needs to become less credible about any source -- which devalues institutions like the Times whose sort of purpose rests on being a publication that you don't have to question, because you can assume they're right for the most part. At the same time, there everyone sort of assumed that the Times stands at the base of this reputation economy -- people who hear crazy rumors head there for a reality check.

Beato suggested that crowdsourcing might work better for writers than editors -- he brought up AOL's new Seed program, which is like Demand Media's model, where nonprofessionals already interested in topics write articles for non-living wages. This is of course an idea that strikes fear into the hearts of professional writers like me.

So who will fill the void? Who will pay for the investigative reporting, or the people who go to the city council meetings? There was a lot of sunny optimism that it could be picked up by emerging new media -- a few Web sites were mentioned. It just doesn't seem realistic to me, and the answers struck me as more hopeful than concrete.

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