The Web Guru

otr 12 The Web GuruIf you wanted to wipe out the American media establishment in one blow, you might have targeted the Grand Ballroom on the third floor of the Plaza hotel at around 9 a.m. on Nov. 12.

The Foursquare Conference was organized by media mogul Steve Rattner’s Quadrangle Partners, and had the kind of exclusive list Mr. Rattner is known for. Barry Diller attended the conference, as did Lachlan Murdoch, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and Tribune chief Sam Zell.

It was just the place for Jeff Jarvis, the tall 54-year-old professorial-looking guy who was looking intently through unfashionable glasses at the participants of a panel discussion on the state of American media, from his perch up front.

The blogger, professor and media consultant has, through his Web sites, seminars, journalism classes, panel-discussion appearances and the occasional flame-war, preached for some time now the gospel of New Media. These days, it’s taking hold—and not just among the patchwork constituency of media studies majors, technophile utopians and media malcontents left and right. To oversimplify it: The old business of journalism has failed. It was full of monopolies, a lot of egos, a lot of overhead; presided over by a medieval guild of protectionist editors, copy editors, managers; staffed by reporters who were doomed to stand alongside “competitors” to cycle out the same press-conference reports for only marginally different audiences.

A new model of journalism, one that starts in his West 40th Street classroom, begins with new ideas, a smaller staff, and a direct cooperation with the public to contribute stories, ideas, videos and more.

If newsrooms are getting smaller, anyway, it’s time to rethink them. Critics, opinion writers, lifestyle writers are all a waste of space. In an industry with few resources, throw them overboard first. Editors just get in the way. They should teach the public how to report for itself, instead of coming between them and the news.

On a recent Friday evening, he was sitting with a glass of red wine in a corner booth at Lindy’s, the fading retro commuter bar inside the Hotel Pennsylvania across the street from Penn Station.

Beginning from a premise anyone can accept—truisms, critics might say—he builds his argument subtly—insidiously, again, a critic might say.

“We should embrace change,” he said. “Instead, too often we fight change. That’s the nature of organizations and institutions that hold power. Change might mean losing power. The great and magnificent irony of online—this would really send [Ron] Rosenbaum’s spine up—is that in my blog, in what I call Jarvis’ Law, is that I say if you give people control, we will use it. If you don’t, you lose us. The counterintuitive way of the Internet age is when you give up control, you win. The old way was to maintain control to win.”

Mr. Jarvis speaks in short, PowerPoint-ready sentences. And that’s because he often gives them! About a month ago, he organized a CUNY conference that developed models for a new newsroom.

In one session, a group convened concluded that you needed only a few dozen people to cover the entire city of Philadelphia.

“This city used to have 400 in a newsroom, now we have 35,” he said. “Surely that’s not enough to cover news in this community. But! You have the opportunity to create new networks. Which would include, yes, bloggers and freelancers and could also include recently laid-off journalists who can start their own businesses.

“Is the new model better or worse?” he asked. “The first answer is, that’s irrelevant. This is how people connect with each other for information now. Having said that, it’s better. I have more sources for information than I ever had before.”

Editors, he argues, can be cut significantly, because they don’t create value the way reporters do.

“Community organizers” is the term he uses for the editors of the future: the people who teach “citizens” how to call and verify information; how to do sourcing; all those things you would learn on the first day of your CUNY J-school class.

These ideas, which he’s been trying to sell to journalists for years are resonating now, with their cash-strapped publishers: opening up journalism, albeit in a careful way, to the masses. If it seems unlikely that a major news organization like The Wall Street Journal would turn its editors into community organizers, that might just be because they’re not that interested in finding new jobs for the editors they want to chuck.

“We’re always looking to streamline the editing process,” said Alan Murray, the executive editor of wsj.com, in a telephone interview. “Look, this is a challenging time for our economic models, and we certainly don’t want to reduce the reporting we do, and we’re looking for efficiencies all over the place.”

To meet Mr. Jarvis is to wonder how he can have become the bogeyman to so many in his profession. He is tall with that recessive posture that is meant to compensate, the body repelling the attention his ideas so readily attract. He has a good face, not a frightening one; when he speaks on anything, however small, the circumspection and intentionality ripples around his gray-stubbled, professorial face.

But his is a model of journalism that gives a lot of old-school journalists a vague feeling of nausea.

Mr. Jarvis had shown up at the Foursquare conference pretty revved up by one of them, Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum (formerly a columnist for this newspaper), who had referred to Mr. Jarvis in an excoriating piece as a wannabe Marshall McLuhan who is “visibly running for New Media Pontificator in Chief.”

“He’s become increasingly heartless about the reporters, writers, and other ‘content providers’ who have been put out on the street by the changes in the industry,” Mr. Rosenbaum wrote. “Not only does he blame the victims, he denies them the right to consider themselves victims. They deserve their miserable fate—and if they don’t know it, he’ll tell them why at great length. Sometimes it sounds as if he’s virtually dancing on their graves.”

“Sadly, Rosenbaum doesn’t debate the idea and history and fate of journalism, which might be productive or at least provocative,” Mr. Jarvis wrote in a response to Mr. Rosenbaum on his blog, early the following afternoon. “Instead, like a pissy third grader, he attacks me. Because of my opinion, he says he doesn’t ‘like’ me anymore. Take that, Jarvis! You can’t sit at my lunch table ever again! He reminds me of that same third grader who, when he doesn’t study for a test and sees the results of his inattention, whines, cries and stomps his little feet, declaring, ‘It’s not fair.’ No, kid, life ain’t.”