S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 6 July 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
After the Gold Rush

 

[]

In May 1997, The Washington Post

dispatched papal legate Howard

Kurtz to the "grime-covered"

offices of Feed to issue an

encyclical on the heathen land of

the Internet. The result was a

romantic piece purporting to

chronicle the final moments

before big-media "sharks" would

dominate America's favorite

fishbowl. (Kurtz's quaint

evocation of an innocent and

fleeting era is best shown by

his quoting two Suck Dailies for

the first and probably last

time.) We suspect most Post

Style section readers flipped

over to "The Reliable Source"

tout de suite, but the

2,000-plus-word opus must have

landed like a flaming stone

tablet on the filthy couches of

underemployed journalists: Get

online, frustrated young writer,

while the big shots are still

nervous and curious enough to

read this electric crap.

 

Today, the insta-historian

reading Kurtz's article for

foreshadowings of the new-media

monde to come would be drawn to

the quotes from lately hatched

IPO-lings David Talbot and James

Cramer. But look closer: There's

John Heilemann, The New Yorker

writer formerly of HotWired.

There's Courtney Weaver, then an

online Anka, today an offline

scribe with a six-figure book

deal. Josh Quittner, then of the

late Netly News, now an

ink-and-paper newsweekly

columnist. Jon Katz, blessedly

lucky Netizen now turned

blessedly lucky Rolling Stone

Netropologist. Kurtz's piece is

a veritable St. Elmo's Fire of

minor-media lights gone into

print, notable not so much for

those who would find riches

online as for those who would

grab an offline lifeline as soon

as they were spotted from the

deck.

 

[]

With all the attention lately

given to the Internet

Millionaires, there's been

almost none for the medium's

true — and more legion —

success story: the Internet

Thousandaires. You want absurd

multiples? You want ROI? You

want insane growth on no

fundamentals? How about

transforming an income stream of

US$100 online-mag reviews and

$300, 1,500-word articles into

$2-plus-a-word dispensations

from Si Newhouse and Gerald

Levin? Beat that, Michael Dell!

 

The Big Score may grab the

headlines, but those madly

keeping the ASCII flying in the

cheap satanic mills of online

publishing know it's always been

about the Little Score,

notwithstanding either the

mercantile myth of today's

official online narrative or the

prefab idealism of yesterday's.

"For legions of aspiring

writers, the Web was nirvana,"

Kurtz wrote in 1997, "a magical

place where anyone could become

a publisher without having to

shell out for printing

presses...."

 

Ahem. Kurtz's Rossetto-colored

view may still hold true for

those of us with "angelfire" in

our URLs, but for paid scribes,

the Web was and is a magical

place where someone else could

become a publisher and would

shell out beer money, at least,

while giving you a national

platform and the attention of

bored, lunch-breaking magazine

editors, all for contributing

weed-stoked ruminations to

seat-of-the-pants, copy-starved

outlets with lower entrance

requirements than a mid-sized

burg's alternative shopper.

 

Once in a while, a new-media

metaphor actually fits, like

today's "gold rush" and "land

grab" tropes. While the Sutters

got the notice, the West was

truly won by the thousands of

outcasts from civilized society

who supported their

corn-squeezin' habits by selling

shovels and picks for a

half-eagle a piece and whose

descendants would someday own

not uranium mines but 7-eleven

franchises. Just so, Web

publications hosted a microflora

of grateful newspaper and

broadcast washouts, alt-weekly

regulars, and quasi-academics on

the career slow track, who took

advantage of the

disproportionate attention

accorded the novelty medium to

accelerate their careers.

 

[]

And like many an earlier

immigrant, they're hopping the

boat back to the old country as

soon as their paychecks clear.

James Surowiecki, the

hardest-working man in, well,

business, leapfrogged from the

Motley Fool to Salon to Slate

before blazing into New York

magazine, Fortune, and finally

(by way of The New Yorker,

Details, and Worth)

a staff job at Talk. Netly alum

Noah Robischon offers digital

cred to both Brill's

Content and Entertainment

Weekly. And besides Weaver

(whose axing leavened the

sex-mad rep of a magazine that

had just loosed 300 pounds of

white-maned lovin'), Salon bled

books editor Dwight Garner (The

New York Times Book Review ),

editor Lori Leibovich (Talk,

again), and most recently, media

columnist and Surowiecki

doppelgänger James

Poniewozik (Time). Even those

who haven't defected altogether

cross the border as often as

possible — like our own

Sucklings, who've hit up Spin, Mother

Jones, Wired, and others for

hard currency, real Western blue

jeans, and above all, Y2K-proof

clips.

 

These are the Long Boom's

depression babies, dedicated to

locking in their middling

fortune before the building and

loan shuts down. And yet,

ironically, their minor grabs at

coin wouldn't be possible

without the online-jackpot myth

and the disproportionate

attention it lends their digital

work. Marisa Bowe of Word

recently penned a New York

Observer piece about Silicon Alley

IPO envy that resonated like a

Howl for new-media near-missers:

"I saw the luckiest minds of my

generation get filthy fucking

rich!" In her heart of hearts,

though, does she envy the vested

denizens of iVillage? Or Ira

Glass, who's parlayed Word's own

mix of pitch-perfect amateurism,

musical snippets, and

worst-job-ever stories into a

more imaginable, mid-grade

success: a record album, a

possible television show, and

unchallenged roosterhood of

public radio's lonely-hearts

henhouse? Impression editor (and

MSNBC.com alum) Andy Wang may

have impishly placed his site on

the auction block for $3

million. But does he really

dream of getting his full

valuation from Wall Street or

from West 43rd Street?

 

[]

As for the much-vaunted

old-to-new-media migration, no

one's denying Dave Kansas or

Larry Kramer props, but some of

the splashier entrants make

their promised land look more

like Australia than the New

Jerusalem. CNN's Lou Dobbs

on-air-tantrummed his way into

space-mogul status and has been

less-convincingly protesting his

enthusiasm ever since.

Meanwhile, Tailwind vet Peter

Arnett barely had time to get

the Sarin smell dry-cleaned out

of his wardrobe before jumping

into foreignnews.com. And why

not, really? It's a more

romantic metaphor: the Web as

French Foreign Legion, welcoming

all and asking no questions. How

many weeks, really, does anyone

expect lost Wunderkind Ruth

Shalit to spend stamping

impeccably crafted, glossy-grade

license plates at her present

halfway house before she and

some rehabilitationist print

editor decide she's paid her

debt to society?

 

But it's old media's ur-castaway,

Michael Kinsley, who really

encapsulates the nonvicious

circle of coverage of the

new-media story. He leaps onto

the Web, and it's proof of the

viability of new media. He

nearly skips off, and it's the

same story — you don't keep

Si stewing in his hotel suite if

you believe you're stuck in this

decade's equivalent of CB radio.

But what the inside-baseball

analysts of the decision almost

totally ignored, reading it as a

clash of old and new media, was

that Kinsley would have been

giving up a fat pot of Microsoft

stock options — no paltry

IPO lottery tickets — for

mere prestige and a paycheck.

 

There's your proof of the

arrival of new media — and

surprising evidence that Kinsley

is much more of a true Web

journalist than he's credited

for being. He, just like the

third-string army crying for

Tina Brown's notice, realizes

that prospecting the Web is no

longer either an exile or a

higher calling. It's just a

freaking job. As he and his

less-blessed brethren know, the

most powerful medium is and will

always be a printed one: namely,

the kind that uses green ink.

 
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