Weaving The Web

You Don't Have To Eat Flies, And The Company's Good

For a tad over a year, FredOnEverything has appeared like clockwork on Tuesdays. (If clockwork appears on Tuesdays.) Writing the beast has been fun. It has also been an adventure, an excursion into a dark continent of journalism that becomes less dark and more portentous every day. The Web is unlike anything else in my disreputable trade. I love it.

On the assumption that the Internet fascinates readers as much as it does me (you're reading this, aren't you?), I thought I'd jot a few thoughts on I've learned. The following won't be uproarious, and not too noticeably organized, yet may be worth a read.

I came to the Web because it was, and is, impossible to write honestly, or with wit, or style, or much thought, in the traditional media. We all know this. The reasons are several. What they boil down to is that, while editors all believe themselves to be gutsy mavericks who tell it like it is, they are in fact frightened of advertisers, readers, minorities, and each other. They won't admit it, often don't know it, but they want predictable copy that won't get them in trouble -- copy that says nothing and says it droningly.

FredOnEverything, they sense immediately, is not that. (Astute rascals, they are.)

My question was: Does journalism have to be this bad? More practically, could a column survive and prosper on the Net? All by itself? Without being attached to some major web site? Can you just, well, do it? Go independent?

I set out to see.

In the beginning I knew a lot about computers, but nothing about the Web. I floundered mightily. Fortunately a very smart lady in New Orleans taught me everything I know about the Web, and three percent of what she knows. After making every known mistake, and a good many that were of my own discovery, I learned the answer:

Yes. You can wing it. After a year on line, FOE has tens of thousands of readers each week (the number varying depending on the subject) and grows apace. The Web works.

Wow.

The Web, I found, also has several journalistically astonishing qualities. It is cheap, my site costing well under $500 a year to keep on the air. Automated email subscription services are free. You get quick feedback from readers, some of whom become friends. There isn't really too much to learn to get started -- a little html, how to use ftp software, what a list is.

For this minor effort the Internet provides instantaneous, worldwide distribution, twenty-four hours a day, at a cost that is essentially zero and does not rise with volume. Hooo-ahhh!

Times change. Yes indeedy. Ten years ago, even thinking about the foregoing statement would have had people believing that you were listening to little voices. Now it's just, you know, the Web. Like corn flakes.

FredOnEverything is small potatoes, except to me. What will the Web do to mainstream journalism? I dunno. Right now, the press is a closed club. The mainstream ignores publications on the Web -- doesn't, with the occasional exception, quote them, refer to them, or often mention their existence. The New York Times quotes CBS, which quotes the Wall Street Journal, which quotes the AP, which quotes the New York Times. Web pubs haven't broken the circle, and may never do so.

The question is whether it matters.

Newspapers are in decline. Every year the editors and publishers meet in convention, and blame their lost circulation on -- who would have thought it? -- everybody else. The public is illiterate, they decide, doesn't read, isn't involved in national life. The possibility that they might have a lousy product doesn't ruffle the smooth surface of their minds.

Editors don't get it. They remind me of dinosaurs looking with puzzlement at the film of ice growing on the swamp, and thinking it will probably go away.

Meanwhile, the Web is increasingly the newspaper of choice for smart people. How many, I don't know. Getting hard data about the Web is difficult. Still, a lot of my friends no longer take a newspaper, a fact to which newspapers would be wise to give careful thought.

The advent of Web-only publications, as for example WorldnetDaily, is ominous for ink-on-paper journals. Start-up costs are minuscule compared to those for ink pubs. You don't need huge web-offset presses at a couple of million per, or a farm of trucks and illegal immigrants to distribute papers. Economics will no longer keep out competition. And web pubs can probably afford to write for politically incorrect readerships frozen out by the mainstream.

Further, paper publications are under threat from odd forms that aren't quite journalism. Instead of reading papers, people subscribe to Internet lists that deal with topics of interest to them. A list might, for example, be devoted to African politics. Members of the list will cut-and-paste stories in the South African newspapers (which are on the Web) and post them to the list. Others will post the URLs of studies -- the original documents, unspun -- on the progress of AIDS. Doctors who work in the bush will post their observations.

The result is an intelligent, lively, informed, uncensored view that just ain't to be had anywhere else. Newspapers can't compete: They irremediably believe that error-ridden copy, by blankly ignorant writers of modest intellect, is lusted after by the public.

Something I can't document, though I swear it exists, is the Under-The-Radar Effect. When a story on a politically sensitive topic occurs, the media spin it in the racially, sexually, and ideologically correct way. For example, if a baseball player doesn't like immigration and publicly-funded bastardy, the press speaks of slurs and bigotry and calls for psychiatric treatment and compulsory training in sensitivity.

Ten years ago, the huge numbers of people who agreed with the baseball player would have ground their teeth and talked in pairs in bars. They had no way to communicate, or even to be sure of each other's existence. Today, a countersurge washes across the Internet, on newsgroups, lists, email, and incorrect web sites. The media can't control it, barely know it exists -- but it portends a whole new world. I'm not sure just how, but it's going to matter. Oh yes.

Them's my thoughts, poor and wee as they are. Que sera, sera. While I'm at it, I want to thank readers who have come along on this adventure. You don't always agree with me, but then, neither do I, and you've been splendid good company. Do stick around.