Elephant Diaries: Connecting the Dots on the George Will Affair

There is a line to be drawn, it seems to me, connecting the events of the George Will affair and my elephant diaries (the series of posts in which I try to sort out the past and future of my industry).

In short summary, the affair illustrates both the way new information ecosystems have developed that are vastly superior for those seeking information to the old one-to-many media models built on newspapers and other mainstream media. But the affair also illustrates the shortcomings of those new media models.

To review, for those not following closely:

  • George Will wrote a column that caused some concern among those who closely follow climate, because of questions about the accuracy of some of his descriptions of science past and present. Will’s column, importantly, was published in a newspaper, the Washington Post.
  • Many people, supporters of Will’s arguments and detractors, published many words in response. Those words were published (with a couple of notable exceptions), on the Web.
  • One notable exception was a piece by Andy Revkin that took Will to task. It was published in a newspaper, the New York Times. (Revkin’s Times story did other things, but the salient point for purposes of this discussion is his critique of Will.)
  • Will responded to Revkin’s critique with a second column. It also was published in a newspaper, the Washington Post.
  • More was written in various fora in response to Will’s second piece, essentially all of it on the Web, until…
  • The Washington Post published two additional pieces this weekend, one by Chris Mooney and the other by Michel Jarraud of the World Meteorological Organization. Those pieces were printed on paper and distributed to the Post’s readers.

I happen to think the Mooney and Jarraud pieces are of particular importance here, for reasons that are worth exploring in some detail in the context of the ongoing discussion about the future of my industry (newspapers).

In a widely read essay (actually I guess the text of a talk) Stephen Berlin Johnson argues that we are in the midst of seeing new ecosystems form around the creation, distribution and consumption of information. It’s a terrific piece, I commend the whole thing to your attention. His central framework is this:

[T]oday’s media is in fact much closer to a real-world ecosystem in the way it circulates information than it is like the old industrial, top-down models of mass media. It’s a much more diverse and interconnected world, a system of flows and feeds – completely different from an assembly line.

Johnson’s fundamental premise is optimistic – that if you look at information ecosystems that have had time to mature (his signal example is coverage of the Mac, but he has a number of others as well, most especially the vast scope of information available on line about the 2008 U.S. presidential election), there are reasons to be hopeful about that which will spring up to replace the sort of dying business model I inhabit, which is to say the old mainstream media.

I would argue that the web of information about climate science is one example of such a mature on line ecosystem. Similar to Johnson’s example of the way he once had to wait eagerly for the monthly issue of MacWorld magazine or lean on the occasional Mac news crumb in the New York Times, a member of the general public wanting the latest climate science news faced incredibly slim pickings. They’d have to wait for a scribe like me to pen something in their local paper, or else tromp down to the university library to see what was in the technical journals for themselves.

Today, the climate information available on line is vast. You can check the monthly global temperature numbers for yourself from any one of a number of different sources, or watch the ups and downs of sea ice levels. Climate scientists blog, trying to translate their technical jargon into an accessible form for the “lay audience”, and intermediaries like myself blog. And blog. And blog.

This ecosystem kicked into high gear following Will’s column, and for those who were interested, there was no shortage of analysis.

And yet it seemed important to those who follow the issue that a response to George Will’s column be published in the Washington Post. On pieces of paper. If, as Johnson argues, the new ecosystem will be sufficient to meet our information needs, or even better, why was it so important that Chris Mooney have a piece published in the Washington Post? Why did I feel it so important that my response to Will’s work be published in the newspaper for which I work, the Albuquerque Journal?

I have a good friend, I’ll call him N, who cares passionately about, and writes well about, a particular set of issues. I often over the years have urged him to start a blog. The volume and thoughtfulness of his emails, the quality of his writing, would lend itself to such a venture. I’d love to read it. I’d happily link to it, frequently.

N has never been willing to take up my suggestion. Rather, it is more important for him to get me to write about his ideas in the newspaper. If, as  Johnson argues, these new ecosystems are likely to be sufficient replacements, or even better than, the old media they are replacing, why is it so important to get Mooney’s piece in the Post or N’s ideas in the Albuquerque Journal?

The answer lies in the fundamental difference between the old general-purpose product represented by the old media model, as compared to the way the new ecosystems function. In the new ecosystem, those who cared about the issues Will was writing about sought out his piece, and sought out those who might illuminate the issue under discussion. For someone who cares about climate science and politics, just as Johnson as a young man cared about Macs, this new ecosystem is sweet.

But Will’s column and Mooney’s response mattered because of an entirely separate audience, which remains unreached and to me seems unreachable via these new information ecosystems – those who wouldn’t self-select an argument over global warming, but who might be informed by it. I have yet to see a new media ecosystem that delivers that audience in the way that serendipity delivers them as they flip the pages of their morning paper.


  1. Gravityloss does a pretty good job on how Will functioned as an enabler, and why pushing back is important. Necessary, perhaps insufficient, but this example will make the editorial page editors think a bit as well as Will (maybe). OTOH, Eli has always been a happy bunny

  2. John – -great post.

    You miss one factor (relevant, I think): Paper is EXPENSIVE (time, editorial, etc.), so things in the PAPER (even if you read them online) are “better” as far as the signal to readers of what to read…

    I agree on the ecosystem/debate analogy. Blogs are the future of academic debate. Now we need to figure out how to connect them to tenure…

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  4. ” If, as Johnson argues, the new ecosystem will be sufficient to meet our information needs, or even better, why was it so important that Chris Mooney have a piece published in the Washington Post? Why did I feel it so important that my response to Will’s work be published in the newspaper for which I work, the Albuquerque Journal?”

    Maybe it’s just me, but I think you can answer this with one word: gravitas. Anything printed in a major newspaper has more of it than anything posted in any blog.

    There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is surely the feeling that “Someone important at the Post has looked at this and judged it worthy of its very limited and very valuable space.” There’s a journalistic professionalism that’s associated, rightly or wrongly, with major newspapers and magazines that simply is not associated with blogs and such.

    In fact, the uproar over Will’s original column had two very distinct components. The first, obviously, was the content of the column itself. But the second, nearly as big as the first, was “Why did the Post fail me? How could they print this? I trusted them!” Can you imagine a similar outpouring of venom if Will’s column had been posted online–anywhere online–rather than in the Post?

    Someone is supposed to be checking what’s printed in the Post. Who’s checking what gets posted in my blog? Or yours? Nobody is, and that is a big difference. That the Post’s staff failed to do this properly was a huge part of what got so many people so upset.

  5. Ideally, when something is printed on paper or published online, serious replies *that appear in the same place*, so that the same people (might) see it, are worth a lot more than all sorts of replies/comments that appear elsewhere.

    Consider some of the asymmetries that happen:

    a) A paper prints an OpEd. People write letters in reply. How many such letters get printed
    – in a local paper?
    – in a regional one?
    – in a national one?

    b) Is the selection of letters to print balanced, or not?
    (I’m always amused by the number of letters The Economist prints that criticize them.)

    c) If there is a correction, is it printed with the same prominence.. or is it buried?

    d) A similar thing comes up with newsletter-type publications, which often go on monthly or quarterly cycles, and sometimes print stuff that may be pretty bad, but takes a long time to correct. (I’m thinking of last year’s Monckton-vs-FPS mess, for example.) To some extent, it might be wise to replace some portions of such things with well-moderated blog publication. I.e., if someone wants to write a speculative/controversial paper, for which there are insufficient referring resources, put it up, and let people hack away.

  6. John,

    I’m late to this because I’ve been too busy hiking in southern Utah. So I’m just getting caught up.

    Consider this too: why does a story on the Times’ or Post’s printed version of A1 carry much more weight than A15?

    In the internet age, when so many of us read our news digitally, why should it matter where a story appears in print? But it does, of course.

  7. A related thought that I’ve recently had: I just joined a collection of science bloggers who are tied to a paper magazine (Seed). Chris Mooney just moved from Seed’s group of blogs to those associated with Discover. The blogging groups associated with print publications seem more… desirable, maybe?… then other blogging groups that exist only in cyberspace. (To me, at least.) I don’t know why, but they do.

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