Old Media vs. New Media: Let's call this one off

It’s been a lot of fun, this long-running sniper’s war between Old Media and New Media. We’ve all enjoyed some hilarious slap-downs, all marveled at the sheer idiocy of the morons on the other side. (Oh, and let’s not forget their over-the-top mean-spiritedness.) But all fun things must end. It’s time to put the Old vs. New Media war to rest.

This framework, old vs. new, hasn’t been wholly wrong. For a long time it has mostly reflected facts on the ground. Old media was in the money-making driver’s seat and spent long hours scoffing and chortling at the new-media prophets. New media would not be outdone on the scoffing front, convinced that the digital revolution would change everything, if only old media would get out of the way. The battle lines were drawn and fixed. And there they would stay.

I was thinking about this last week on the drive up to San Francisco and the Online News Association. I wanted to write about the anniversary of my leaving the old (McClatchy’s Washington Bureau) and entering the new (USC Annenberg, writing and teaching about new media). What struck me is how this old framework was in the process of busting up, but also how much more dismantling was required. As many people have noted — Jay Rosen and Robert Niles among them — these shifting fault lines were much in evidence during ONA’s fabulous program. The old battles were somehow… fading away.

What happened? The war ended. The prophets turned out to be correct. The Internet has changed, is changing, everything — or close enough to everything that they get full credit. What else is happening? The crowd previously known as the money makers get it, too. The consensus now is overwhelming. Armistice is at hand.

Of course, not everyone gets it. Old ways die hard. And, in fact, there are still some real disputes. New-media veterans still see flare-ups of denialism that must be countered. The old-media crowd sometimes sees a presumption that everything old has now been discredited.

But these things now lie at the margins. The ground has shifted. There’s no longer a need to maintain a standing army. And, in fact, it gets in the way of progress.

To my friends in old media, I’d say: If you haven’t already, admit that the new-media thinkers were right — because they were. The Internet would change everything, it would revolutionize and devastate the business you came to love, and there are people who saw this much earlier than you did. (Let me say: Earlier than I did as well.) To my friends in the new media, I’d say: Kudos. You deserve acknowledgment for your vision and smart thinking. But now: Lower the barriers to entry in what used to be your world and yours alone. Newcomers are blessings to embrace, not Johnny-Come-Latelys to be mocked.

We journalists are back together again, or sure as heck should be,and the enemy now isn’t the other side but the challenge of finding new ways and new models that will sustain the information needs of democracy. This work needs everyone’s good thinking, and will be accomplished much more easily if it’s not weighed down by old grudges and tribal loyalties. What a richer world this will be when new-media thinkers critique new media with the same vigor they bring to old media, when old-media veterans feel free to say that old ways don’t work and may not have been the greatest anyway.

Tina Brown, also observing a one-year anniversary this week (the Daily Beast), declared the battle between print and Internet a “phony war.” I wouldn’t say the war was phony, exactly. I’d just say: it’s over.

About David Westphal

After almost four decades in newspapering, I've made the jump to academia at USC's Annenberg Journalism School in Los Angeles. I hope to use my recent experience as head of McClatchy's Washington Bureau to write about the revolution that's taking place in journalism -- and in particular to study new-media business models. I'm a senior fellow at Annenberg's Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and also affiliated with the Knight Digital Media Center.


  1. says:

    Why is it that all you “new media” people fail to recognize the fact that newspaper website dominate traffic-wise in just about every city they’re in?
    Old world media still dominates, by and large, in the new media world.

  2. says:

    Take a look at the list of winners of the Online News Association’s awards: The Las Vegas Sun, The Washington Post, Florida Today, NPR, McClatchy, The Military Times, the BBC, The Los Angeles Times, Radio Free Europe, The New York Times (twice), even the (Binghamton, N.Y.) Press and Sun-Bulletin . . .

    Guess what? By and large, the people doing the best “new media” work are, um, the old media.

  3. says:

    So where do we hang our “Mission Accomplished” banner from? Because as the comments before mine illustrate better than I could myself, the “war” isn’t over.

    Now, now we’re inundated with “old school” types who suddenly think their newly created Facebook profiles mark them as “web savvy” and that somehow, this makes them uniquely suited to run the very web operations they scoffed at only a few years before.

    Yeah, ok, the war’s over… now don’t fall on that sword – kthxbai

  4. says:

    I worry that, in fact, both sides have lost.

    The old media have lost because their income streams have been destroyed and their capacity to report is a fraction of what it was.

    But the new media have lost too, because for all their talk about new ways of reporting, the best online news is being done by the old media guys in new media clothes. YouTube is full of TV clips, news sites are full of newspaper reprints.

    Online social media is proving a wonderful source of gossip, but there’s a gulf between gossip and news, and that’s what we’re in danger of losing altogether.

  5. says:

    Why is it that all you “new media” people fail to recognize the fact that newspaper website dominate traffic-wise in just about every city they’re in?
    Old world media still dominates, by and large, in the new media world.

    EXACTLY (and I’m “New media”…for a newspaper)

  6. says:

    David: I do not mean this in any mean spirited way, but you have not gone from old media to new media. You have gone from old media to academia. The presumption that there “has” to be a new model after the old model is destroyed is wishful thinking. There can simply be the collapse of all but a few old media, followed by…nothing. If there isn’t a profit there is no magic guarantee that there HAS to be a “new model” of journalism. I have yet to see a new model that makes money except those that are essentially an aggreggation of, and commentary off, old media coverage. I am sure there will be academic and non-profit outfits, but they will be a shadow of what we have today.

  7. Tom Grubisich says:

    David writes:

  8. David Westphal says:

    A colleague yesterday told me about my post above: “What you really mean is, ‘Why can’t we just get along?'” Well, there is that Iowa upbringing thing, I suppose. But I meant something different.

    Sometimes fundamental shifts occur without much fanfare because the tumult gets in the way. I think this is one of them. For a long time there has been a big divide in the news business. One side believed the Internet was going to be a disruptive force that would wreak havoc in legacy media. The other side said no. You folks in the new-media world are all wet; the digital revolution won’t dislodge the publishing and broadcast news businesses from their current business models. An awful lot of broadsides have been launched over the last 15 years over that split.

    This is the war that is over, and where a fundamental shift has occurred. We journalists got dug in on one side or another of this proposition, and it became the dominant framework through which we saw, or feared, or eagerly awaited, the future. Now the proposition is gone. That the Internet will massively disrupt the news and information business is fact. Only its dimensions are unknown.

    So now where we are? Turns out we’re all in the same boat. We meaning we journalists — old media, new media, media currently being invented. The dominant framework that governs us now is a confounding one but not a divisive one. Which is: None of us knows how news and information in the public interest will be sustained in the future. Nobody. Not Rupert Murdoch, not Jeff Jarvis, not Steven Brill, not Clay Shirky. As Shirky says, this is a question that is likely to be with us a long time, and probably will be frustrating and maddening and full of setbacks.

    But it will be one that also binds us as journalists. This reality of common cause has been under way for a while now, and it has many manifestations — not to mention the many ONA awards won by mainstream media (as the commenter noted above). And it will strengthen because the new framework not only represents the reality that all of us are in the same struggle, but also that we share the same core values of news and information in the public interest. (A hat tip, by the way, to those who have never let those core values out of sight.)

    As the comments suggest, this doesn’t mean we quit disagreeing. On the contrary, lively and heated disagreement is an important way progress has come, and will come. There are also, lest we forget, a lot of wounds at the heart of many of these strong voices. Tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs and there’s more of that to come. On the other side, it’s worth noting that some of the clearest Internet visionaries spent years being derided by mainstreamers. Payback time? Sure, some.

    But again, the old lines are fading away. Look at the New York Times to see what the mainstream leader of us all thinks about the Internet. Look at Steve Buttry at the Cedar Rapids Gazette to see what a small Midwestern paper can do on the innovation front.

    As for the new-media leaders, have you noticed that they’re not using the heavy artillery the way they used to? I think more have been taking Dave Winer’s wonderful advice: Focus on the beauty. (OK, I don’t expect Jarvis to mothball his howitzer, but far more important is the work he and CUNY are doing on the new business models front. Things are getting modeled and measured and progress is afoot.)

    Some day we’ll look back at this period and see a news business beginning anew. We’ll see an awful lot of failures, and they’ll come from media we used to call old and media we used to call new. It’ll be a scrappy and fractious time, but at the core it’ll be a time when journalists with shared values were working on the same project — trying to find new ways, better ways, of spreading news and information that democracy needs in order to breathe. In a perverse way, the idea of journalists starting over, building a new future, is itself a thing of beauty. Look out, tribal loyalties. A bigger idea is in town.

  9. says:

    After the destruction of war there is a need to re-build. Today’s financial downturn has forced “old media” management to recognize that they need new revenue streams beyond advertising to be sustainable. So finally there is reason to talk about the opportunities to create value and generate revenue by exploiting interactive technology. So far, the internet and mobile are just another distribution point and more eyeballs. The interactive capabilities of digital haven’t been exploited in a meaningful way yet. For example, another commentator points to the lack of any meaningful conversations. Social Media has empowered all voices to be equal, but separate. Communication centers around lots of “me’s.” And where there’s a huge supply of “me’s” there is very little value. If scarcity is value then it is a sense of community that is scarce. I have posted about the opportunity community offers and the need for all stakeholders in the media world to collaborate. If interested, check out my website, comradity.com

    Katherine Warman Kern

  10. David Westphal says:


    I would agree that some of the promises were a bit much — or at least they were talking about a world that is still years away. Measured against the most grandiose predictions, the results to date are thin.

    But measured against the past, I’d say an awful lot of progress is evident on the Web — from Wikipedia to Google Search to database journalism tools to original source posting, microlocal site development, sprawling information choices for consumer, and so on.

    In any case, over-excited new-media prophets aren’t the villains here. The villain, if there is one, is the challenge of starting anew in figuring out how a robust environment of news and information can be created. I’d actually call it an energizing and unifying challenge.

  11. This reality of common cause has been under way for a while now, and it has many manifestations — not to mention the many ONA awards won by mainstream media

  12. While I agree with your points about needing to end this battle between the new and old, I find it difficult to believe there was ever a battle to begin. I admit I’m a new journalist, freshly joining the work force, but it’s a little ridiculous for the two groups who can best help journalism to be butting heads. No wonder the industry as a whole is dying. I think it’s time to remember why we’re journalists to begin with and realize that the best why to accomplish journalistic goals is to work together to strengthen all aspects of this industry, not work against each other to break the other side’s efforts down.

    Beth Beck
    copy editor/page designer

  13. Hey,

    I was just wondering, as this is my first time commenting here, howcome all our IPs are publically displayed?