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Newspaper Self-Immolation

At, John McQuaid looks incredulously into the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s decision to turn top-notch columnist James Lileks into a street reporter. We need all the street reporting we can get, but this is nuts. Quote:

The Star Tribune’s decision to eliminate James Lileks’s column and reassign him to a beat as a local reporter is so self-evidently dumb, an Umbridge-worthy example of the bureaucratic mentality run amok, that you have to wonder if newspapers – especially the once-robust, medium-sized daily paper – have indeed reached some kind of suicidal turning point.

Like McQuaid, I occasionally disagree with Lileks’ views. But I read his blog religiously. He is genuinely one of a kind, with a voice all his own, and a rare talent in the newspaper business.

Utterly bizarre and self-defeating. I predict Lileks will have a new — and better — opinion-writing gig in short order. And the Star-Tribune will have contributed in a big way to its own eventual demise.

12 Comments on “Newspaper Self-Immolation”

  1. #1 Bryan Murley
    on May 8th, 2007 at 10:01 am

    I haven’t read Lileks in a while, but this is an utterly shocking move. I agree – Lileks should have some suitors knocking on his door soon, and I for one wouldn’t blame him for leaving.

  2. #2 Seth Finkelstein
    on May 8th, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    Umm, isn’t this exactly what the New New Thing gurus keep saying newspapers SHOULD DO?

    1) Opinion is a commodity – leave it to the “bloggers”, don’t be a lecturer, blah blah blah …

    2) Focused on the hyped local news, err, I mean “hyperlocal news”.

    So, a newspaper does exactly that – switches resources of a pundit, who are cheaper than a dime a dozen on Net (’cause they’re free) to a “street reporter” – … and THE SCREAMS OF ANGUISH are a sight to behold. No fair! It’s ONE OF US, of the protected pundity, who got cut from the priesthood perch, and sent to the salt-mines of doing what the “citzens” are told to do (for free).

    Wow. Such a demonstration of the bankruptcy of the whole hypocritical prescription.

  3. #3 Dan Gillmor
    on May 8th, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Not at all. Brand-name columnists are one of the major selling points newspapers have left. Local columns are absolutely part of the local news menu, or should be.

    There’s lots of opinioning on the net, but one Lileks.

  4. #4 Delia
    on May 8th, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    Dan, it seems odd that he would *need* anybody’s gig is he is that good… (should be able to start something of his own and do well at it) D.

  5. #5 Seth Finkelstein
    on May 8th, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    There’s only one [anybody], but there are a lot of people in the world with an opinion. Who get told they’re the vanguard of the revolution.

    Look at what you said – in any other context, isn’t that the sort of thing which would get frothingly denounced as: “You elitist you! That old-media dinosaur thinking is why newspapers continue to lose readers in this brave new world! YOU DON’T “GET IT”! You’re still stuck in the legacy mindset of “Brand-name columnists”. It’s now not a lecture, but a *conversation*. The thing to do is to get rid of those pompous out-of-touch priests, and repackage *bloggers*. If Lileks is so great (per Delia), he should just be supplying his RSS feed, voted up by the-netizens-formerly-known-as-readers, and making money off AdSense and consulting. ”

    [Am I Jarvising, or what? :-)]

    Oh, but this is one of club, so 180-degree reverse, he’s entitled to his privileged pontification position, not an unglamorous no-attention job of actual *reporting* (you know, the stuff newspapers are supposed to get from the little people, for nothing …).

  6. #6 Dan Gillmor
    on May 8th, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    There are more than a few political columnists whose work I consider less good than some bloggers I read every day. You could replace those columnists and no one would notice (except maybe to spot an improvement).

    I do think Lileks could become his own media outlet and do fine, incidentally. But a voice as idiosyncratic as his will find a buyer as long as there are media that can buy things.

    No one is entitled to any privileged position, unless they’re born wealthy in George Bush’s America.

  7. #7 Minneapolis
    on May 8th, 2007 at 6:31 pm

    I’m a little baffled by all this: not the letting go of Lileks, honestly, but the upswell of support for the guy. I do believe his writing on The Bleak is pretty great, even though I find his politics occasionally abhorrent. But have you guys read his Strib columns? Pure fluff. And, often bordering on gibberish. I definitely would NOT defend him as a “top-notch columnist.” What I suspect is that a.) journalists are (rightly) decrying the pulling of any column, and b.) right-wing partisans who buy the message of his blog, but haven’t read a word of his Strib tripe, are going to bat for him, with only half the information they might need to do so. I, too, lament the loss of personality Lileks departure will mean for us in Minneapolis, but I know he’ll have a fine career — as he always has — as a blogger, on his own time and his own dime.

  8. #8 Bradley J. Fikes
    on May 8th, 2007 at 8:14 pm


    Lileks is the biggest name the Star-Tribune has. He draws in the people who otherwise would not give a rodent’s posterior for the paper. Lileks is ideally positioned to be a bridge between old media and new. It’s his highest and best use for the paper. But Par Ridder, that dissembling paean to entitled mediocrity, is too clueless to see it.

    Those of us who work in newspapers hate to see such examples of boneheaded stupidity, because we’d like to see newspapers adapt to the digital era, not perish.

  9. #9 Seth Finkelstein
    on May 9th, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    Bradley (and Dan), let me get this straight. There are a favored few pundits (A-listers, if you will), who are a “brand-name” and “biggest name”, who do NOTHING but pontificate, but their opinionating is of such critical aspect to the future of the newspaper, that they cannot be replaced for much less cost by the “We The Media” pushed elsewhere.

    Do you guys have any idea how self-servingly hypocritical that sounds?

    Lurking underneath here is the dirty little secret that many, many prominent bloggers owe their attention to being part of that Big Media “priesthood”. Without that special elevation, they’re just another ranter in a vast ocean of bloviators.

  10. #10 Dan Gillmor
    on May 10th, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Seth, you’re not making sense. Sorry I can’t explain it better to you, but apparently you don’t want to get the point.

  11. #11 Seth Finkelstein
    on May 10th, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    Dan, we seem to have an impasse, because I think the same thing mutatis mutandis.

    To re-iterate: The papers does exactly and precisely what is repeatedly (in what I see) urged as the solution to their woes: Get rid of the tenured pundits, focus on the *local* news.
    The reaction of the relevant bloggers is not to praise the paper for following their prescription, but intense denunciation (“self-defeating” , “suicidal”, etc.). It turns out there’s an exception, there are some pundits who are so valuable they should be retained as print lecturers – not replaced with an RSS feed of blogs.

    I think this critique, whatever else it may be, is quit comprehensible.

  12. #12 Dan Gillmor
    on May 11th, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Seth, I have never told papers to get rid of all the the tenured pundits. Just the boring ones.

    I do believe that papers should add hyper-local media to their basic tools and content sets. There is no contradiction.