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The future of professional content, ad infinitum

It was another knock-down, drag-out fight--this time at Stanford. But there are more urgent issues in a debate that still doesn't have answers.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read

PALO ALTO, Calif.--It was only a matter of time before the crazy guy in the front row blew up. He had been fidgeting in his seat all morning. All it took was for author Andrew Keen to bemoan the public's loss if more struggling newspapers bite the dust.

Left to right: Larry Lessig, Andrew Keen, Hal Varian, Tom Rubin, and Paul Cappuccio Charles Cooper

Then it was Mount Vesuvius in the flesh with Nutsy Fagin shouting from his seat about a tangled conspiracy involving Gary Webb and the CIA and journalistic cover-ups. If you don't recall, Webb was an investigative reporter who authored a series of 1996 pieces for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on a CIA link to Nicaraguan drug dealers in Los Angeles. The paper later distanced itself from the articles, and Webb wound up dead from what the police said was a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.

The outburst was the highlight of the day during an otherwise predictable panel discussion on the "future of professionally created content" down here at Stanford. Actually, a better promotional tagline would have been "Beat up on Andrew Keen Saturday. Come and get some."

Then again, this is old hat for Keen, the author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing our Culture. The book's marketing director purposely chose a title designed to antagonize the maximum number of people in Silicon Valley--and boy, did that wish come true. For a while, I was sure some locals would invite the media to witness Andrew Keen pinata parties where the assembled could take a whack just for the hell of it.

Keen's book offers an acerbic take on the Internet's impact on the larger culture--especially as it touches the wider world of media. Critics, who seized on the holes in his narrative, have dismissed the book as a transparent polemic. Well, Keen on Saturday was back in the belly of the beast. The guy's been doing the book circuit for the last year and has learned how to give as good as he gets. But halfway into this, I started mumbling the Rodney King line about getting along already. Why can't so many smart people move past this stale debate already? I was sure the controversy had exhausted itself. Apparently not.

So it was that Stanford gathered Keen alongside Larry Lessig; Hal Varian, a professor-turned-chief economist at Google; Tom Rubin, who is in charge of copyright legal policy at Intel; and Paul Cappuccio, the chief legal officer at Tim Warner, to consider the question.

As if they would shed new light.

Truth be told, this remains a debate primarily between the elites and for the elites. These folks are ready to talk this topic to death, though the forums often degrade into personal slugfests.

Saturday's face-off was little different. Lessig, who is fiercely smart and a professor of law at Stanford Law School, got skewered in The Cult of the Amateur, and this was payback time. He had fun pointing out mistakes in the book, which Lessig reminded the audience was "professionally produced content." And if it was so riddled with mistakes, what does that suggest about how the traditional system works? Yes, he allowed, many blogs are "crappy" but the professional world can be just as bad as that of the amateur. It's hard to dispute the good professor.

When the focus of the debate shifted, Lessig brought up a more provocative point: Is the golden age of newspapers, when journalists "could write the truth and not fear retaliation," over? I'm not convinced that's entirely the case, but the signposts point to trouble ahead. In the last several years, we've watched the increasingly flimsy line between church and state at many newspapers come under more pressure. Recall the Los Angeles Times' horrid profit-sharing arrangement with the Staples Center a few years back and the editorial rebellion it triggered. Since then, a succession of LA Times edit chiefs have struggled to contain the publishing moguls' cupidity and stupidity. I'm afraid they'll lose that fight.

Jeff Jarvis, who was not here, has written eloquently about how mainstream newspapers can redefine themselves in the Internet era. But is there enough urgency at old institutions like the LA Times or The New York Times to order a remake as digital companies where they become more of a platform for local news? Per Jarvis: "This means that the staff must change radically as roles evolve from producing content to organizing, enabling, and educating collaborative and distributed networks." That sounds like a sensible way to reverse a trend that very few people believe will be in the public interest. Not even the crazy guy in the front row.