Website influx creating journalistic tremors

by Henry Scott-Stokes

I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, when writing. But I have lately been trying to describe a complex character—I will reveal his identity in a moment—and utterly failing to do so. I actually wrote half a dozen versions of this column and then finally gave up.

How can this be, I ask myself? I wrestled with this, that or the other topic, usually knowing very little about my subjects, par for a journalist, getting by. It only happens to me once in a blue moon that I can make no forward progress. This failure, I suddenly suspect, has more to do with me than the person I have been planning to write about… oh dear, what can the matter be?

This leads me on to a larger topic. What on earth is happening in the media world these days? The conventional reading of this year’s giant takeover—that of Time Warner by AOL, a (mere) Internet service provider, one would have said a year ago—is that the world has suddenly turned upside down. People who read and write for a living and/or make films, are all of a sudden at a discount, a big discount. Those who are engineers, on the other hand, equipped to wrestle with the e-world, are on top. Anyone who belongs to Class A in this world (the writers, as opposed to Class B, the technocrats) has a right to suffer a mental block, as has been happening to me, given that we A-types don’t count any more.

Which, of course, I don’t believe…What do I think? As I wrote in this column on Oct. 15 last year, those who understand about websites shall inherit, or have inherited, the earth. All else is minor…books, films, theater, dance all have their place, but indeed, and I say it again, we’re talk­ing websites, man.

This was brought home to me yet again the other day by a Japanese friend, a young man. He worries that his seniors in the bank he works for—his contemporaries all share his concerns, he is not alone—are completely out of touch.

How so? As anyone who follows finance here will know, three very large banks are in the course of merging here. They are the IBJ, Fuji Bank and DKB. United, they stand, as per their assets, as the largest bank in the world (bar none, as Mike Mansfield likes to say re US-Japan relations). The perceived problem is that those in charge of bring­ing these very different banks together actually don’t know what they’re doing. An example is cited. The new bank, the merged one, has been given the name of Mizuho, as referred to in my last column. The difficulty with this is that an­other firm, not a large one, already owns the website—How can their seniors not have checked this out in advance, the juniors lament, in a world where websites are all? Hell, they’ve got the world’s largest bank in the making and no website, or none that carries the bank’s name, plain and simple.

In the spirit that websites take all, I have been checking ’em out since I returned from the UK a few days ago, using my leisure that way. Naturally, I have turned to the media sites. Im­mediately, one thing becomes obvious. One or two organizations have an immense leg up over the rest. To generalize may be risky here, as circumstances can change, and do, from day to day, but in the field of world news, I suggest, it’s hard to do better than the BBC (www.bbc.co.uk/news/)…As for books, it’s amazon.com…When you’ve said that, you’ve not quite said it all. But pretty much there’s no one else up at that level. Result: hard-pressed people, feeling the energy of the Net as they eyeball the screen, feeling more tension, will tend to stiffen their shoulders and stick with the sites that deliver. Pity anyone else. If Time Warner can be gobbled up by a minnow in two seconds, for the others it’s one…

All of which leads me to suppose that some extremely tense scenes are unfolding backstage, out of view, as the few really attractive proper­ties—would you name them for me, I don’t want to be rude (OK, the NYT and the FT for starters)— get looked over by the chaps in jeans and sneakers, wherever they are (tomorrow they could be in In­dia, they could be in Bangladesh).

This, I might mention, is the big topic that friends and I have been mulling over in slightly hectic phone calls over the last day or two. We know that, in a matter of months, if not weeks, our worlds have been turned upside down, as I said. We know there’s nothing we can do about it, either, except look to our websites. All else is truly subsidiary at this point—only a moment ago I was roaming the BBC site and ending up with a beguiling few images from “American Beauty” with Kevin Spacey looking out at me. Man that’s competition!

To come back to the beginning, though, who was the mystery person I couldn’t get my head around, as the initial subject of this column? I’ll tell you. It was a chap called Branson—Sir Rich­ard Branson, if you please, as of Jan. 1. He is the British entrepreneur—the founder of Virgin, the owner of that brand—who has made the most impact on Japan, largely through his airline, in the last dozen years. I suddenly got interested in him… But, do you know, I couldn’t keep my concentration. The ground is shaking under my feet and I jolly well know it. You try writing a column with a Richter force 8.1 earthquake com­ing up through your boots. As I keep saying, the cry these days is “website.”

“A website, a website, my kingdom for a website.” With apologies to Shakespeare (or some 18th century hack who added the famous line to “Richard III“).

henryss@gol.com

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