2008 was a strange, strange year for media — or what's left of it. Before all the layoffs, cutbacks, and closings in the final months, it was a year of big, overpowering stories mostly relating to one big, overpowering story: The 2008 Election. Otherwise, dominating stories included two nearly-naked men, Michael Phelps and Eliot Spitzer (what covers more, a Speedo or socks?) Oh, and also, the economy melted down.
With such a year, you could be forgiven for missing a few of the smaller but smarter media moments of 2008 — ahead-of-the-curve writing and forward-thinking strategies that not only made sense of the present, but will help shape the future. Will 2009 be better than 2008? Well, it could hardly be worse. Here's what I think we can look forward to.
If 2009 isn't the year of the black media star, then we are all doing something wrong.
The Rise of Undernews
When the first rumblings of a John Edwards affair started bubbling up in 2007, they were dismissed or ignored. No one wanted to cover a story that was equal parts dirty and tragic, which included the obligatory phrase "according to the National Enquirer." But by August 2008, the mainstream media was forced to acknowledge the story, prompting questions about why this story had been ignored for so long.
Mickey Kaus knew. The longtime Slate political blogger and author saw the Edwards affair as the dividing line between news and " undernews" — stories that percolate online, poked and parsed by the blogosphere to determine their viability. Kaus likened the phenomenon to an Off-Broadway tryout — the Sarah Palin baby-rumors swirled online the weekend after she was named as McCain's running mate, but were all but dismissed when her daughter Bristol's pregnancy was announced (except, perhaps, in the mind of Andrew Sullivan).
Expect more heavy lifting by blogs on undernews in 2009. In an era of dwindling newsgathering resources and staff, investigative reporting of all kinds will take further hits. Who will bear the cost of sitting outside John Edwards' home in a van? (When you're a reporter it's a stakeout; when you're a blogger, it's just stalking.) The news/undernews model is not limited to seamy stories; blogs fulminate regularly over this outrage or that, and some do stick ( Trent Lott and Dan Rather can attest to that). But in a world where resources to cover the "real" news is shrinking, who's going to bother with the undernews? Horny politicians, get set to unbuckle.
Go Online or Go Home
Last April, New York magazine ran a cover story called " How Gossip Girl Is Changing The Way We Watch Television." Editor Adam Moss changed the way TV was covered by tapping two bloggers, Jessica Pressler and Chris Rovzar, to write the story in the same breathless, giddy fan-girl voice of their obsessive blog posts on the subject. In fact, Moss understands the free-flow between print and online so well that he even did it backwards last year, launching the offshoot print magazine Look, based on NYMag.com's wildly successful fashion week coverage.
Amazingly in 2009, so many publications still don't appreciate or understand how to use the web. While a few magazines are thriving online others are inexplicably choosing to slash web resources to save print resources. Still others are living on as scary zombie versions of their former selves.
But there is hope. Despite the general backwardness of Condé Nast online, Vanity Fair is catching on with smart online content, the New Yorker has got some of their best writers on the blog, and Glamour distinguished itself with election coverage on Glamocracy. The standout, though, is The Atlantic, which has brought the 152-year-old magazine to the vanguard of the 21st century thanks to prodigious blogging from people like Marc Ambinder, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Megan McArdle and James Fallows. Look for other magazines to blatantly rip off that formula in the coming year. If not, don't bother looking for them at all.
That Goes for You Too, Newspapers
It may not save them, but some newspapers really got it last year. The New York Times killed with its excellent slate of blogs and a willingness to try new things (see Kit Seelye's liveblogging). Plus, their Spitzer scoop proved that great reporting can be rewarded with server-shaking pageviews. Meanwhile, the LATimes was the fastest-growing major newspaper site in the country, largely on the strength of its many blogs (they launched 21 in 2008). The Washington Post did a few things right as well, like Chris Cillizza's DIY online video, and its regular web chats (so much more fun than the Times's staid "Talk to the Newsroom" - compare and contrast to Tucker Carlson and Ana Marie Cox).
In 2009, more newspapers had better get on board with this strategy, and fast, if they want to survive. A model for the future: Times media columnist David Carr, whose side project as The Carpetbagger has made him a genre-crossing online star (the Bagger expanded from movies to politics this year, blogging the conventions). It's noteworthy, too, that Carr is accessible to bloggers in a way that others at the paper are not, and he is rewarded for it by what the kids call "link-love." In 2009, newspapers are going to need all the love they can get.
Let's Talk About Sexism
Don't kid yourselves: We are so not ready for a female president. By "we" I mean the media, whose stunning mishandling of the gender politics of the 2008 race meant that no one would even admit there might be a sexism problem until it was too late for Hillary Clinton — and just in time for Sarah Palin.
Not everyone averted their gaze. A small knot of smart female writers dug in and refused to let it pass, despite being chided for — what's that word? — hysteria. Defending Clinton against sexism was especially objectionable when seen through the lens of Obama-love, so it was a pretty lonely path until Katie Couric dared speak its name. Thank goodness for people like Rebecca Traister, Dahlia Lithwick, Katha Politt, Emily Bazelon and Amanda Fortini plus bloggers like Shakespeare's Sister and Echidne, who grappled with the reactions to Clinton's run, including the marginalization of her older female supporters (angry puma alert!) and parsing her female detractors (we get it, MoDo). When Sarah Palin turned gender politics upside down last summer ( Mom! Moosehunter! Maverick!), these same women examined their own reactions honestly, and tried to figure out how feminism had become so damn confusing.
Will this improve in 2009? Based on the way Caroline Kennedy was received, not likely (I'm all for vetting, but let's just say that complaining about wealth and nepotism hasn't exactly hurt male politicians. I'm lookin' at you, Basil Paterson's son). But here's the good news: Estro-blogging is taking off! Slate's XX Factor is being spun off into its own site; blog pioneeress Elizabeth Spiers is launching a new women's site; WoWoWoW has filled a clear niche; and even MommyBlogging is getting new respect. But in the meantime, Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State, Rachel Maddow is in Converse in Vogue...and Sarah Palin is a calendar. So, we're not quite there yet.
Howard Wolfson...music blogger? It turns out Hillary Clinton's cranky spokesperson is a completely loveable music geek, blogging happily away on his site, GothamAcme, and sharing some pretty great tunes while he's at it. And Joe Trippi's passionate and relentless blogging about the travesty of Zimbabwe has stubbornly refused to let the story fade away - you won't find a better resource for it online. We knew Bonnie Fuller liked celebrities, but we'd never actually seen her write about them. Alex Balk's Tumblr. John Dickerson's Twitter. These secondary outlets meant getting to know these people in a completely new way...and for some, maybe even liking them.
Having a secondary media outlet will prove essential in the coming year—especially as more and more primary outlets disappear Beyond that, it diversifies your brand - and who in this market couldn't use a little diversification? No one can rely on their primary expertise anymore; to thrive in 2009, people are going to have to hustle and prove they can adapt. Hell, even Eliot Spitzer has figured that out.
Black (Media) Power
Considering what a watershed year it was racially, surprisingly few new African-American stars emerged. The networks relied, for the most part, on the names they already knew — Donna Brazile, Amy Holmes, Eugene Robinson, Juan Williams. (And giving a show to D.L. Hughley doesn't quite count.) Even so, as a whole, the black pundits got more airtime this year and soon showed they had a lot more to contribute than just commentary on race. Two standouts: Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeff Johnson, who spearheaded the BET team and pushed it out front. Other favorites: Marc Lamont Hill, Joe Watkins, Keli Goff, Malaak Compton-Rock and Michael Eric Dyson. And Roland Martin, who has been around for years (familiar!), broke out in 2008 as one of CNN's A-list pundits.
There's no way that this trend won't continue under an Obama presidency—it will have to, not only to reflect where America has evolved to but to grapple with how it's going forward. Websites like The Root and specials like CNN's "Black In America" and MSNBC's Race Town Hall are good, if isolated, first steps (also, the John McWhorter-Glenn Loury debates on Bloggingheads have been illuminating — a friend described them as "two smart black guys debating as if there weren't any white guys around"). I remain flabbergasted that BET is the only network where you can really find black-themed programming (hello, wide-open MSNBC weekend schedule!). If 2009 isn't the year of the black media star, then we are all doing something wrong.
Remember Iraq? Neither Does Anyone Else
In a year where Iraq joined Afghanistan as another "forgotten war," the New York Times launched its Baghdad Bureau blog and began covering the conflict in a new way. Day to day coverage was woven through with personal accounts of life in a war zone, along with first-person posts from Iraqi journalists (the McClatchy " Inside Iraq" blog does this, too). Vivid Iraq books came out (Dexter Filkins' The Forever War, Richard Engel's War Journal). Still, NBC was the only network that sent an anchor to a war zone.
At the beginning of 2008, the war was the story. As we enter 2009, sadly, it's old news.
Rachel Sklar is the former Media Editor for the Huffington Post and the author of A Stroke of Luck: Life, Crisis and Rebirth of a Stroke Survivor . She is currently working on Jew-ish , a humorous book about cultural identity. In the meantime, she works with media consulting firm Abrams Research, recently launched online micro-giving site Charitini, and Twitters up a storm. Follow her here.