The Times' web site, mvtimes.com, welcomes more than 73,000 visits each week. I have mentioned this before, but it still takes me by surprise.
We didn't expect mvtimes.com to begin gobbling up megabytes of attention. Business-wise it's become the elephant in the corner of the room. Something's got to be done about it.
If you remember when your child was an infant, you'll recall how, for a while, he stayed just about wherever you put him. But one day, look out, he's crawling, then walking, then playing soccer or hockey, and you find yourself at the field or rink all weekend long. The web is like that.
The whole web thing is a mystery, really. And, perhaps it's a hideous mystery.
I had a child in the business, before the dot.com bust. Years ago, we put up two banner ads on the mvtimes.com home page, one to promote charitable donations to Toys for Tots, the other a gift to amfAR, the American Foundation for Aids Research. If you gave, you got clickmiles. The business boomed, then busted in the 90s. You may encounter its tattered remnants somewhere on the web today.
The heart of the click/miles business was "loyalty technology" - a cyber-concept if I ever heard of one. But that was many cyber-concepts ago. Today, we're beginning a cyber-concept of our own, with a featured auction on mvtimes.com to benefit a single non-profit organization, in this case Nathan Mayhew Seminars. The Seminars wants to sell by auction a Travis Tuck garden fountain. The fountain is lovely, decorative, soothing, but Nathan Mayhew Seminars has an urgent need for ready cash. The lovely fountain's soothing presence won't fix the roof.
The Times has been in the auction business, as the hundreds of successful bidders and merchants who've participated in AuctionMV gift certificates auctions will attest, but we've never auctioned something actual, as opposed to virtual. (I mean money, which is as virtual a concept as you can find in my world.)
If everything works the way we plan for it to work, Nathan Mayhew Seminars will get a new roof, and The Times will be able to offer other Island non-profits a way to extend the reach of their auction fund-raisers to a larger audience of generous donors and friends. Among those 73,000 or more visitors to mvtimes.com are, naturally enough, many friends of Martha's Vineyard Community Services, the Martha's Vineyard Hospital, the Vineyard Conservation Society, the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, Hospice, and other important, worthy, and needy Island organizations.
For everyone in the newspaper business, a good idea such as this one may not be ready to hand. For most newspaper folk, this is a time of confusion and worry. Not every web idea has the straightforward potential to do good as the one developed by the business my daughter worked for, or the online auction for non-profits feature, for which we have hopes. Instead, a lot of what passes for big ideas on the web strikes me as foolish, destructive, worthless.
In The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture, by Andrew Keen, (Doubleday/Currency, New York, 2007) the cyber-entrepreneurs of the 21st Century are cast as farsighted but purblind evangelicals, heedless of the baleful influence that the dreams they hope to effectuate may have.
Of a cocktail conversation among the webwise in San Francisco, Mr. Keen writes, "Over glasses of fruity local Chardonnay, we swapped notes about our newest new things. He told me his current gig involved a new software for publishing music text and video on the Internet. "'It's MySpace meets youTube meets Wikipedia meets Google,' he said. 'On steroids.'"
If that doesn't make you shudder, nothing will. Or, maybe it doesn't surprise or disturb you, though it should.
"Not a day goes by without some new revelation that calls into question the reliability, accuracy, and truth of the information we get from the Internet," Mr. Keen explains in a chapter entitled Truth and Lies. "Sometimes it's a story about ads made to look like a personal page on social networks like MySpace or Facebook. Or a popular youTube video that turns out to have been produced by a corporation with a vested interest in shaping consumers' opinions. Every week a new scandal further erodes our trust in the information we get from the web."
And, crackpot owners of newspapers, news magazines, broadcast and cable news channels (I know, in the case of the latter the reliability of the information has never been high) are following the blogosphere into the opinion ether, in search of profit-preserving connections to the cyber-crowd. And, astonishingly, these traditional news outlets were nurtured on the ink and paper tradition, which held that if you're a news organization, you spend a lot of money to dig for the news, the facts. You find the best people to synthesize it and make it interesting and readable, even gripping. You add photographs, and offer some leadership to the community on issues that, in light of the resources you deploy, and because your writers may be better informed than the general public - most of whom have real jobs and families to which they are devoted - may help readers to understand what's going on around them.
Why trade all this for blogs and the hideously indulgent self-regard of YouTube or MySpace, or the everything-that-passes-for-information that is Google?
As Mr. Keen pleads, "So, let's not go down in history as that infamous generation who, intoxicated by the ideal of democratization, killed professional mainstream media. Let's not be remembered for replacing movies, music, and books with YOU!"