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Journalism Deathmatches, Then and Now

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A little bloodshed is good for the news business, particularly if journalism professionals are back to shooting at each other instead of collectively gathering around their own grave, hand-wringing and waiting to be pushed in by a dismissive and disinterested public.

Yesterday, I spoke to a group from Yelp and tried out a few of the standard, dark yuks about my business: paid obituary revenues are up but, wait! Those are (were) also our most avid readers. Ba-doom.

The mostly youngster group blew past all that manufactured self-pity. They were more interested in how SF Gate handles comments, the value of public input in what we do, and some anecdotes about the quirkiness and potential Wild West fun of gathering news.

Despite ongoing concessions of broken business models and surfing through the still untested technologies and new practices, it does feel like journalists have exhaled a little of the breath we've been holding for years.

Here's Cristoph Leitgen, a big shot at the news agency Reuters, talking about journalists gathered last week at what is usually the American Society of Newspaper Editors' annual gripefest: "This doesn't feel like a funeral."

That's a definite improvement.

I could cite the stats on fewer bankruptcies, fewer financial losses, fewer newspaper closures. And there are still plenty of Jeremiahs out there warning about the end of the newspaper/print/journalism world. The reality, as they say in TV news stand-up closes, is it remains to be seen.

But it's much more lively to measure breath on the mirror of our business by its deathmatches, where our history is rich and passionate.

In the 1800's, San Francisco rivals in the newspaper world were shooting each other on the street. Charles de Young, a Chronicle founder, popped a cap in politician Isaac Kalloch. De Young's brother, M.H., was shot by businessman Adolph Spreckels over an article in the paper. And James King, editor of the Daily Evening Bulletin, was killed right downtown on Montgomery.

Those were some days - it was definitely higher real life drama than the media fight scenes in the movies Anchorman and The Paper (who can forget Michael Keaton clocking Glenn Close?).

A recent New Yorker story detailed the long feud between New Yorker inventor Harold Ross and the Time Magazine empire's architect, Henry Luce, in the 1920's and 30's. A cover illustration shows them dueling with pens. There's even a part about the two men meeting over a story, accompanied by their seconds.

According to the story, "Ross was a madman" who hated Luce. And Luce was always looking for ways to shiv Ross. The rivalry, "before it got goofy, served them both surprisingly well," says New Yorker writer Jill Lepore.

But "If, one day, everything is for everyone," she also writes about our age of media immediacy, "and everything is timely, the battles between editors won't be as bloody because there will be less to fight for."

Take heart, Jill. Just look next door to the New York Observer, which ran a piece a few days before yours titled "The Battle of the Barons," about Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal taking on Arthur Sulzberger's New York Times.

While all these guys are wearing suits and not carrying side arms, the Observer story reports on very different versions of a meeting between Sulzberger and Murdoch managing editor Robert Thompson that could have been a replay of the Ross-Luce confrontation but without seconds on hand.

This is today, and only a short step into propriety from the street corner gunshots of early San Francisco.

I know, I know. Today's successful journalism is all about cooperation and partnership. Former competitors are now happy collaborators. I'm one of the loudest and most persistent proponents of that notion. (Witness the great joint work of the Center For Investigative Reporting's California Watch reporters and journalists at the Chronicle, resulting in lots of "holy s--" front page Sunday stories.)

All that old-fashioned stuff is so day-before-yesterday.

But I still think there's something visceral, something full of life and spectacle and entertainment in the battles among media big shots. There's some meat there for the public to get their teeth into, whatever form the information takes, however it's delivered and however the money might be made.

Gun battles snap your attention away from the current obsession with form-as-future (What's the platform? What's the technology? What's the gadget?) and back to a ripe, human dimension.

Personally I'm hoping for some fireworks between mega-media mogul Arianna Huffington and the conservative, birther movement's World Net Daily, squabbling over only getting one table each to the upcoming White House Correspondent's Dinner.

The WND folks are probably better armed but never, ever count Arianna out of a fight.