Sunday, February 08, 2009

The demise of newspapers means better journalism

We who contemplate the importance of journalism look at the future with trepidation.

What happens to journalism, we ask, when newspapers continue on their inevitable decline? The question assumes that journalism itself will be diminished.

I am coming to a different conclusion:

Journalism will improve once newspapers die or decline to a minor medium.

Note that I said news-PAPER, not news organization. I have worked for newspapers in five cities (technically six because Bristol, Virginia, and Bristol, Tennessee, are two different cities). I loved the work and made my living at it for a while. I have many friends and former students who are newspaper people. They are facing difficult and uncertain times right now, and I wish them stability and good fortune.

But the medium they work so hard to produce -- the paper -- is holding back journalism from doing the best job that it can for society. The sooner the paper is gone, the better.

I have been thinking a lot about a piece that Steve Outing wrote for Editor and Publisher a couple of weeks ago. In it he envisioned the all-digital newsroom, and I teased out of that his list of qualifications that people who got jobs in that newsroom would have. Those qualifications are just the ones we need for journalism to thrive in this new technological age.

In addition, I was privileged to be in Nashville last week and hear Janet Coats describe how the Tampa Tribune (via is shifting its focus and operation from print to digital. (A short video of some of what she had to say is here on Jack Lail's Random Mumblings.) Her talk was fascinating -- a blend of practical and inspirational words that this beleaguered profession needs.

So, I began to think ahead to the day when won't be chained to the printing press. And my conclusion was that journalism will be better. Here's why:
  • More reporting. I don't necessarily buy the argument that there will be fewer journalists in the new age of digital journalism. The numbers will drop if the current news organization managers (editors and publishers) are in charge. Fortunately, they won't be. Instead, we're likely to have managers who recognize that good reporting -- and lots of it -- is an asset to the organization, not a cost to be cut.

  • More reporters. Students in my experience are wildly excited about this new age of journalism. I am honored to be the faculty adviser to the Tennessee Journalist , the student operated news web site of the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee. More than 35 people regularly show up at our weekly staff meeting (only the editors are required to come) and the numbers are growing. The number of our majors has grown from 350 to 450 in just one year.

  • More, different and better ways of telling a story. Newspapers and the people who run them have stifled the development of digital journalism. Slavery to print -- as well as simple laziness and stump stupidity -- have sucked the energy out of efforts to creatively use this new medium.

  • Recognition that journalism occurs outside the traditional news organization. Digital newsrooms will form in places that never thought of themselves as news organizations. All web sites that attract an audience are news web sites. Visitors demand new information. That why people return to a site. Journalism would do well to embrace this concept.

  • More respect for the audience. The accusations of arrogance leveled against traditional journalism are unfortunately correct. The web -- with its interactivity and with the ability of the audience to leave in an instant -- does not tolerate the arrogance of the journalistic priesthood.

  • Better writing. As Jakob Neilsen, usability guru, says, readers are "selfish, lazy and ruthless." They will not put up with the flabby, self-indulgent prose we produce.

  • Better reporting. With the audience involved in the process, we will have more sources and more points of view. We won't be gatekeepers. On our best days, we'll be conversation starters and guides. But we won't be in control. And that is a good thing.
Despite the current financial woes of news organizations and the generally hard economic times, the future of journalism looks bright and exciting.

And it will improve when we are done with print. I say, speed the day.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Jim.

Journalism will not only survive, but it will thrive, I believe. As Janet Coats said journalism is not about a format.

Yes, newspapers are at the precipice. I'm confident printed newspapers will survive in some form, albeit changed from what we have known.

But the companies that own newspapers do need at every level to start thinking of themselves not as a newspaper publishers, but as news organizations. That really hasn't happened yet. So far, they see themselves as a newspaper publishers with multiple news delivery platforms.

And that self-concept is holding back the transition.

Ash said...

I agree with your article the only reason I can think of why people would want to keep papers is for that 'paper flipping experience'.

Since I will be taking a degree in Journalism or Media Studies,I think I'll be following your blog,its very enriching :D

Ash said...

I agree with your article the only reason I can think of why people would want to keep papers is for that 'paper flipping experience'.

Since I will be taking a degree in Journalism or Media Studies,I think I'll be following your blog,its very enriching :D

João Velhote said...

Yeah, Local news will thrive for sure, but who will pay for the needed war correspondent, with all the logistics needed for both security, independence and accuracy of reporting? The sites will depend on Wire agencies like Reuters and AP as they always did, so nothing new here...

Ken Taylor said...

It's refreshing to hear someone talk sense about journalism and face the truth about newspapers.

You may be interested to take a look at what our company is doing with software for online publishers. We hav been working for six years to develop a platform for publishers that is user-centric. That means we designed our sytem by thinking about what the site user wants first. Our site at the moment is a couple of years old and will be revised in the next couple of weeks. You might find it interesting?

Sorry if this looks like we are piggybacking your blog to advertise but there is a genuine desire to engage in discussion on our part.

Kristine Lowe said...

Thanks for this post. I do agree journalism will thrive without newspapers, but I'm a bit despondent about how little the news sites I read and work with have grasped of the social web.

I'm more and more leaning towards the conclusion that I inform my readers much better via my blog, in fact we inform each other better, than as a journalist, due to the restrictions of the journalistic ideology, of the way the newsroom is organised, of being an institution vs a person etc but Outing's post def. offered a glimmer of hope about what the future of journalism could/should be like

Jim Stovall said...

Thanks to you all for your comments. I am proud to have them attached to this piece. Thanks, especially, to Ken for pointing us to his site. I plan to dig into it.


Anonymous said...

Just saw your comment in The Times that daily newspapers won't survive, but will "probably go the Detroit route and become weekly or weekend publications."
Thanks for the graphic demonstration of the dangers of people such as yourself slapping unedited, unsourced, unresearched material into a blog and passing it off as journalism.
Neither Detroit newspaper is becoming a weekly or weekend publication. The Free Press will continue publishing seven days a week, The News six days. Only the delivery mechanism is being modified on four weekdays.
Now, how do we reach all the readers you misinformed? How to put the feathers back in the pillow?
Can't do it, can you?

Anonymous said...

Jack Lail's point that newspaper companies need to think of themselves as news organizations is the only thought worth considering in this entire conversation. JProf's assertions that losing print will free up newspaper operations to report more and better is more out of touch with reality than any love affair with newsprint. The students he is turning out can twitter but they can't think, they can't write and they have no loyalty to the responsibility of credibility. After we get rid of all those "lazy" editors who spend 12 or 15 hours posting news on Web sites and getting the old-fashioned newspaper published every day, who is going to do the real teaching? Multimedia story-telling is more time- and resource- expensive; publishing multimedia credibly on the Web for a typical local newspaper (at which editors have already made the kinds of staff and production sacrifices that have been necessary for the last several years) is as time- and resource-intensive as churning out pages. The giggle of arrogant print-journalist-disparaging lightweights like JProf is based entirely on the goofy idea that no one needs an editor -- entirely true, if one's audience already knows and agrees with the story one tells; balderdash if one has any aspirations of building audience and playing a role in informing people.

Jim Stovall said...

Balderdash. I like that. Haven't heard that word for a while.

My anonymous friends come up with some good stuff.


Tom Gantert said...

How is journalism going to survive if the newspapers' print product goes down? That's what is supporting the salaries of all the professionals involved in news gathering, not the free online version. The crisis of newspapering has NOTHING to do with journalism, everything to do with advertising. Online publications are free. Internet advertising is a fraction of the print brethren. How will people support themselves who want to report full-time? That question needs to be answered before the discussion of online journalism can be taken seriously. You want quality journalism? How can that be offered without an economic model that supports it?

Anonymous said...

Don't online journalists and newspapers all suffer from the same problems? How to really make money online. Are there online bloggers that make $60k+ a year simply blogging there own ideas? There may be, (heck there's bound to be) I don't know. Actually, if there are and you know of them, please send me some links.

I believe a source for online revenue in the future may just be subscriptions for RSS feeds. Not for the readers of the news, but for all of the sites that produce no news whatsoever other than the feeds they are taking from other news sources. These sites are popping up all over and it doesn't seem right that they should profit on other peoples hard work. You can't make a music CD freely using songs from another band, you can't freely do a re-make of a movie that already exists, you can't freely take images you find in other magazines (or online) and create a Swimsuit Magazine. So why then, can people take content from other news sites and sell advertising around them?

Anonymous said...

And to make it even sweeter. Wouldn't it be great to get paid by google every time someone clicked on your link in their search engine.

While google is obviously the next best thing since sliced bread for finding things, they have in fact made a fortune by using other sites content. How great would google be if they didn't have such a large library of stuff to work with?

Michael J said...

Sorry Jprof,
You've got this wrong.
1. There is no way to make any serious money from web advertising. Too much real estate lowers prices.

2. The way to make money is to sell local advertising in print.

3. I think one of the anons got it just right. What the world of journalism needs is alot of very smart, very experienced very skill editors. Reporting has become easier and easier. Editing will always be hard.

4. What's going to change is the notion that the Paper has to chase breaking news. Enough. Let the TV and the web chase breaking news. Frankly, most breaking news is a commodity.

The Paper will publish regularly. People love the comics. But the content will be pieces that tell stories to help real people in the real world figure what is the history of an event and what that event might mean for the future.

As to what happened yesterday, that I'll pick up on the web, along with the video and the multimedia and the links.

I'll read Paper. Where everything stops if I want to get some new idea bout what's going on.

Jenn said...

I hope that you're right, but I'm a little concerned that it may take years before news organizations are able to live up to this wonderful new world of journalism.

In the meantime, news organizations are struggling with advertising and inevitably, journalists may continue to lose their jobs. In other words, journalism may go downhill for a while as managers work to find new ways to make money online. The old-fashioned advertising techniques that newsrooms have relied on for years may need to take a backseat to newer money making strategies.

Eventually, I think this bright new journalistic world will arrive, but we may have to wait for it.

Peter Erikson said...

I wish I could share your enthusiasm, but with the level of writing I see across the country, as well as the demise of the traditional copy desk, I think the future for all journalism, digital or otherwise, is dim. And, no, I don't usually write sentences this long. Newspapers require a revenue source. It's those splashy color ads in the paper product that pay the most. Online ads generate ... next to nothing. We've been giving away content for so long that it will be difficult to persuade people to suddenly start paying for it online. One thing is for sure: The big corporations, like Gannett, McClatchy, etc., must go. In their place will be you and me, pioneers in the all-digital, all-the-time news business. There will be a big vacuum initially, where legitimate news is scarce and blogs rule the day. The backbone of the newspaper, the well-written, well-editied, in-depth pieces that take months to generate have vanished. Will they ever come back? Perhaps. But it'll be years in the making.

Jim Stovall said...

Thanks again to all for the comments. This has been interesting to hear so many varied points of view.

Things are depressing in the newspaper industry these days -- particularly for those who see the future in print. True, the print products are making money now, but that won't last, not in the long term.

In the late 1990s, when I would ask newspaper people what they were doing about the web, the inevitable response I got was, "Nobody ever made any money on the web."

Then Google, Yahoo, Craigslist, YouTube and a whole bunch of other enterprises came along.

I think journalism has a very bright future -- and will be better than it is now -- because it is falling into the hands of people who are willing to think differently about the whole enterprise, including the economics of it.

Anonymous said...

A lot of your critics hit it just right, but they missed a couple of important things. First 'organizations' that is, the corporate masters of the news business won't be in it much longer. These companies are profit companies. They care about journalism like you care about dirt on your shoes. They care about money. If they survive as whole companies in the first place, they'll leave the business. hen the papers close, the owners will take their capital and invest in widgets, or real estate, or Google. not a non-existent 'news organization' that can't deliver profits.

So where will your journalists work? for themselves? Wait until one of your former students calls you from prison after writing a story about the secret illegal wiretaps, or the Pentagon papers, or the president breaking into a political rival's offices. Do you have four or five million dollars to fight the federal government? Will your student? No. and there goes your great journalism, because the feds know, just like every other government organization will know, that journalists can't protect themselves any more. Reporting in the U.S. will be like it is in third world countries. Most reporters and editors will be cowed into reporting the government approved news. The rest will be imprisoned or killed. Think I'm being extreme? I am a journalist, and the state police in Connecticut have closed the highways to reporters. you show up at an accident or a 'police situation' on a highway and you don't leave? you're arrested. They already know the newspapers can't afford to sue. So we're naked out there. Your new journalists working for some shoe string 'news organization' will get arrested and that will be the end of their career.

By all means, pray for the death of print. It appears inevitable, but anyone, college professor or clairvoyant that thinks that will be a good thing for the profession of journalism really ought to stop drinking vodka at breakfast.

Steve Clarke said...

Is television news at the precipice? To profit from something, that "something" needs to be controlled. Any entity that controls "something" does not want to lose control to anyone or anything. I've been going through this whole "Orwellian" thing lately and your blog struck a note. Powerful players are involved with the news business.

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