Forget Print, Can Journalism Be Saved?

    August 11, 2008
    WebProNews Staff

It would take steely nerve or extreme romanticism to major in journalism these days. The pay was never great for the green and the aspiring, and hence consideration of journalism as a career required some stubborn devotion to the importance of the Fourth Estate. But a decade ago, one at least assumed there was security, honor, and even prestige in the profession, which was motivation enough.

That romanticism was strong enough for would-be journalists to ignore (or endure) their engineering and computer science major friends being swallowed up and even pampered by big companies as soon as they waltzed off the graduation stage.

But that was ten years ago, and ten years means a lot more than it used to. These days, especially in techno-cultural hubs, professionally trained journalists are losing their jobs—worse, they’re being relegated to "blogger" status as a sort of backwards consolation prize—as newspapers and magazines come to grips with the current economic climate.

In California, the print side of the business is flagging while online properties boom. last week reported record traffic thanks to some skilled SEO and some nice blogging efforts. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, the Philadelphia Inquirer raised eyebrows and tempers with a new effort to preserve its newspaper’s authoritative status. For all but breaking news—that includes investigative reports, enterprise, news features, trend stories, and reviews— is a no-post zone until all the news fit to print is actually in print and on the subscriber’s doorstep.

This move elicited a trademark pull-no-punches response from journalism professor and former newspaperman Jeff Jarvis on his blog:

"Let me make this very clear to Inquirer ownership and management:

"You are killing the paper. You might as well just burn the place down. You’re setting a match to it. This is insane. Even the slowest, most curmudgeonly, most backward in your dying, suffering industry would not be this stup anymore….It is suicide. It is murder."

Whether or not this will prove an effective strategy for bolstering print readership remains to be seen, but the timing is certainly interesting. It happens at a time when increasingly the conversation on the Web is no longer about the impending death of print—that notion is canonized fact among the blogging elite—but about how to save journalism itself. More on that in a bit.

Print, according to this mindset, is beyond saving, and if not eventually completely and utterly dead, then it is reduced to a quaint mode of communication’s past a few romantics embrace and fund by donation. They’ll keep it because of their reluctance to let go of the smell of paper, of washing ink off of one’s hands, of Silly Putty comic reproductions, of the coffee-and-news ritual. My wife and I still grab the Lexington Herald Leader every Sunday—not for news, but for the coupons. News we can get online when we have a moment. Life suddenly is too fast for print. And that’s a shame: I wonder how old I’ll be when those sparkly, colorful presses one can see from the street on Midland Avenue become part of a newseum tour.

So yes, print has certainly lost its footing, even among valiant romantic opposition, and if not in the throes of death, it is very, very sick. Becoming hyper-localized or hyper-niche was once proffered as the cure. Craigslist, blogs, and Web 2.0 are in the process of killing those angles as well.

But really, one shouldn’t mourn the death of print—and by print I speak only of periodicals; books I’ll stubbornly cling to forever—any more than they should mourn the death of the mule-drawn plow or the slide rule. What good is it? My generation might straddle the line on the issue, but the one after mine sees no use in cluttering up your house, your car, your garbage cans with paper, or in taking five minutes to do a 30-second job.

Okay, so print is on the outs. Accept it and move on. But journalism, what do we do about that?

Robert Scoble hosted a roundtable discussion at FriendFeed—yes, even the actual roundtable is somewhat quaint these days—about coming up with a model to support real, investigative, long-form journalism in the 21st Century. He notes it costs $10,000 to put up a crew in Washington for a week. Having a week for a story is even a luxury, for alongside that is the problem with funding pieces that take months or even years to develop. This is a 24/7 news environment, and that is costing journalism, even among the media conglomerate beheamoths, in terms of accuracy and depth.

This could be a strawman. Critics note also that it may not be falling subscriptions, or even diffusion of advertising choices, but the weak economy itself hitting the news industry hard in terms of advertising money. But diffusion of media isn’t going away. We have a multitude of choices for news: Twitter, Google, Digg, local newspaper sites, on and on. And with that diffusion of sources, comes further diffusion of advertising dollars, and eventually, difficulty in the funding of quality, investigative journalism.

The Inquirer hit on the problem by leaving breaking news to its bloggers. Breaking news isn’t quite the value it once was. Once on the Internet, it belongs to everyone, and the origin of the news matters less. Search engines and aggregators reverse chronology to the point that the source who broke that news is buried beneath a surge of also-rans. The original may get some link love, but there’s no guarantee, and if a bigger source can run the same content in its own original way, then there’s high probability of stolen thunder.  

Barack Obama today will steal that thunder even more. His campaign has allowed supporters to sign up to be told whom he chooses as a running mate first via email or text message. You can bet on a flood of blog posts and news stories to follow. But the traditional media won’t be the ones breaking news.

The future of journalism will rely on new models then, as the old ones are effectively blown out of the water in the advent of multi-directional, instant communication. Salon introduced a new model this week, too. They’re making it so readers can tip bloggers for great work. And isn’t that a wild concept? It’s direct reward for pleasing your readership and a strike against editors in general, who’ve traditionally chosen the news to show and the writers to promote. Editors may be looking for jobs soon, too.

I had hoped to end this missive with a proposal about what to do to save long-form journalism, and like others out there, the solution has escaped me. Scoble’s crowd suggests "crowdfunding," which is similar to Salon’s concept, or to the PBS model. Perhaps the future paper of record will also be developed by the crowd. Maybe a wiki model really is the answer for long-form journalism as well. Over a similar amount of time—a week, a month, a year—the whole story can told and agreed upon by multiple editors and locked in for the annals of history, funded by collective knowledge, perhaps even AdSense, and findable via a search engine.