Today’s Thought: What/who will be left to rebuild journalism?

Let’s be clear about one thing: 2009 will be much, much worse for journalists and established media companies than 2008.

Much worse.

And 2008 has already seen more than 15,000 jobs lost at U.S. newspapers. I believe 2009 will be a defining point in time for U.S. newspapers and not in a good way. Many promising young journalists and students are leaving journalism for other fields.

So, I have to ask: When this financial crisis is over, who will be left to rebuild journalism? Will there be enough talented journalists left to rebuild? Will the journalists left have the Web skills that journalism sorely needs?

Usually, we’d look to the next generation. We’d say that the future will bring in new, exciting ideas and fresh talent. First, most j-schools follow the industry, not lead it. They are filled with more curmudgeons and technophobes than most newspapers. 

The other major problem I see is that many of our most talented would-be journalists are switching majors and planning on entering other careers. And many of the young talent that did work in news organizations left before they ever had a chance to get into a position of power to make significant change.

The future is beyond bleak for U.S. newspapers. The future of journalism is still up for grabs. There will be , however, many innovative journalism startups in the next five years.

But will there be enough startups and enough talented, modern journalists to replace all that we are losing today?

  • Why does Journalism need to be rebuilt by those who are left? Why can’t it be rebuilt by those who HAVE left?

  • I’m with Marc.

    Here’s a lil’ short story I wrote that I bet you can somewhat relate to (from here)..

    “The Elephant in the Room”

    Once upon a time, there was an elephant in a room full of journalists.
    These journalists were very stubborn, arrogant, and some were extremely elitist.

    This elephant was a poor elephant
    but had a knack for making accurate predictions about what was going to happen.

    Often times, this elephant would try in vain to warn these journalists in the room – to help them.

    And, occasionally, this elephant would even appear to be completely wrong at first
    but would actually end up being completely correct – after a couple of months or years had passed.

    Some of the journalists in power would actually make it a point to punish this elephant
    for daring to speak the truth to them – in anyway they could.

    And sometimes they would even steal his ideas while presenting them as their own.

    Most of the other journalists would simply ignore this elephant altogether,
    as if he wasn’t there or simply didn’t exist.

    A few of the younger interns in this room, however, were quietly listening
    and would secretly give this elephant a little food money so he wouldn’t starve to death.

    Finally the elephant decided to give up on trying to help these journalists anymore.
    The room they were in was on fire, and was sure to burn down to the ground.

    Before the elephant left the room with some of the younger interns
    he tried once more to reason with the journalists to save their lives.

    “You’re all going to die unless you take my advice now,” the elephant remarked,
    “This room wouldn’t have even caught fire if you had simply listened to my advice in the first place.”

    “Fuck you,” replied one of the older journalists in charge
    before promptly crossing his arms and turning around to face the opposite direction.

    The elephant left the room as it burned with all it’s occupants to the ground.

    “Oh well,” thought the elephant as he walked to the bar with the young interns, “At least I tried my best.”

    The elephant may not have had the journalists’ respect or even enough money to pay his bills
    but at least he had his life, his youth, and enough pocket change to buy a beer.

  • I’m down to help #reinventjournalism in the Pacific Northwest.

  • God its boring to read another gloom and doom prediction on jouros’ futures despite the evidence that people are NOT going elswhere. theyre buying magazines, new mags are appearing all the time. the point is that most journos live and work in small ponds.

  • Here’s one more..

    The Arrogant Madness of Revolution

    “How dare he try to change our beloved craft, even if it is in the shitter!”

    “I know, you’d have to be arrogant to try to change somebody’s craft! Nobody does that.
    Revolutionize journalism? Pah-lease. Gimme a break.”

    “And how dare he call us out on our bullshit, we’re the ones in charge!”

    “I know, you’d have to be crazy to speak truth to power! Everybody knows that.
    Democratize communication? Pah-lease. Gimme a break.”

  • I’m a young journalist and I’m excited about the future of my organization. I’d stay here until I’m ready to retire so long as the people above me continue to encourage innovation from any person within the organization. I’m still worried, though, about the future of media organizations and I still feel the need to be prepared for whatever the future holds. I know some young journalists who have left, but many of those leading the charge at my organization have been in the business for at least 10 years. I’ve noticed that older journalists tend to accept easily that they must continue to change and adapt. Younger journalists I’ve met seem to stand in the way of change and seek to work in the old school journalism world they learned about in college. This is not always the case, just some general trends I’ve seen in the business. Good luck to all (young, old, employed, unemployed, whatever) seeking to provide accurate, well-balanced news and information to the people so that those people can make well-informed decisions.

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  • EB

    — Lots of people with talent will leave.

    — The people who will remain will be the passionate entrepreneurs with the stomachs for risk

    — Once the entrepreneurs figure out the new models and create institutions with the stability that the average bear craves, the talented will return.

    So don’t worry about the business losing talent. Yes, in the interim, some talent will leave and the quality of the journalism being produced will vary. But in the long run (I’m giving it 20 years), journalism will be as strong as ever.


    Re: your statement “The future is beyond bleak for U.S. newspapers. The future of journalism is still up for grabs.”

    I know this is a sad period for people who love newspapers. But newspapers are done for. It’s just a matter of time. The quicker people move through the grief, the faster they can get on with creating the future.

    I don’t agree that the future of journalism is up for grabs. I hands-down believe that the business of reporting and delivering news will persist—though I also believe it will look nothing like the forms we grew up with.
    What we’re going through right now – the demise of newspapers – is not final for the practice of journalism. It’s just part of a cycle. One form of delivering the news is dying. Another is yet to be born. The period in between is going to be rocky. Much of the things we’ve taken for granted will disappear. And yes, the quality of journalism will be spotty during this interim. And yes again, it’s not going to be a place for sissies—anyone who needs the guarantee of a steady paycheck should probably go elsewhere.

    But once we emerge on the other side, once we discover the new forms and models, journalism will be just as strong as ever.

  • In a shrinking pond excellence will rise to the top. It’s just the law of evolution. During the period of newspaper and broadcast TV monopoly, there was lots of room for lots of levels of talent and hard work.

    It’s ok in retrospect to decry all the talented journalists that are going to have design new careers, but frankly, lots of what passed as journalism for the last 40 years has been sub standard. It grew in a very protected environment.

    Now that the barrier to entry has been lowered to include a much larger pool, journalism will get better, not worse. There is little doubt that the news and information I get today is heads and shoulders what I got during the 70’s about the world and especially Vietnam.

    In the run up to Iraq, where were the legions of great journalists, speaking truth to power?
    Please, enough already. there are great models already emerging. It would be neat to spend more time looking for them, and less time mourning over a past that is moving quickly to extinction.

    Newspapers are dying. Long live the news.

  • Chris

    I am not so quick in writing the obituary of the newspaper as a means of delivering news.

    I think what may happen is for the newspaper to decline and plateau, but not completely disappear.

    There’s sound business logic behind most old media companies not turning off their old media delivery mechanisms.

    Newspapers aren’t still printing because they don’t “get” the Internet and want to stay in their comfort zone. It’s not that they are stuck. It’s that the newspaper — even one in decline — is still a stronger asset.

    Going fully into the Web would mean many newspaper companies would go out of business. Why? On the Web, the competition is every other domain on the Internet. There can be an almost infinite number of Web sites, yet no Web site has been able to make more time than 24 hours to a day.

    The competition is no longer getting a scoop. The competition is about how long you a site can hold on to as many eyeballs as bandwidth allows.

    Not only is the competition every other business, but the competition is also sites that are purely labors of love or research with no profit motive. You can’t compete with anything that can be given away for free.

    What makes a newspaper think people would rather spend their time in front of their computer reading news, as opposed to looking at porn, watching videos or playing games? Entertainment trumps information.

    Consumers choosing only a few narrow topics of their own interest, and from sites that agree with their opinions, also counts as entertainment.

    Newspapers want to hang on to the printed product because of its assets:
    1. It is capital-intensive. Newspapers require a lot of money to operate. It’s a high-roller’s gamble.
    2. It is a well-established brand. Legacy newspapers have a tremendous asset in just their names. Before anyone reads newspapers’ last rites, go see if Sam Zell thinks any of his newspaper names are so toxic that he would pay you to take them off his hands. Even in a declining market, newspapers still have a cache of assets and intellectual property that’s worth millions.
    3. To borrow a sentence from Michael, “In a shrinking pond excellence will rise to the top. It’s just the law of evolution.” Paradoxically, every newspaper that fails only makes the remaining properties more valuable. A decline, as we are seeing now, helps reinforce points 1 and 2 for newspapers.

    This, admittedly, sounds Pollyanna-ish and far-fetched for now. But here’s the other side of the coin.

    The one remaining goldmine newspapers have is the money that is going into payroll. Once newspapers get rid of the newsroom, they’ve bought themselves another 100 years of survival.

    What’s killing newspapers is payroll outlays. My apologies in advance to my fellow professional journalists: The bluntness of the following statement is discomforting and might be considered as treason, but I say this as a warning and not an indictment. Newsrooms and the people who work in them are a burden to the organization because they don’t earn their keep.

    The best newspapers are whose revenue streams are coming through both the advertising and circulation departments. These revenue-side jobs help subsidize the sunk costs of news-gathering and production.

    The problem in the eyes of the financial shot-callers is that they can readily tell how much advertising and circulation bring in or cost down to the person or the revenue unit. They don’t have a similar metric for journalists.

    They do know how much in pay, taxes and benefits a journalist costs.

    If your editor ever sat you down and asked you, “How much money are you making for the paper?”, what would be your answer?

    That’s the big problem for journalists.

    Newspapers can survive if the costs of acquiring content are kept to a minimum. They would compensate for content based on consumption, rather than labor input.

    The imperative word is content, not news.

    The advantage of content-gathering moves from journalism to aggregation. Journalists, who can make five-figures and have steady employment, are going to walk away in disgust when their newspapers tell them we’d be glad to use your writing if you are willing to do the same amount of work and the same amount of quality — but your compensation would now be the decimal in place of the comma. Annually. Meanwhile, content is going to come from people writing for nothing or releasing a story for a little extra surplus cash. In other words, bloggers who are getting nothing could get a little coin on the level of an Amazon affiliate.

    Also, stories that conform to a newspaper’s style can be planted. As it is, most newspapers fill news hole with rewritten press releases. Why not just skip the middleman and pay the press release writer directly? Or, excerpts of books — particularly literary journalism — can be released by the publisher to promote sales or generate some “long tail” for the author.

  • Chris,
    I think you’ve got it exactly right.

    The connection between the success of newspapers and the “news” always has been tenuous at best. Did people buy newspapers for news? Or did they buy them to scan for sports, stock quotes, comics and the latest gossip or crime? Or did they buy them because everyone bought them?

    Newspapers have been in a secular decline since the 1970’s. Some observers believe that when the two earner family became common place, the time to sit before or after dinner, scanning the paper disappeared. It wasn’t because the news was getting worse.

    Newspapers have been in the “aggregate eyeballs and sell them to advertisers” business since at least the early 1900’s. The “news” was one way to do that, not the business purpose of the newspaper. That business model still works. There is a “newspaper man” in the Northwest that has organically grown a good business with shoppers. Lots of print products delivered. Minimal expense on “news”. It’s about local advertising. People want local advertising. Once the newsroom is eliminated it’s a thriving business model.

    The reality is that we are watching “news,” which has been piggy backing on the value created by print advertising, searching for a way to support itself. Serious reporting has emerged as books, on NPR, on some TV. My personal bet is that it will find a home in the education business.

    But it’s not going to be by invoking a glorious past that mostly existed in the minds of journalists.

  • Just another thought to get on the table:

    The heroic era of journalism was defined by the Watergate reporting in the Washington Post.
    Now consider the number of well researched books that have been written and sold very well about the Bush administration. Then consider the “reporting” by Judith Miller in the run up to the war.

    Journalism is alive and well. It has merely moved beyond newspapers. It’s not about the Internet. It’s about better, faster more appropriate ways to communicate.

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