The best and worst time for journalism
As laid out in painful detail today at Journalism.Org, the state of the news business in the United States is the “bleakest” in the six years it has been tracked by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center.
Every indication for the immediate future is that things will get worse for the legacy media companies. But you knew that. What you may not realize is that journalism is thriving as never before, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the implosion of the businesses that traditionally have supported the press.
The challenge for those who are, or who aim to be, journalists is to find a way to afford to do what you ought to do, what you want to do and what society desperately needs you to do.
It won’t be easy, as underscored over the weekend in the searching questions about the economics of journalism raised repeatedly at a conference on the future of the profession at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. Across the Bay at the very same time, staffers of the San Francisco Chronicle painfully voted 1o to 1 to allow management to summarily eliminate a third of the 445 newsroom and ad-sales positions covered by the Media Workers Guild of Northern California.
For all the fear and frustration among journalists today, however, the vision of next-generation journalism is beginning to materialize beyond the smoking ruins of the once-invincible business models that supported a vigorous and independent press in the decades since World War II.
With everything falling apart all at once, we’ll take a moment to sum up the damage. Then, we’ll get on to a more constructive discussion about where to go from here.
Audiences for most print and broadcast media are shriveling. Confidence in the press is collapsing. Newspaper revenues have plunged by 25% to 33% since 2005, thrusting many publications from comfortable profitability to bankruptcy in places like Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Haven and Philadelphia. Newspapers have closed or likely will shut soon in Albuquerque, Cincinnati, Denver, Madison, Seattle and Tucson.
News staffs, newshole and even publication frequency are shrinking, shrinking, shrinking at newspapers and news magazines. Coverage has been truncated to such levels that none of the Big Three networks has a full-time correspondent in Iraq and 27 states in the union don’t have a single, full-time newspaper correspondent stationed in Washington, D.C.
The forces that led the traditional media companies to this state of accelerating – and potentially irreversible – decline were unleashed for the most part before the economy toppled into the worst meltdown since the last Depression. (For another view of the devolution of newspapers, see this must-read from Clay Shirky.)
The forces of decline include, but are not limited to, the rapid adoption of disruptive interactive and mobile technologies; seismic changes in consumer preferences and advertiser behavior, and roughly equal amounts of arrogance, avarice and absence of imagination on the part of the Pooh-Bahs occupying the executive suites of the nation’s media companies. Amazingly, a great many of the shortsighted “leaders” who occupied the executive suites in 2005 remain on the job today.
If you define journalism as something produced by a traditional newspaper, magazine or broadcaster, then, yes, journalism is in trouble. But that’s a limited, if not to say anachronistic, definition of journalism in an age when cheap, easy-to-use and widely available interactive technology has democratized the creation, discovery and acquisition of information.
If you define journalism as the activity that allows people to learn from each other what is happening in their world, then journalism is alive and well at Facebook, Twitter, Slashdot, Moms Like Me, Last.FM and thousands of other online communities.
As but one example of the ferocious growth of participatory sites, the 1.5 million hours of video contributed to YouTube in the first six months of 2008 was greater than all the programming produced by the Big Three broadcast networks since their inception 60 years ago, according to Michael Wesch, a professor at Kansas State University whose landmark study of the phenomenon is here.
To be sure, not everything on Facebook or YouTube would be construed as journalism by even the most generous observer. But the value of the content is in the eye of the beholder. And those are the places, not mainstream media websites, that are being beheld ever more frequently by modern consumers.
If you define journalism as an activity where an intermediary tells people what is happening in their world, then journalism’s vital signs are somewhere between stable and strong at Muncie Free Press, Westport Now, Minnpost, and Crosscut – to name a few of dozens of alternative local news sites that have sprung up as staff cuts and shrinking news holes have compromised the coverage of news organizations across the land.
Not one, but two, online entities are moving into the void created by the relentless hollowing out of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Voice of San Diego, which debuted as a non-profit alterative to the U-T in 2005, will get head-on, online competition this week from the newly launched San Diego News Network. SDNN, a for-profit venture, will combine original reporting with content aggregated from several print and broadcast partners.
If you define journalism as something produced by citizens who step in where big-time journalists seldom tread, then journalism is registering at least a discernable pulse at places like Chi-Town Daily News, Patch, Bakersfield Voice and the new The Local section of the New York Times.
Spot.Us, an intriguing experiment that represents a variation on the citizen-journalism theme, encourages visitors to its site to fund stories they would like to see covered. When the funding target is met, journalists produce the articles for as little as $200 per story. That’s not enough, of course, for the downpayment on even a foreclosed condo in most places. But it is getting a bit of journalism done.
As diverse as all of the above new journalistic genres may be, they share a common problem: None to date has come close to generating the sort of monopoly-like revenues and profits that historically paid for the ample professional staffs fielded by the ailing legacy media.
In the cases where the new journalistic genres are merely an avocation for the tweeters and soccer moms, this is perhaps of little concern. But the comparatively thin revenues generated by most of these enterprises are not at the moment providing anything close to the compensation that professional journalists receive at even the stingiest traditional news organization.
With the toxic economy and sweeping secular changes in advertising grinding away at the economics of the legacy media, the need to discover new business models to support journalism grows more urgent by the day.
In that vein, it is with high hopes and best wishes that we are watching the launch of Global Post, one of the most ambitious endeavors to date in the service of seeking to properly compensate journalists in the future.
Global Post has developed a holistic, thoroughly modern business model that includes selling banner advertising, syndicating its content to other news organizations and offering a $199 premium membership that will entitle subscribers to suggest stories, hear special briefings from correspondents, listen to exclusive podcasts from world leaders, receive a host of email newsletters and get expedited mobile text alerts on breaking stories.
Global Post says it has assembled more than 70 correspondents in more than 40 countries to replace the international coverage that is being increasingly neglected by the avidly downsizing traditional press. The questions are whether the public’s appetite for foreign news will be large enough – and the quality of the execution will be good enough – to make the project a success.
Global Post’s correspondents are not staff reporters but individual contributors being paid “modest” stipends “comparable to freelancer rates paid by traditional American media,” according to the company’s website. While the correspondents don’t have the sort of salaries, benefits and retirement programs enjoyed by staffers at mainstream organizations, they are being granted “considerable shares of common stock in the company.”
This is the sort of bargain that made Google’s original in-house masseuse a millionaire. Can it do the same for foreign correspondents?