Monday, March 16, 2009

The best and worst time for journalism

It is the worst of times for the businesses that traditionally have funded professional journalism but the best of times to be a journalist, so long as you aren’t counting on a job at a media company to pay your bills, raise a family or fund your retirement.

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?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a real journalist with a real degree and legitimate news job, I still don't understand why the industry is accepting the notion that bloggers and so-called citizen journalists are the future of journalism? Are you kidding me? I'm all for licensing the profession.

9:50 AM  
Blogger DigiDave said...

To the commenter above. That is dumbest thing I've ever heard.

Should we license the first amendment? Only a select group of people get to use it?

11:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a real news consumer I like to get information from knowledgable people instead of journalism majors covering subjects they know little about. I'm also for licensing the profession so that I can identify, and avoid, these journalism majors that think they know more than they actually do.

You can try to stuff the genie back into the bottle but I think you're a decade too late. Blame the internets. Blame unbalanced newsrooms. Blame me and other news consumers. It doesn't change a thing.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think you can license journalism. But the idea that for-profit websites that allow their "readers" (read: clients) to "suggest" news stories shows the true future of the web, a mouthpiece for the business community. With all the editorial independence of a chamber of commerce newsletter or those freebie publications you find in your hotel room. Ugh.

12:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9.50 am:

As a "real" journalist, you are a part of the problem. "real" degrees and "legitimate news jobs" have given us the politically biased and often misinformed newspapers that have driven away subscribers in droves.

License the making of buggy whips if it makes you happy. The rest of us will move on, and you won't be missed.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew Terenzio said...

Anonymous Coward,

. . .because bloggers don't have degrees or real jobs right?

Glad you checked those facts out mister journalist.

3:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This idea probably won't pay enough and it wouldn't produce good enough content either. An exclusive packaging of the best blogs out there would be more interesting.

The syndicated content angle, though, is an area that should be explored and experimented with.

AP seems in serious jeopardy of yielding to informal regional or chain-based sharing of content. Who needs to pay those exhorbitant rates when all we hear about is local, local, local?

AP is crumbling.

Licensing content between smaller networks of news organizations for the right to disseminate to the public is going to be experimented with soon.

Just as newspapers are losing their ability to charge exhorbitant rates, so is AP.

The media business is going to be a very low-budget endeavor fairly soon.

3:44 PM  
Blogger DigiDave said...

I just came back to this and wanted to follow up.

The last comment (which was a response to anonymous) was a bit harsh.

The main problem in what you are saying is: It is a slippery slope.

Who is a "real journalist"

I'm a freelancer. I have been most of my career. Am I a "real" journalist?

I went to Colubmia's J-school. Does that make me legit?

What if I couldn't have afforded j-school?

Would I be an impostor?

There is no governing body for journalism and there shouldn't be - that would create a monopoly on who can create "legitimate" information.

That is at the core of the problem with licensing the profession.

4:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the question I would have with GlobalPost is, are they so much better than what's available for free that people would pay money to subscribe?
Regarding journalism/journalists, I don't necessarily see why you have to be a "journalist" to participate in journalism? Journalists are almost by definition generalists who interpret what experts say and think. Why couldn't a web site accept contributions from an expert in his field, but before publishing, do what journalists do: vet the information for accuracy and clean it up so that humans can read it? There's a role for a trusted source validating and interpreting information, which is what journalists have always done. Making the process more dynamic might create better journalism

5:54 PM  
Blogger discounderworld said...

Monetising the internet is going to be the biggest downfall in media, and by media I mean quality media.
People don't expect to pay for digital content, and if the current trend of transferring to the web keeps up, then the ability to keep quality writers, not just news journalists but all the other genres people enjoy, will decline. I wonder if the news in the future will be produced entirely by the google bots, and then who is there to keep the facts straight? Maybe it will be a case similar to the migration of call centers off shore, only to find that in fact it is not economical or good business practice? There need only be one credible trust-worthy source to make others follow suit. It will come full circle. People want to know they can trust the news.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Steve Collins said...

Licensing journalists is stupid, of course, but so is the notion that any idiot with a blog (or, worse yet, a phone and a Twitter feed) is a reporter. Sure, they write stuff. Sometimes, they even write things that are fascinating. But that's true of high school sophomores, too.
We have a crying need for more professional journalists to make sense of this vast morasse of information that flows all around us these days but instead we get hype about citizen journalism that amounts to, well, nothing much.
I admit to aching for what we are losing. And I admit to feeling terror for journalism and for my country as I watch the sources of news shrivel and die.
Here we are in the middle of a vast explosion of information but we're losing our ability to make sense of it all, to know what's important and what isn't, to be educated citizens in a vital democracracy.
I'm not about to say die and not about to hand over the field to an army of type-happy netizens. We need reporters. We need editors. We need newspapers. We need journalism.
And we need readers who give a damn.

6:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those who condemn journalists and root for the demise of newspapers should be careful what they wish for.

We'd be left with the comfort of knowing that, because it's on the Internet, it must be true. The ease with which information can be disseminated doesn't give it value.

Certainly journalists are an imperfect lot. Some are exceptional, some are lousy, most somewhere in between.

Same could be said for doctors, but I don't hear any sane person suggesting we get our medical advice from laymen.

It all comes down to credibility and trust. If Everyman can beat us at that, he deserves to win. Personally, I doubt it, but maybe we need to live that to find out.

Finally, it's delusional to think you can get quality news from people without paying at least a livable wage.

As in everything else, you'll get what you pay for.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey in Cincinnati, now Denver said...

Good article--and interesting comments. Clearly, well experienced, trained journalists are not the same thing as a citizen blogger, and investigative journalism is not even close to a citizen blogger. American consumers, I hope, will care about the difference.

The fact that none of the major networks have a full-time reporter in Iraq is sad. It's sad that Americans don't care enough to know what is happening in that country.

In my opinion, we should also have hundreds of journalists all over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Cuba, Venezuela, and every other country that we hear simple items about every day that affects US foreign policy. An ignorant electorate and citizenry makes for a poor democracy that can be easily manipulated as sheep.

I have a sneaky feeling, however, that we'll be okay... :) The Chinese symbol for crisis and opportunity even may just as well apply here.

We need to be creative and entrepreneurial... Personally, I wished we still rode horses and wrote with quills.

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I had know that all it took to be considered a journalist and to make money at the profession was being a registered user at Blogger and having a mediocre understanding of language, then I would have skipped j school.

8:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeffrey in Cincinnati:

We did have trained journalists in Iraq, and this is an example of what they came up with.

Clearly, journalistic training or a degree is no substitute for actual knowledge of the field being covered. Many journalists make the mistake of thinking that their qualifications, alone, will allow them to sort the truth from the propaganda. Unfortunately, this is not so.

Journalists need to eat some humble pie, and realise their limitations, before they proclaim themselves the guardians of democracy.

10:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Clay Shirky, he of the much-circulated blogpost on the current state of journalism, gave the perfect analogy in his book "Here Comes Everybody."
Think of journalism like driving. Almost everybody can drive. But there's a huge difference between the Formula One driver, the commercial long-haul trucker, the Driver's Ed instructor, and the unlicensed teen auto thief.

5:50 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I, too, am a freelancer. I began news writing for a daily in the San Francisco area before graduating from high school (and not just the high school "news" column). I chose a major in Liberal Studies rather than journalism. So, does that make me a journalist or not?

I think part of the problem can be attributed to the ivory suites at the larger papers. They can't see that the purchasers of their product don't want what they are selling. Thus, the rise of the alternatives.

Another factor is attempt by print media to "scoop" the broadcast media. Just can't be done. Take the breaking news, add more depth and insight, and give the reader something to chew on.

Finally, the major print outlets along with the Big Three in broadcast are succumbing to what they "think" the reader wants -- sensational National Enquirer-type stories. (Ivory suites driving the news again.) Sorry, Britney Spears' latest video is not news as I learned it 35 years ago.

As to licensing journalist, who is going to be the final authority of what defines a journalist? Nancy Pelosi or Rush Limbaugh? What will be the criteria? Was W. R. Hearst a journalist just because he financed a huge corporation of newspapers. (Corporate news media is another problem run by folks who have never been in the newsroom.)

It's not brain surgery. It's not flying a jet liner. Journalism is a craft that is honed with experience. A journalist, like all writers, have a gift that can't be taught or tested. (There is nothing more thrilling than to be on the trail of an in-depth story.)

I think we'd better off to license politicians.

5:55 AM  
Blogger rknil said...

The people who are saying we cannot license journalists because that would somehow violate the First Amendment need to go back to school.

First, some review for our remedial students: Amendments do not mean absolute, total freedom. People cannot shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Felons cannot vote. Not everyone can purchase a firearm legally. Even churches have to abide by some regulations, even though the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion.

The people who claim this would be a "slippery slope" are likely the same people who are destroying any hope of reasonable standards for anything. They try to insist that if we cannot police everything, then we can police nothing. This "logic" has never made sense.

If anything, the problem with licensing is that it would close the barn door long after the horses have run off. We needed licensing back when newsrooms could still be saved.

Follow-up ahead, just in case...

8:56 PM  
Blogger Susan K. Stewart said...

rknil has an interesting take on the licensing issue. I agree that the Constitution does not afford any of us absolute freedom to do whatever we wish. On the other hand, that is not a good reason for licensing anything - journalist, churches, parents, etc.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey in Cincinnati, now Denver said...

To rknil, you make a strong and convincing argument that should definitely be considered regarding licensing for journalist.

The code of ethics that the Society of Professional Journalists employs should not be thrown into the waste bin. Standards and integrity matter, and they will always matter in a society that cares about facts and not only hyperbole.

This may be a good point to redefine the profession, not the mention the medium and mode that news is communicated to the public, which will require some creative thinking.

Journalists, like most humans in a capital driven system, need to make a living wage to support their efforts.

Moreover, in-depth, investigative journalism, as can currently be seen with the country's reaction to AIG, is crucial. A lot of people right now have opinions in the witch hunt, but not all the facts. Right or wrong, before the mob let's loose, let's see what really happened.

And to know what happened requires many interviews and diligent reporting. Casual bloggers tend to simply hear a comment or two then expound.

Having said that, everyone being able to voice his or her opinion is still a great innovation--and should be seen within the proper and right context.

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, licensed journalists? Licensed by whom? A free and independent press is by definition not licensed or controlled by any government or regulatory body.

But that's not what I came to say.

I was a newspaper reporter and editor for 25 years. For eight of those, I was editor-in-chief of two midsized dailies, one of which won a National Journalism Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

By any definition, that's a "real" journalist. But I left newspapers because of growing restrictions on resources and because readers and local communities were no longer considered king.

Now, another former newspaper journalist and I run a hyperlocal news website ( in far northern California that is rapidly acquiring readership and market share. We've brought in others like us (and some not so like us) to cover our region.

Our growth chart is a 45-degree angle climbing ever upward over the past year.

We are doing what we've always done -- write news, features and commentary about our area and invite our readers to contribute as well. We also have blogs and other personal websites. Nobody has a license. We aren't non-profit like Voices of San Diego. But we still include the community in our coverage and we treat all our readers -- including businesspeople, the chambers of commerce, the school administration, government officials and, yes, even advertisers like human beings and loyal readers. Even when we do the hard stories, and we do the hard stories, we are community minded.

We're real journalists with real degrees and legitimate news jobs, and let me tell you, it doesn't get any better than this, especially when you consider that the newspaper and television station across town watch their corporate trucks back up to their front door every week and take a ton of community dollars away to headquarters in other states.

We are locally owned, locally operated and locally interested.

I'm here to say our experience is that there is life after newspapers, and plenty of it. There is hope. There is journalism.

4:55 PM  
Blogger rknil said...

"A free and independent press is by definition not licensed or controlled by any government or regulatory body."

OK. But you choose to ignore what could be done (but won't -- can't say why or the post will be spiked).

The government doesn't have to do the regulation or the licensing. The industry could handle it (he says with doubt, yet unable to express the level of doubt because the post will be spiked).

Some of the work I do required government approval. Is the government "licensing" me? No. But using your argument, newspapers are somehow already restricted because they have to file for postal deals (I hesitate to say licenses because the word-parsers will come running) or DBAs.

Also, can I get a ruling on what causes these posts to be spiked? If I make any reference to an industry-wide problem, the post is spiked. If I break up one thought into two posts, then the second post is spiked.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Regarding the notion that New Journalists will simply be PR channels for business interests if they take story requests:

Journalists are used to sorting through the flak fodder of overhyped and non-stories. There's no better way to get readers "invested" in you than to take their story ideas seriously.
Now that Jan Q. Public has equal power to contact the media, she will usually be a reliable touchstone, at least to what's on people's minds.

The real threat to unbiased knowledge comes from more sophisticated PR machines that skip the media middlemen and present themselves as authentic news sources, aka "custom media" campaigns, faux blogs, tweets...

Be not afraid. Open source news will be messy for a while, but it will sort itself out.

5:35 PM  
Anonymous sagarmatha, adelaide said...

Information must be available for everyone to access and everyone must be allowed to communicate, express and write whether or not one is journalist or not.

3:16 AM  

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