Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Why No Bailout for the Newspaper Business? You Can't Resuscitate a Corpse.

Back in May 2007, uber-nerd Bill Gates told the world what many of us early adopters already knew: Print media is dead. OK, it's dying.

But the newspaper industry had seen this one coming for years with the onset of convergence journalism, as kids such as myself were coming up through journalism school learning to write, edit, design, take photos, edit video and post online. What did the newspapers do? They started taking away all the things that were working for them in the first place, and many of them stubbornly ignored the need to change their formats. Sure, some tried, but they weren't quick about it.

I've worked in a modern-day newsroom, and while virtually every journalist I've met has the same great ideas I had when I decided to go into journalism, I don't know if everyone realizes the unrealism of those ideas at today's newspapers. How often do today's journalists get time to do a real in-depth, compelling story or uncover that big scandal in a watchdog function? Most of them are scrambling to make deadline, writing more stories than ever before, and hoping a helpful news release comes their way.

Have managers in the newspaper business discouraged this growing practice of downsizing the newsroom and requesting the same amount of content? Nope, they've allowed cutesy short stories to appear day after day, and they've failed to get the backbone of the newsrooms trained on blogging and video. Or, if they incorporate those technologies, they don't allow reporters much time to utilize them, or they refuse to let reporters write in a tone that sounds as though it is actually a blog. Instead, reporters are forced to write in a news story format, defeating the purpose.

I love journalism, and I love the underlying themes of the Fourth Estate and the media's watchdog function. But in an era of infotainment, where advertising departments and corporate agendas have killed real journalism, I'm afraid we may never be able to turn back to quality reporting at some of the high levels we've seen it in the past. I suppose that's why I'm getting out of journalism for the most part.

I feel as though I can do more good through blogging, publishing myself. I can write what I want, when I want, with as little or as much research as is needed. And the rest of the world is realizing this potential. Bloggers shut down Dan Rather, among other things. We are starting to become the real news source for the world because we aren't worried about what corporate might think, and editorial control is out the window.

Though blogs are often opinionated, readers can go elsewhere to find counterpoints and make a decision on their own. If this were the era of the party press, we'd see newspapers announcing in which political direction they lean — I wish they'd just go ahead and do it now because it's mostly obvious they are all biased. Bias isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is when it's presented as objectivity. It's impossible for any journalist to completely remove all personal biases, as any scholar in agenda-setting and framing theories will tell you.

Which brings me to my next point. It seems newspapers have often also ignored the implications of mass media theory, becoming a highly pragmatic industry. If agenda-setting, agenda-building, framing, priming, new media and other theories were considered more carefully by industry leaders, perhaps they would not find themselves in their current situations. How often do individual journalist themselves consider the theoretical implications of their work?

So, though I do not agree with bailing out industries, such as was done recently with the banks in the U.S. and is under consideration regarding the American automakers, I did give thoughtful consideration about the newspaper industry. Newspapers employ people as well, they are read by many Americans and they serve an informative and educational function. However, my answer to any such action being taken to save the newspaper industry is a resounding "no."

The newspapers are no different from the automakers and the bankers. The bankers encouraged people to take out loans they knew they could not afford, ignoring economic trends. The automakers ignored environmental/stylistic attitudes and economic trends as well, and let's face it, in both cases corruption is involved. The newspaper industry has for years ignored the trend in convergence and the shift to online consumption by audiences, so it too deserves to die. In its place, we will see an emergence of Media 2.0, I think, playing off of Web 2.0. There will be more news from more sources available on the Internet, and consumers will expect the bells and whistles that only a few traditional media have embraced on the Web.

If traditional journalists and news organizations are to survive, they will have to do it online. Even local news is available online from bloggers and citizen journalists. Customizable, quick news must be made available. However, the in-depth reports newspapers used to provide must be allowed to be undertaken because niche audiences interested in those areas will want that information. Veteran reporters must become tech-saavy, and they should be on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites. It's a fast-moving train, but someone has to ride it, and if traditional journalists do not set the tone quickly and boldly, then others will.

If I could make any recommendation to a journalist out there who wonders what to do next, I would tell him or her — get a personal blog. Design a professional-looking blog, quit your job in the newsroom, and start hunting for real news that people want to read. Especially if you work at a small-town newspaper. Just imagine how many hits you could generate if you reported on the things people tell you they think are important. You could work from home, and you could do as much research as you wanted on your stories without worrying about deadlines. If you keep your content fresh and interesting, you'll generate enough advertising dollars before long to forget the newspaper hustle and bustle. (It's not as though the pay was that great anyway, was it?)

Or, you could go into public relations. We still need some people out there publishing the truth, but why not help them decide what the truth is? I suppose that's why I'm so attracted to public relations — it involves strategies and tactics. Not lies, mind you. It just requires a higher, more theoretical level of thinking than the same interview, write, repeat routine every day. But as the relationship between news and PR becomes less adversarial and more symbiotic, journalists absolutely need story ideas and prepackaged information to meet tight deadlines in understaffed newsrooms.

Of course, there's always the option of working for CNN or another news organization that does lots of online and broadcast reports. Though I think TV will live longer than the newspaper, it will not be long before watch all of our content on computers. So, produce video and copy for an online news site if you can land the job. I think these jobs will actually begin to grow as more and more print publications, just as the Christian Science Monitor did, go online in the near future to save printing costs and attract new audiences.

So, just because newspapers will die, it doesn't mean the reasons we all went to journalism school have to die also. Though I don't plan to stay in journalism, I do want to continue to blog because it offers me an opportunity to offer perspectives such as this post did or to actually report news in my community I feel is interesting. Through this discussion (and that's what Web 2.0 is all about), we can develop online communities that will create offline solutions to our common issues.

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