"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The newspaper is dead, long live the newspaper

The industry I work in is dying, but it is also poised to take a massive leap forward. Paradigms are shifting and technology is dragging the newspaper industry into the future kicking and screaming, and leaving a trail of bodies in its wake. The last few months have seen the demise of the Rocky Mountain News,  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Philadelphia Daily News and papers like the San Francisco Chronicle and Atlanta Constitution-Journal are losing a million dollars a week. Tribune Co. publishers of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune filed for bankruptcy in December.  In financial terms, many newspapers simply are literally not worth the paper they are printed on  and need to find a new model, whether it is advertising supported internet publishing or paid subscription via some off-web device such as the Amazon Kindle.

I don't think newspapers will become extinct anytime soon, but the print editions may become something of a luxury. Some will survive in their present printed form for years to come, others will sink or swim on the tide of the internet and others may well end up going the Kindle/itunes paid subscription route. Others will fall by the wayside and be replaced by a new species of online journal, something part blog, part online forum, part viewer-driven local tv news station. Think of a cross between the Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, You Tube and a news-junkie chat group. 
Whatever happens, the journalism trade isn't likely to go away anytime soon. Someone has to do the primary legwork and interviewing and write that snappy pyramid lede for all the "citizen-journalists" in the blogosphere to disparage. I don't mean to say that bloggers don't do any original reporting, many do. But not on a daily basis and not within a central organizing framework that ensure the things that need to get covered have people assigned to them. Newsgathering organizations are as old as civilization, whether they've been wandering traders exchanging commercial gossip, military spies, wandering tinkers and minstrels  or what have you. 
Blogs tend to work from secondary sources, sifting through all the online media to find the information they want, cutting and pasting in raw data gathered by governments, universities, think tanks and NGOs and linking to published journalism. Which is great as far as it goes --there is a lot of information out there to be distilled down to the point where the signal-to-noise ratio is bearable and the information digestible and newspapers, along with television and radio and magazines have traditionally served that role with radio getting the info out first, followed by television giving the visuals, newspapers supplying the detailed information and news magazines trying to put things in perspective and show how the puzzle pieces fit -- obviously there is overlap and all four have also leaned heavily on news analysis and opinion to fill the empty spaces and try to tell their customers what it all means. Blogs can do all that but it is a hell of a lot of work for a single person or a even a small group. They may individually or as a group have the various types of expertise to write knowledgeably about all current events in their sphere of interest and a blog, as some newspapers and magazines are finally figuring out, can provide more immediate coverage than print. 
But it is a full time job. Someone has to go and sit through the town planning meetings, the press conferences, the board of directors meetings. Some one has to scan the police blotter, the committee minutes, the legislature's agenda. Someone has to go door to door canvassing for witnesses, someone has to call all the Smith's in the phone book to find the right guy, someone has to go do the work. So the world will still need trained journalists and investigative reporters, camera jockeys and assignment editors. It just needs to find a way to let them keep eating and living indoors. 
The old Chinese curse "may you live in interesting times" has settled around the news industry like a noose. In many ways this is a very exciting time to be in the news industry because everything is going to change in the decade or so. As the new paradigms shake out and separate the Pyjamas Medias from the Talking Points Memos, the yoyos  and dilettantes from the pros, there will be blood on the floor, empires worth millions of dollars  will fall overnight and a lot of people are going to be losing their jobs  - not just journalists, but studio technicians, printers, truck drivers and paper mill workers.  In the words of Chairman Mao: "There is chaos under heaven, and the situation is excellent."


Gazetteer said...

Hey rev--

How do you see the individual journo getting through the interesting times...do folks like Josh Marshall actually pay enough that somebody can actually make a living at it?



the rev. paperboy said...

from what i understand TPM has a fairly small staff but i think they all make middle five figures - about what you'd make on a midsize daily paper in Canada.

Individual journalists are going to be scrabbling hard over the next twenty years to find steady jobs that pay until things settle back down. Part of the problem is celebrity journalists/columnists. For what the New York Times pays David Brooks or Maureen Dowd to go to cocktail parties and spout nonsense in their columns, they could pay ten real reporters you've never heard of to cover real news that happens outside the beltway and Manhattan.
There is some weird perception that journalists make a lot of money - some marquee names do, especially in television - but most of the rank and file folks doing the actual work in the field are making less than teachers and cops and nurses make. When I worked in community papers in Canada, the most I ever made was about $550 a week - before taxes - and that was as the editor-in-chief. Most of my friends at smaller daily papers in places like Kingston, Belleville and Owen Sound weren't making much more. That was ten years ago, but I bet the wages aren't a whole lot better now.
On the plus side, I did get to work 60 hour weeks and had to maintain a car to keep my job on milage payments that almost paid for the gas used.
Oddly, I don't miss the small town newspaper business, but at least I was on the side of the angels back then.