Archive for the ‘future-of-journalism’ Tag
The esteemed journalist Mark Bowden is back with another thought-provoking article on the digital media revolution. It is at once deeply reported, crisply written — and strangely myopic in its conclusions.
In the October issue of the Atlantic, Bowden tracks the story of how a partisan blogger armed Fox News and the rest of the TV noise machine with the primary attacks used against Supreme Court nominee (and now Justice) Sonia Sotomayor. (As I wrote in May, an early riff suggesting that conservative Republicans would wisely refrain from attacking Sotomayor — another echo in the chamber — would prove plain silly.) Bowden shows how a blogger by the name of Morgen Richmond dug up and helped disseminate obscure video clips that would soon have every talking head focused on Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” and judicial “policy making” comments from the past.
Bowden asserts that the deployment of those comments was “the work not of journalists, but of political hit men.” Although he acknowledges that partisans supplying material for TV news broadcasts is nothing new, he sees a dark trend, one to be blamed squarely on the proliferation of blogging. “With journalists being laid off in droves, savvy political operatives have stepped eagerly into the breach. What’s most troubling is not that TV-news producers mistake their work for journalism, which is bad enough, but that young people drawn to journalism increasingly see no distinction between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery.”
The problem here is twofold. First, Bowden levels blame at the wrong target. As blogging expert Scott Rosenberg writes, “Surely the failure here is on the part of the TV news organizations that turned it into a marquee soundbite without looking more deeply into it. Wasn’t that their job, their process, their vetting — the safeguard that ostensibly distinguishes them from the unwashed blogging masses? Aren’t they the ones who are supposed to be after truth rather than scalps?”
That may be giving cable news a little too much credit, but as Rosenberg also points out, most bloggers don’t even purport to contribute journalism. And the failure to appreciate what blogs do contribute — especially collectively — is the other shortcoming in Bowden’s discussion. Morgen Richmond himself explains this clearly, in his response to Bowden’s piece:
[W]hile I wholeheartedly disagree with Bowden’s ultimate assessment that the Sotomayor “court is where policy is made” and “wise Latina” comments were non-controversial when taken in full context, the truth of the matter is that literally within hours (if not minutes) of posting both of these, there were an assortment of bloggers across the political spectrum dissecting and analyzing these finds. And not just the short clips which ultimately played on TV. I posted a link to the full Duke Law video almost immediately, and embedded as much of the “wise Latina” speech as I could in my initial post, so anyone who was interested had access to as much context as they wanted. Many highly-regarded blogs, such as the Volokh Conspiracy, concluded as Bowden did that these statements were not as controversial as they seemed on their face. And of course many others were not so willing to give Sotomayor the benefit of the doubt. The point is that this started taking place within hours on the internet, long before any of this made it’s way into the broader media. (Remember that I posted both of these statements before Sotomayor was even nominated.)
Bloggers often are lazy about providing useful context for readers — political agenda or no, it’s not easy to do well in the short space the genre typically requires. Yet, the linking that so often serves as a blogger’s shorthand points up the powerful information ecosystem of the Web. It is the information consumer’s charge, as much as ever, to dig deeper, to explore widely and to question orthodoxy. (Including his own.) The digital medium allows this far more readily than a television broadcast or print article does.
This isn’t the first time I’ve criticized Bowden for his media analysis — see my recent writing on his takedown of New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, as well as Bowden’s response.
He’s one of the best and most respected in the business, and I couldn’t agree more with Richmond when he says the world needs more journalists like Bowden, not fewer. Surprisingly, though, Bowden’s own legwork on the role of blogging in the Sotomayor story didn’t help him to get past his seemingly jaundiced view of the digital medium and its democratizing power. I think he tips his hand when toward the end he says: “There’s more here than just an old journalist’s lament over his dying profession, or over the social cost of losing great newspapers and great TV-news operations. And there’s more than an argument for the ethical superiority of honest, disinterested reporting over advocacy.”
But that’s precisely his thrust. With no small whiff of nostalgia he reiterates that an old-school reporter, proceeding from curiosity over political conviction, is more likely to discover the unexpected and reap the rewards of “speaking wholly for himself, without fear or favor.” Maybe so. Yet, Bowden could just as easily be describing bloggers when he concludes that reporters have “the power to stir up trouble wherever they go. They can shake preconceptions and poke holes in presumption. They can celebrate the unnoticed and puncture the hyped. They can, as the old saying goes, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
It seems quite odd at this late date that Damon Darlin thinks serendipity has been lost in the digital deluge of the Internet. In a column in the Sunday Times, Darlin acknowledged that “we’ve gained so much” in the way of information and entertainment. “But we’ve lost something as well,” he says: “the fortunate discovery of something we never knew we wanted to find. In other words, the digital age is stamping out serendipity.”
Huh? When was the last time you went online and didn’t end up encountering things unexpected and interesting?
Darlin laments what he sees as the fading possibility of perusing friends’ book shelves and CD and video collections in search of new discoveries, with those goodies increasingly obscured inside laptops, iPods and Kindles. It’s a strange line of reasoning to resuscitate, one long ago dispatched by Web thinkers, including author/blogger Steven Johnson three years ago. Back then, was the diminishing use of libraries as engines of discovery something to mourn?
“I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student,” Johnson wrote in May 2006. “Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the ‘binding.’) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture.”
Darlin’s loss-of-serendipity riff is akin to one that pops up regularly among those warning about the extinction of newsprint. If you’re getting all of your news online, the argument goes, you’ll be deprived of stumbling across a cool story inside those oversized inky pages, one that you might not otherwise ever read.
I still enjoy the ritual of immersing in the Sunday paper to which Darlin contributes, and I usually find interesting stuff in it to soak up, some of it even unexpected. But the fact is, that kind of fortunate discovery happens about a bazillion times more often in the digital realm. As Johnson also wrote:
I read regularly about 20 different blogs or other filters, and each day through them I’m exposed to literally hundreds of articles and clips and conversations and songs and parodies that I had no idea about when I woke up that morning. Many of them I just skim over, but invariably a handful of them will send me off on some crazy expedition from site to site, ushered along with the help of other bloggers, Google, del.icio.us, wikipedia, etc. I’m constantly stumbling across random things online that make me think: what is the deal with that anyway? And then an hour later, I’m thinking: how did I get here? I can’t tell you how many ideas that eventually made it into published books and articles of mine began with that kind of unexpected online encounter.
The big challenge these days seems to be figuring out how to better handle the fire hose of content flow. It can indeed be frustratingly easy to forget what you set out for in the first place, to get lost down the endless digital byways. (Hah — how, exactly, did you end up here?) Yet, whatever nostalgia aside, when it comes to print vs. digital (or albums vs. iTunes, etc.), I don’t think we’re facing a zero-sum equation.
Technological innovation seems almost strangely commonplace these days, from say, contact lenses that could layer data directly onto your view of the world to robots fighting far-flung wars to computer systems perhaps smart enough to compete on “Jeopardy!” All astonishing developments in their own right, and yet the most profound change of our times may yet be purely informative in nature: The digitization of all that we read.
At the University of San Francisco on Sunday I participated in a symposium on “Life after the MFA” for students graduating the writing program. Unsurprisingly, the technological upending of books, magazines and newspapers was a particular focus. Fellow panelist Patrick Dunagan, a poet who works as a specialist at the USF library, spoke with some alarm about the rate at which books and print periodicals there are going the way of the dodo. The idea is that many are being replaced digitally. I expressed a bit of surprise to him about this afterward, whereby he asked me when I last conducted any research in a library. Point taken. If only Borges were still hanging around and could rejoin the discussion.
One theme I hoped to suggest in my part of the talk was that print vs. digital isn’t a zero-sum equation. We can still love books and newspapers while getting charged about the possibilities of digital publishing. In many ways the latter remains a Wild West — and without a doubt has blown holes in some old ways of doing business. But in my view the rising digital infosphere is far more expansive and generative than it is destructive.
In a recent essay published in the Wall Street Journal, author Steven Johnson explores both the thrill and potential chill of electronic books, a fast-growing realm thanks to Amazon’s innovative e-book reader, the Kindle, and Google’s Book Search service, home to approximately 10 million scanned titles and counting. One exciting aspect Johnson flags with regard to ideas and research:
Before too long, you’ll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you’ve ever read — as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship. Entirely new forms of discovery will be possible. Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you’ve read on a specific topic, and comes up with the most-cited work in those bibliographies that you haven’t encountered yet.
But there will be pitfalls, too, especially with respect to evolving market forces. The all-powerful search engine that is Google, and the ways in which it guides users to digital content of all sorts, could impact how books actually get written:
Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google’s results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.
Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.
What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books written with search engines in mind. We’ll have to see.
A strength of Johnson’s essay is that he doesn’t pass judgment on these possibilities; he concentrates on laying out in lucid terms what he sees coming. (Another recent piece of his, on how the web’s information ecosystem changes how we get our news, is also well worth reading.)
The latter segment above, under the subhead “Writing for Google,” got me thinking about a worn adage heard in MFA programs everywhere: “Write what you know.” If that advice translates fundamentally to writing from a place of experience and passion, it could take on fresh meaning in the digital future — when the suggestion to “Write what you can search engine optimize” may well become a growing temptation.
UPDATE: Some wonder if Google already has too much sway with its Book Search service, including the U.S. Department of Justice.
Pondering the rise of new media and the decline of the traditional newsroom, skeptics still tend to cling to either-or thinking: You’ve either got shrill partisan hacks or experienced professional reporters, and never the twain shall meet. The failure of imagination involved is pretty obvious. Digital media has unlocked great potential for nontraditional approaches to the gathering and analysis of information — a vast middle ground of additional possibilities.
Let’s say the government releases a bunch of documents related to a controversial, secretive activity. Now anybody with a computer, an Internet connection and a little motivation can dig in. (Of course, this has already been going on for quite a while.)
Today brings a fresh example of how reporting by bloggers can contribute to, or even lead, a major news cycle. In a front-page story today, the New York Times announces that the CIA used waterboarding, a torture technique provoking fear of death by drowning, hundreds of times on two Al Qaeda suspects — far more than was previously known. It’s newsworthy information on several levels, including for how it punches holes in past testimonials from U.S. officials about covert interrogations conducted by the Bush government.
This was not a scoop from the nation’s largest newsroom. The information underpinning the Times report came via blogger Marcy Wheeler, who discovered over the weekend that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month when she examined the fine print in a newly declassified Bush administration memo from 2005. Wheeler also used the memo to look at a telling clash between the FBI and CIA over the interrogation program and to examine the key question of whether waterboarding actually is effective, as has been claimed by Dick Cheney et al.
The Times report underscores that this story remains far from over (also see Mark Danner for an in-depth political discussion of the unresolved torture issue) — and the public has an enterprising blogger to thank for pushing it ahead.
The so-called crisis in the news industry sure has generated some sensational stories of late. “American journalism is in a period of terror,” announces Mark Bowden in a tome of an article appearing in the May issue of Vanity Fair. Mostly a deft hatchet job on Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the New York Times, Bowden’s piece sent the media cognoscenti into a tizzy, although nobody seems to have noticed its one truly illuminating segment.
Even the mighty Times is facing financial peril these days, and Bowden’s premise is that the newspaper scion “has steered his inheritance into a ditch.” He abuses tools of the trade to help suggest his case. As one unnamed “industry analyst” tells us, “Arthur has made some bad decisions, but so has everyone else in the business. Nobody has figured out what to do.” Earth shattering. Perhaps Bowden should pick up a copy of the Times and read Clark Hoyt on the suitable use of anonymous sources. For a substantive take on contemporary debacles across the business, check out this recent piece by Daniel Gross.
In fact, I’m a big fan of Bowden’s. Right now I happen to be reading his 2006 book “Guests of the Ayatollah,” a riveting account of the Iran hostage crisis. Particularly in the realm of national security, few reporters are as exhaustive, persuasive — and downright exciting to read — as him.
On the media, not so much. There he has tended toward the self-involved, maybe a particular pitfall for great reporters covering their own vocation. (See the opening line of the Sulzberger article, which zooms in directly on… Bowden himself, as he receives a phone call from Sulzberger: “I was in a taxi on a wet winter day in Manhattan three years ago…” Especially telling, I think, given that in another recent piece orbiting the news business, a profile of David Simon, Bowden also wrote himself prominently into the narrative.) The Vanity Fair article is exquisitely timed with the accelerating upheaval in the newspaper industry, and reads mostly like, well, a salacious, insider-y Vanity Fair article.
And yet, buried deep in the 11,500 words is one of the best analogies I’ve encountered anywhere conveying the potential for digital journalism:
When the motion-picture camera was invented, many early filmmakers simply recorded stage plays, as if the camera’s value was just to preserve the theatrical performance and enlarge its audience. To be sure, this alone was a significant change. But the true pioneers realized that the camera was more revolutionary than that. It freed them from the confines of a theater. Audiences could be transported anywhere. To tell stories with pictures, and then with sound, directors developed a whole new language, using lighting and camera angles, close-ups and panoramas, to heighten drama and suspense. They could make an audience laugh by speeding up the action, or make it cry or quake by slowing it down. In short, the motion-picture camera was an entirely new tool for storytelling.
Bowden uses the comparison in the service of whacking Sulzberger — but it also points directly to a broader stagnation in media companies’ use of the digital platform. There is experimentation going on, but often without much imagination: Digital video clips are all the rage? OK, we’ll put reporters on camera describing the stories they’ve just published! Online communities and reader interactivity are the latest buzz? OK, we’ll feature the shouting matches in our comments threads as actual news!
The rising multimedia and publishing capabilities of the digital realm are charged with promise, and demand deeper thinking about their optimal use. With any given subject, which digital tools are most effective for gathering information and telling the story? How can the information-rich ecosystem of the Web enhance the knowledge gained? What new ways are there to produce reliable, authoritative and compelling content, taking maximum advantage of a decentralized and participatory technology like no other we’ve ever known?
Soon enough we may all be getting our news on a kind of flexible digital paper. The possibilities for what it could contain are big, and they’re just beginning.
UPDATE: Mark Bowden responds.
It may be that we’ll look back at March 2009 as a pivotal time in the erratic but inexorable transition from print to digital news. In some ways it’s very much a slow-motion revolution, beginning perhaps as long ago as 1981, and far from over. But this month has been striking both for the destruction in the newspaper industry and the hum of activity focused on the digital future.
It’s the latter that matters more. NYU media maven Jay Rosen has pulled together an essential roundup for anyone interested in diving deep into the discussion. Rosen credits a March 13 essay by Clay Shirky with triggering a flurry of writing; he summarizes a dozen recent pieces that build out the picture. I haven’t read them all yet, but in addition to Shirky’s piece I highly recommend Steven Berlin Johnson’s Old Growth Media and the Future of News, which he presented at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin. His use of ecosystems as a metaphor for the digital transformation is enlightening in multiple ways, while smartly avoiding utopianism:
Now there’s one objection to this ecosystems view of news that I take very seriously. It is far more complicated to navigate this new world than it is to sit down with your morning paper. There are vastly more options to choose from, and of course, there’s more noise now. For every Ars Technica there are a dozen lame rumor sites that just make things up with no accountability whatsoever. I’m confident that I get far more useful information from the new ecosystem than I did from traditional media a long fifteen years ago, but I pride myself on being a very savvy information navigator. Can we expect the general public to navigate the new ecosystem with the same skill and discretion?
Indeed, as Johnson suggests, information consumers may yet crave the guidance of authoritative institutions, including… newspapers. Some of which now command some of the largest online audiences. But many of them have been failing in the vision department, as Alan Mutter pointed out early this month:
As a direct consequence of the breakdown in the traditional media business model, publishers today are cutting the quality and quantity of the content they produce at the very moment they should be investing more aggressively than ever … As the most challenged of all the distressed media companies, newspapers are so strapped today that they are producing ever less original reporting … This is not merely a step in the wrong direction. It is a leap into the abyss.
While there is still plenty of handwringing going on, in my view the essays gathered by Rosen evoke daybreak far more than twilight. And March 2009 is ending on a bright note, at least symbolically. Ever since its election-year rise, the opinion-laden Huffington Post has been touted as a model for future journalism — never mind that it doesn’t pay most contributors and produces almost zero original reporting. Late yesterday the publication announced a new turn: the launch of a $1.75 million investigative reporting initiative.
At hearings Wednesday on Capitol Hill lawmakers excelled at one of the things they do best: political theater. The outrage flowed, as Edward Liddy, the current CEO of American International Group, got grilled about the $165 million in bonuses going to a bunch of guys who helped bring the U.S. banking sector to the brink of collapse with immense and immensely reckless insurance bets. (A complicated scheme, but credit to President Obama, who did a decent job Wednesday morning of explaining in basic terms how they did it.)
To what degree Americans should be angry at taxpayer-backed AIG or our government leaders (past and present) is a murky discussion, but it’s clear that the level of outrage across the country is plenty high right now. (High enough not only to juice a show on Capitol Hill, but also some widely celebrated media blood sport.) What’s interesting to me at the moment is how a number of major news outlets have seen the popular discontent as an opportunity to highlight reader interactivity on the Web.
At the top of its home page Tuesday night the New York Times featured reader diatribes — treating them as news itself. “Some people are vengeful, calling for jail, public humiliation or even revolution,” reported A.G. Sulzberger. Over the last few days, “the most passionate voices, not surprisingly, could be found on the Internet — on blogs and discussion threads — in unusually bountiful numbers.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the Washington Post featured a round-up of its own reader comments, if not especially articulate or enlightening. (“Corporate and political self-seeking are devastating our families, our country, and out [sic] world.” Etc.) The Wall Street Journal’s home page gave top real estate to voices from the “Journal Community,” which tended, naturally, to reflect a constituency of a somewhat different kind. “The Obama administration is spending too much time and resources to go after this money,” scolded reader Craig Cohen. “The fact is, it will probably cost the US more money in legislative time, attorney fees, opportunity cost, etc to get these bonuses back than they are worth. But that doesn’t matter to the President. This is not about bonuses. It’s about class warfare. These bonuses went to the elite…. They must be punished!”
A key question on my mind is, how can media companies unlock greater potential with reader engagement and participation? It’s stating the obvious to say that there’s nothing cutting-edge at this point about letting readers loose with their opinions. (Put nicely, it tends to have limited value in unfiltered form.) Are there new ways to generate useful insight and information from the many smart readers out there, rather than just a lot of noise? This is an issue we grappled with regularly over the years when I was at Salon, and I have a hunch it could figure prominently in ways forward with news reporting in the rising digital realm. What if, for example, readers with experience in the culture of Wall Street could begin to add to the picture of how the AIG problem metastasized? Or shed light on how thoroughly it has been reported on?
Smart people have been working on ideas in this area for some time. Mother Jones has an interesting activist-style approach that it’s experimenting with. Between the ongoing destruction in the newspaper industry and what some major companies are attempting now online in terms of reader interactivity (the two hardly unrelated), I have the sense that whoever begins to unlock the challenge in a more creative, substantive way could make a big splash.
A large newspaper in a major American city has just gone all-digital. Depending on how you choose to look at it, the occasion is either tragic or revolutionary.
The 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed its last edition on Tuesday, becoming an Internet-only news source. In a report on its own Web site, the “paper” described the contours of the new, much smaller operation now in place. The P-I, as it’s called, is a “community platform” that will feature “breaking news, columns from prominent Seattle residents, community databases, photo galleries, 150 citizen bloggers and links to other journalistic outlets.” The New York Times notes that The P-I “will resemble a local Huffington Post more than a traditional newspaper,” with a news staff of about 20 people rather than the 165 it had, and with an emphasis more on commentary, advice and links to other sites than on original reporting.
The P-I venture may well fail — but in an essential way, that’s a good thing. Why that’s the case is explained in an indispensable essay posted by media-technology thinker Clay Shirky a few days ago. Glancing as far back as the 16th-century advent of the printing press, Shirky’s piece is an illuminating synthesis of the industry’s past and present — and, from where I’m sitting, brims with aphoristic insights pointing to a bright future for digital journalism. Original reporting in that realm — still much underdeveloped and ripe for innovation, in my view — will play a vital role in the further transformation.
Shirky writes: “People committed to saving newspapers [keep] demanding to know ‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’ To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.”
To the old journalism guard, that’s a heartbreaking epilogue. Which of course misses the point. (Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception, Shirky notes.) “With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data,” he continues. “It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.”
Revolution is a dramatic word, but it’s exactly what we’re witnessing, if in slow motion. It began a little more than a decade ago and perhaps will require another decade before reaching a level of maturity and stability with new form. Shirky describes the familiar process: “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.”
(On recognizing “the importance of any given experiment,” see Shirky’s great distillation of the rise of Craigslist. Experiments are only revealed in retrospect to be turning points, he observes. And regarding “big changes stall” — the fashionable HuffPo model, anyone? With all due respect and admiration for its achievements during an epic election year, who really believes HuffPo’s almost-zero-reporting approach is the future of journalism?)
On with the greater experimentation and innovation, then. Many new attempts like The P-I probably will fail, and, in effect, we need them too. “There is one possible answer,” Shirky says, “to the question ‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’ The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might.”
More American newspapers appear to be accelerating toward demise. For anyone who’s been paying attention to the industry, it’s been clear at least since last fall that 2009 would be a year of considerable destruction. Take the spreading flame of digital technology, pour on a vicious economic downturn and quickly you have a raging forest fire. In the New York Times today Richard Pérez-Peña reports on which U.S. cities soon might not have a major daily print paper at all. Perhaps it’ll be Seattle or Denver. Or maybe San Francisco. Just a short while ago the prospect would’ve been inconceivable.
I like the forest fire metaphor here because it suggests an essential part of the picture that in many quarters still isn’t getting its proper due: The fertile rebirth that follows the destruction. I’ve been surprised to see a degree of pessimism even from some who’ve already been toiling on the frontier:
“It would be a terrible thing for any city for the dominant paper to go under, because that’s who does the bulk of the serious reporting,” says Joel Kramer, the editor and CEO of Minneapolis-based MinnPost.com, in the Times today. (Kramer was formerly editor and publisher of The Star Tribune.) “Places like us would spring up, but they wouldn’t be nearly as big. We can tweak the papers and compete with them, but we can’t replace them.”
Really? There’s a tendency to equate the withering of the old medium (newsprint) with the demise of what it has delivered (news reporting). But increasingly it’s going to be delivered digitally. If the old media companies don’t do it, others will, because the demand (and therefore market) for it is undeniable. Sooner than we probably realize, we’re all going to be walking around carrying some kind of digital newspaper in our hands. Organizations will arise and mobilize to provide the reporting in it. And people will pay for it. (Businesses are also likely to advertise around it.)
Indeed, formidable challenges remain to working out viable business models. But the field is increasingly wide open and waiting to be seeded. (New tracts soon available!—see above.) You can look at the crisis as a tragedy, or you can look at it as an opportunity.
As Pérez-Peña notes, the Washington Post had a newsroom of more than 900 people six years ago, with fewer than 700 now. The LA Times newsroom is half the size it was in the 1990s, with a staff of about 600 today.
Call me crazy, but that’s still an awful lot of resources with which to gather and produce stories. Without the major printing and distribution costs of their antique brethren, digital ventures still will probably need to be considerably smaller and more nimble to succeed. (In the near-term economy, at least.) Even if some early experiments haven’t been so impressive, my sense is that those who survive and thrive will do so especially via robust local and regional reporting, fast dwindling in many places now. (Apparently the LA Times has some other strategy in mind.)
Self-described “newsosaur” Alan Mutter offers some intriguing advice for those who reportedly may launch the first digital-only newspaper in a major U.S. city, from the ashes of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Be different” and “cop an attitude,” he suggests. “Think of the site as more of a blog than a newspaper.”
Hmm, it seems there’s no shortage of that to go around… but I like his closing thoughts: “The work you do will play a major role in helping to define the future – and the future economics – of local news coverage. Take risks, try everything and have fun. Whatever you do, don’t look back.”
This ancient clip from a local San Francisco broadcast has been floating around for a while, but it keeps popping up in discussions about the fate of the newspaper industry, so I couldn’t resist. It’s pretty priceless viewing if you haven’t seen it.
And not just because it’s hilariously antique — it’s also a prelude to a cautionary tale. Believe it or not, the San Francisco Examiner was once working on the cutting edge of the Internet. The Examiner’s David Cole certainly intended no irony when interviewed then about their “electronic newspaper” experiment: “We’re trying to figure out what it’s going to mean to us as editors and reporters and what it means to the home user. And we’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we aren’t going to make much, either.”
Online media pioneer Scott Rosenberg (at the Examiner himself back in the 1980s and a mentor of mine at Salon in the early 2000s) wrote insightfully about this clip a few weeks back, and how far the newspaper industry hasn’t come:
The spirit of experimentation that the Examiner set out with in 1981 dried up, replaced by an industry-wide allergy to fundamental change. “Let’s use the new technology,” editors and executives would say, “but let’s not let the technology change our profession or our industry.” They largely succeeded in resisting change. Now it’s catching up with them.
That’s probably putting it lightly, considering the current state of the San Francisco Chronicle (a participant in the 1981 “experiment”), the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News and so many others.
Today, a heartfelt eulogy from Nancy Mitchell, a former reporter for the freshly defunct Rocky, carries its own layer of irony. Mitchell’s sentiments are genuine and noble, and certainly appreciated by this fellow newspaper fan and ardent believer in the value of quality reporting.
But Mitchell falls yet into the trap described above — denial of inexorable industry transformation, and a failure of imagination. She blames faceless management types at the Rocky for attempting foolish or half-baked ways to recast the paper in a time of dramatic change. (No doubt they did.) She quietly denigrates experimentation with digital tools like blogs, Flickr and Twitter, as if nobody interested in serious journalism should have to deal with “the anxiety attached to learning the gimmicks.” She seeks shelter in a credo once posted in her managing editor’s office: “Three simple rules, not produced by a focus group: Get the news. Tell the truth. Don’t be dull. I’d like to believe we did all three.”
What Mitchell doesn’t seem to realize is that all three — and more — increasingly can and will be done digitally. The audience will be there to engage with it. Business models will arise to support it. Technology will keep transforming it. It seems obvious to say it’s the way the world is fast going, whether with reporting, commentary or many other information-based creations. Just note where her piece was published, of course, and how you’re encountering it right now.
It’s no secret that the print magazine business, like the newspaper business, is in deep trouble, due primarily to a nosediving ad industry. The New York Times laid out the grim picture a few weeks ago. From Forbes to Time to the New Yorker, few have been immune. Playboy announced Wednesday that it lost $158 million in 2008 and may put itself up for sale. It expects a 27 percent decline in ad revenue in its publishing division in the first quarter of 2009.
It’s not just a matter of the plunge in ad sales, of course, it’s the fact that consumers are ever-more plugged in online, where the expectation remains that most content should be available for free. Last month Playboy stated it would cut costs by closing its New York offices and combining its print and online editorial operations. (Sources tell me that Hugh Hefner’s storied publication might face a particularly competitive environment in the online space, where reportedly there is upwards of 260 new alluring ventures launched each day.)
The print media industry has been under pressure for years per the rise of the Internet, but the economic crisis is causing it to implode. Dare I say there could be a silver lining in these circumstances. Because advertising is so depressed at a time when technology is rapidly changing media consumption, it could force more rapid innovation toward viable production and delivery of digital content.
Plenty of people are talking about what they think isn’t likely to work. (Howard Kurtz takes a turn running the list today.) But Slate’s Jack Shafer, arguing that not all information wants to be free, points to an interesting prospect — moving beyond the Web browser as we know it. Whether an autonomous online application such as Apple’s mega-successful iTunes, or Amazon’s Kindle book reader, or the New York Times’ experimental news reader, I agree with Shafer that it’s still early in a major transition period. Quality information eventually wants to be paid for — and produced with the right combination of creativity, authenticity and authority, in the digital future (when “Web browsing” may easily look antiquated) it may not have to ride on a bunch of SUV ads.
Today my friend and former Salon colleague Gary Kamiya joins the debate about the imperiled newspaper industry. With passion he points out that the gravest danger at hand isn’t the potential death of newsprint but of news reporting itself.
Quality reporting — made of tireless, independent investigation and clear-eyed, vivid storytelling — is essential to cultural progress and a healthy democracy. (I say this as much as a citizen as someone who works in the trade.) Indeed it seems deeply troubling when a once mighty institution like the Los Angeles Times kills its own section devoted to covering California. That’s just one of many convulsions in the industry of late. The future of the fourth estate is, in one unsettling sense, very much unwritten.
But there is also a tendency in the whole ongoing debate to overplay concerns about impending calamity. “If newspapers die, so does reporting,” Gary writes. Of that I’m not so sure — the present crisis is also an immense opportunity of necessity. If the technological change recasting the newspaper industry is synonymous with its traditional medium (and business model) fast losing viability, then it’s prime time for further innovation in how news can be gathered, produced and delivered digitally.
It’s not at all clear yet how to succeed in terms of a business model. (I have my doubts that it will be “tip jars” or “micropayments,” or even philanthropy.) But the number of talented people tackling the challenge is growing, and the ferment is giving rise to some very interesting experimentation. One example is the open-source approach to generating reporting at Spot.us. Another is the convergent foreign coverage at GlobalPost.com.
Given the bad economy in general, now may seem an unlikely moment for optimism. But the rising connectivity and capability of the Web holds much further promise for quality journalism. As the newspaper industry’s old analog houses burn down, I’m most interested in thinking about what more could go inside the digital ones that inevitably will replace them.