A newspaper’s life-and-death struggle, played out in a new medium

At the Star-Ledger’s new LedgerLive daily news show from the newsroom (unofficial motto: It’s not TV, damnit), we are watching a big, old paper fight for its survival as it announced buyouts and a possible sale. And the grand irony is that we’re watching this even as the paper reinvents itself in a new medium: online video. The new show and the momentous news about the newspaper came in the same week.

I was in the newsroom on Friday to watch LedgerLive being broadcast and I heard the staff talking about the paper’s and their future, of course. Some of these folks are going to be, well, independent in the fall if they elect to take the buyout and it comes off as announced.

But what struck me listening to them is that they are not prepared for that independent life. I was looking at this from the perspective of being both a former newspaperman who did find a new life in the academe and elsewhere and from the perspective of now being a journalism educator. It is vital that we prepare journalists for this new and independent life or we will lose their journalism. Preparation, to me, means both training – it’s a great thing that Ledger print people are making video in the Rosenblum Method – and setting up an infrastructure to help them create sustainable journalistic enterprises if at all possible. The first factor is why I’m trying to establish a continuing education program for professionals at CUNY. The second is why I’m holding a summit for new business models for news there. That’s my perspective.

I thought the journalists there would benefit from hearing from someone who found life after print and so I suggested to the Ledger’s digiczar, John Hassell, that they get hyperlocal postergirl Debbie Galant to make a video for an upcoming episode of LedgerLive. It didn’t turn out exactly as I’d predicted but it did turn out the start of an entertaining discussion that captures the life-and-death questions journalists across the country are facing now.

Debbie’s message aired on Tuesday from her (very nice) garden in metaphorical PJs:

Baristanet weighs in on The Star-Ledger

On today‘s LedgerLive, reporter Carol Ann Campbell responded in her PJs:

A clip from Ledger Live 08-06-08

Unfortunately, this reprises an us-v-them, pro-v-am rivalry. Fine. Let’s get that out of our system.

And then I’ll challenge Deb to come back and now share her secrets with her still-ink-stained peers: How do you find life after print, Deb? What would you advise a print journalist in the post-print era to do? And I’ll challenge Carol to imagine a new world where she might operate independently. It’s hard but it may be very necessary.

  • Very cool. Thanks for the tip and time you spent on this one. Maybe it will be the “good news” bookend to the brutal last season of HBO’s “The Wire” and its look at ethics, opportunism, decline at The Baltimore Sun.

  • Walter Abbott

    And just why would an internet connected society want print-era journalists to even have a post-print career?

    I’ve been dealing with people like those in the Ledger Live clip for 35 years. Without fail, their attitude was that only they know what is and isn’t news, that they want or need no input from their customers, and the news consuming public should just shut up and read/watch what’s put in front of them.

    I tried to be diplomatic and explain other points of view or errors or other opinions. It was like talking to a brick wall.

    The sooner this bunch of dinosaurs gurgles beneath the tar pits, the better of we will all be. The public can then share relevant information as it sees fit and won’t have to listen to propaganda camouflaged as news.

  • It’s a good point though. If you’re a citizen journalist with a 9-5 job then how DO you get down to the local court or any other place that is only operational during the hours when you are at work? And in the winter months the only days when you can shoot in daylight are at weekends.

    Or will the journalists of the future be rich people who don’t need to worry about earning a living and who can devote 100% of their time to working on stories for free?

    Considering that most people these days work such long hours that they barely have time to get their groceries, I think it’s all a pipe dream.

    Citizen journalists are in their pyjamas because most are grabbing an hour to do it just before they head off to bed.

  • Ms. Galant comes off rather cold. To her The Star Ledger is little more than toilet paper. Glad to use it when it’s available, gonna miss it when it’s gone. But can you blame her? Success sometimes makes people rather self-assured. I don’t like her attitude, yet can’t really blame her — especially in the face of The Star Ledger response.

    What do the professionals at the SL say: pooh-pooh on you, Debbie Galant. You don’t know what it means to be a “real” journalist. Being a real journalist means calling important people on the phone. Being a real journalist means going to meetings. Being a real journalist means “getting out on the street.”

    Here is another: being a real journalist probably means looking for a another job.

    Are the real journalists at the SL totally clueless or do they only appear that way? Debbie Galant has a successful site that turns a profit and obviously serves it’s audience. The SL has a confused and confusing internet presence that probably does more for Debbie Galant than it does for itself and its readers. Debbie Galant is talking about expanding her operation. The SL is close to shuttering theirs. If there is to be a snark shoot-out, then the SL is standing in the middle of the street with an empty gun.

    The real pity is that the SL should probably be trying to figure out how to clone what Galant is doing. At the very least, SL employees should be studying her operation so they know how to start their own versions in their own towns come Oct. 2008. Maybe it isn’t journalism, but it might be a job. Perhaps Baristanet isn’t all that journalists should aspire to, but if it serves an audience, a community, and turns a profit, then its worthy of praise. Based on the public statements from the SL publisher, the newspaper can’t claim to be doing both of those things anymore.

    The new newsroom may turn out to be a back porch or a back bedroom. But that is due as much to the failures of those in the old newsrooms as it is to the successes of those working in the new ones. To blame those who are succeeding only compounds the failure.

    I, too, am concerned about how investigative reporting will get done from these new newsrooms. I am afraid that much of what is good and necessary from old-style journalism will largely disappear during the next few years. It’s hard to do a lot of this stuff without the clout, organization and support of a newspaper. Still, I’ve worked for newspapers that couldn’t really do it with those things, anyway.

    The us vs them stuff doesn’t just make me tired anymore, it pisses me off. We in the newspaper world have no more time for this stupid argument. Besides, if we have to, we should be blaming our bosses for their failure to innovate rather than those rivals who figured out the future.

  • kw

    A quick look at Baristanet finds links to Reuters, an AP story on MSNBC, a Star-Ledger story (in addition to the link to the videos above) and a story from the Montclair Times. So just where are these bloggers going to do their reporting when they can’t lift the facts out of traditional media?

    Well, there will always be pictures of kitty cats.

  • The folks at Baristanet act as local aggregators with attitude. They pull stories from any available source that they believe to be of interest to their hyper-local audience. And they create their own content as well. Much of the content they create would not even be considered for publication or mention in the “competing” newspapers. Yet Baristanet’s “readers” eat it up.

    Rather than condemn such sites for aggregating content, traditional sites might want to thank them for the link back. Heck, if your content is good, sites such as Baristanet are driving an audience to you. That link back, that audience, can be monetized if you have an advertising sales force with a clue how to sell your web site.

    As for the pictures of kitty cats, that post (http://www.baristanet.com/2008/08/help_find_clyde.php) had 8 comments when I checked (8 hours after it was posted). I guess there are people who care about Clyde. The only news story (heck the only story) appearing at http://www.nj.com/starledger had 0 comments and it was posted more than 24 hours prior. It was impossible to tell how much audience interest there was on other SL stories because I couldn’t figure out if they even allowed comments. The nj.com home page was an even worse rat’s maze of multi-colored links and mish-mashed headlines that indiscriminately mixed SL content with stuff from AP and other sources. Does anyone care? Your guess is as good as mine. I wonder if the folks from nj.com know.

    Regardless, bottom line is still this: Baristanet is doing fine, SL not so much. You can love blogger or hate them, copy them or call them the lowest form of life. But that doesn’t change the bottom line.

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  • gregorylent

    nobody needs these people’s words is the bottom line. find something useful to do for others.

  • Dan

    Newspaper people (and I’m one of them) simply can’t get over themselves. The SL response is sadly clueless, plays to dumb stereotypes and is, essentially, a non-responsive answer to a fundamentally important question: What do you have to offer? Because by claiming that “real” journalists do more than sit around in their pajamas writing about what they had for breakfast falsely implies that this is what readers get at Baristanet.

    And by the way, Debbie Galant IS a real journalist — by training, by experience, by inclination.

    In our old media environment, newspaper people obscured themselves behind all sorts of institutional identities. In the new media environment, who you are becomes clear to others over time. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of us in the news business have less than attractive personalities. We have become a tribe of unpleasant, uninteresting people. No wonder people don’t want to hang around with us anymore.

  • FlaCuda

    We few, we anxious few, still drawing a meager paycheck in the print biz understand the world has shifted beneath our feet. We accept it will never be the way it was (which was never close to ideal).

    The ‘net stands like a colossus astride the new media world, a given. We all are freelancers now, or soon will be.
    I can accept that. Not that there is much choice.
    The worrisome part is the economics, and the ethics.

    Where is the firewall between editorial and sales if the webmaster and head writer also is the account rep? In a showdown, a media company can (even if they sometimes don’t) withstand advertiser the pressure to do the right thing. An “independent” working out of her spare room may not.

    A long newspaper career in small markets (by choice, thanks) has provided a well-rounded set of multimedia skills. I’m confident I could make a go of it independently, as far as paying the mortgage and food bill. But what about health? Priced a private insurance policy for a middle-aged, self-employed person lately? If I wind up stocking the shelves someplace for the health insurance , I shall not be committing journalism in my off hours.

    Citizen journalism certainly has a place in new media. But for the quotidian coverage of small-town government? There’s a reason they call it “work” – virtually no one competent will do it reliably if there’s not a paycheck involved. There arel be those who go to heckle in print (“The town council buffoons met last night and started screwing up right after the pledge…”) or those who have an ax to grind. Not so many will sit through the long hours of mind-deadening tedium for the psychic reward of accurately relaying what happened. Anyone here done it lately?

  • “Anyone here done it lately?”

    It has been years since the school boards and town councils for me. I like to think I was fairly competent at it, but more important I consider it one of the most important aspects of the job. When I talk to school kids (parents day, etc.) I always ask how many of their parents have been to a local gov meeting. After I get a few hands, I ask how many have ever been to see the state assembly working? Less hands. How many have ever sat through a session of U.S. Congress? Almost no hands. Then I ask how their parents know what the various levels of government are up to on a daily basis if they don’t attend every meeting? How can they find out about taxes, new laws that will affect how they conduct themselves, or if their elected officials / civil servants are doing things wrong? In a democracy, I believe, this is critical. Problem is I usually get a blank stare, not just from the kids but the adults as well.

    I don’t think Debbi Galant is the end-all, be-all of journalism. I bet she doesn’t either. She would probably admit that she needs the SL for a lot of the news stuff they do.

    Here’s my problems: 1. I wonder if the folks that should appreciate the hard stuff newspapers do will realize its value before most newspapers are gone. 2. Newspapers could have (theoretically) done what Galant is doing (tapping that audience and the advertising revenue). The paper provides much of the content as it is, but they obviously didn’t (maybe still don’t) consider it worth their effort or they simply couldn’t connect with the audience.

    I bet there are a bunch of journalists at that newspaper who hope to keep their jobs, salary and benefits. Had their employer launched Baristanet and similar sites at the towns in NJ they already cover, there might not be quite as many questions about the future of those livelihoods. As it is, the near-future of journalism may — more and more — be with sites like Baristanet because they remain after the newspapers are gone. That won’t simply be sad for those people who now have to look elsewhere for health coverage.

  • The problem with “the hard stuff that newspapers do” is that they have never been honest or balanced in their reporting.

    Staying up at night to cover a council meeting is worthless if you’re only going to slant your story to fit a political agenda.

    Online transcripts and recordings will be both cheaper and more accurate than what journalists have done. Your product was never good.

  • BW

    It’s kinda nice to watch a news program that doesn’t stop for a commercial every 2 minutes, as well as one that doesn’t have arbitrary restrictions on show length.

  • FlaCuda

    Aww, I know ‘Evil Pundit’ is tossing bombs just to get a reaction, but it’s obvious: That is a know-nothing accusation.
    Most of our local government meeting now are televised but few watch. Why? Because there’s something way more interesting on the other channels. Outside, life calls. Reading a 10-inch story costs less of a life than watching five hours of repetition and posturing.
    Transcripts? What’s he smoking? There are no meeting transcripts. There are minutes, which typically tell a reader…nothing. Oh, they’ll say a road closure was approved on a 3-2 vote, with the note: “63 people offered comments.” What’d they say!? You’ll never know – if you don’t read the news story.
    Maybe he can’t deal with the truth – there are bad news stories and bad publications, but most of the time, reporters do a good job of getting it reasonably right without playing favorites.

  • Feed the trolls at your own risk.

  • I start my college career in two weeks, and I plan on majoring in journalism. I’ve worked at my city’s local newspaper for most of the summer, and have been given many stories to write by my editor. I love doing the work, the dirtier the better.

    But I fear what will happen when I get out of college. Will print journalism even exist? Will new, lucrative innovations have been made that will require the same passionate work force (or at least this single passionate journalist)?

    What can I do now, to help secure my future?

  • Sherry

    I just graduated. I have a summer internship that’s great and write for a blog. I get paid a tiny amount for the internship and the blog (totally unpaid) is for the kind of reporting that I can’t do anywhere else. I never write about what I had for breakfast, past substance abuse problems I (didn’t) have or how one becomes famous for doing nothing. I write news. I’m tempted to say I do more actual reporting for the blog than the internship, but the focus is different so it’s not a fair comparison. I’ve always loved newspapers, still buy them and still aspire to work for one. If that doesn’t happen, I can still be a reporter. The only problem is, the employer who pays you hates it when you leave to cover a meeting or press conference in the middle of the day. Then, you stay up all night to write/edit something and go to the purported “real” job on two hours of sleep. That’s not a sustainable model, either. What’s the answer? Wish I knew.

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