Who suffers first in the death of the press

For all the mourning—some of it preemptive—over the loss of journalists’ jobs in the implosion of the news business, let’s remember that it’s the other trades that made papers come out on time that have suffered already and will suffer first and most. Journalists, if they’re smart and daring, might be able to save their careers and craft.

Steve Yelvington on Twitter pointed me today to the Museum der Arbeit and its exhibit on the printing trade: the “disappearance of an entire profession in the course of industrialization.” Typesetters are long gone as are page compositors and lithographers and mailers (the guys who tied the bundles) and copy boys (a job description that disappared almost in time for it not to be updated with copy girls) and proofreaders and paperboys and… I worked with people of all those job descriptions and more with titles I can’t remember or find on Google through the eras of hot type and cold. (When I asked for a list of these disappearing newspaper job titles on Twitter, one wag added, “shareholders.”)

The next to go will be pressmen, drivers, classified ad takers, print designers, and more. News is being deindustrialized. And it most definitely was an industry of atoms not bits. See this abstract from a 1936 report about newspaper production as an industry in Britain with “a constructive investigation of the possibilities of improvements in the Press to meet modern needs…. [T]he survey emphasises the extent to which the Press has become an important industry, ranking in size with electricity supply and the manufacture of bricks and tiles and considerably above the brewing or the silk and rayon industry.” Knowledge, information, high ideals? No, the press was a factory, bigger than beer. Papers were things. Now they’re thoughts.

Jack Shafer recently reminded us that lots of other industries and job descriptions are suffering worse and first before newspapers in this financial upheaval and he listed lots. “Before we get too weepy about lost journalistic jobs and folded publications,” Shafer said, “let’s ask how often reporters lamented the decline of other industries, products, and services…”

Stipulated. Others have it worse and we should remember that. But now what about the journalists? Is there any hope for them? Or will they end up as the next exhibit in the Museum der Arbeit, with pencils next to Linotypes as artifacts of an industry gone? Or as Fred Wilson asks, channeling Joni Mitchell, are they in for their Big Yellow Taxi moment (“They took all the trees / Put em in a tree museum / And they charged the people / A dollar and a half just to see em”). Will we miss them when they’re gone?

I don’t think they’ll be gone. Typesetters are gone. Darkroom technicians are gone. But now journalism can grow. More people can do it now. No factory needed.

Then again, Fred asks, as many others do, who will pay for them? But there is no more one job description – journalist – in one industry – newspapers – with one business model – print advertising – to pay them. Fred runs some numbers trying to equate his blog with ones journalists could start and it doesn’t look pretty. It may not be. I believe, as I said here, that many slices will make up a new pie: more focused news companies contributing journalism and curation and other value; successful specialist bloggers growing large businesses (Gawker Media, TechCrunch, Silicon Alley Insider); smaller bloggers that are big enough to make them worthwhile to make (BaristaNet); volunteer bloggers and contributors who add to the pie because they care and share; public-supported journalistic activity (Spot.us, ProPublica); crowd-created efforts, and on and on. Note, though, the verb that started that long sentence: “believe.” I don’t know yet. None of us does until we try and learn and share best practices. (That [plug] is why we’ve started the New Business Models for News Project at CUNY and that will be its work.)

But I am confident that journalism as an activity will not disappear, that there will be a market demand for it, that there are many new ways to fulfill the task (and debate about how it is done). But – bottom line – journalism and journalists will not disappear unless they insist on defining themselves as an industry that operates in just one way, still making things (no longer bigger than beer). The key to survival is reinventing what we do.

So as newspapers die and more jobs die with them, let’s have a moment of reverent and grateful silence for the disappearing jobs of those who made it what it was. Dave Morgan writes in what he promises will be his last column about newspapers:

[T]he notion that the purity of newspaper journalism is the cornerstone upon which today’s great metropolitan newspapers were built is revisionist history. Most of today’s great newspapers were built through achieving dominant distribution in their markets, not through delivering better journalism. Most U.S. cities used to have two or more competitive newspapers. The eventual winner was almost always the one that won on the battle on distribution or advertising, almost never on journalism. Great journalism came later…. Pulitzers don’t make great newspapers. Local distribution monopolies make great newspapers.

Why do I make these points so harshly today? Because I believe and hope that only if and when newspaper companies and their executives truly understand why their franchises are where they are today, will they be able to actually build new digital businesses that can thrive in the future.