Posts about journalism

How quaint

Two quotables on this thing we call a newspaper. This one from ArtDodger in the comments on my post below on imploding newspaper circulation:

This business of pureeing trees and wringing cuttlefish to make the day’s transient news permanent seems positively archaic, doesn’t it?

This one from a comment on Attytood [via Porter]

It’s a product you have to go and get in the rain, snow or wind and pull out of the hedge, the leaves or a coin-eating box on a dirty street corner. It’s heavy. It’s big. You’re not interested in 90% of its content. And when you’re done with it, you — literally — have to wash your hands and figure out how to properly dispose of the thing.

: More newspaper quotes here, here, and here. Among them:

Half the American population no longer reads newspapers: plainly, they are the clever half. — Gore Vidal

People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news. — A.J. Liebling

It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper. — Jerry Seinfeld

Saving journalism isn’t about saving jobs

Every time we hear about another cutback in newspapers — and there are plenty of them these days — we automatically hear the notion that journalism jobs must be saved to save journalism. I’m afraid it’s time to challenge that assumption.

Saving journalism isn’t about saving jobs or even newspapers. In fact, the goal shouldn’t be just to save journalism but to grow it, expand it, explode it, taking advantage of all the amazing new means to gather and share news we have today.

Start with the real goals, which are informing society, keeping power in check, improving people’s lives, making connections (right?) and then ask what the best ways are to do that today. After that, you can ask what the role of journalists and newspapers should be.

Maybe we need fewer people in newsrooms and need to take money to hire a lot more people outside newsrooms to gather more news. Maybe we need to put resources into training those people or vetting their work. Maybe we simply need to recognize that news is no longer a monopoly business that can operate at monopoly margins and we need to prioritize where we put our resources. Maybe we need to look at online as a primary source of current news and at newspapers as a source of analysis and perspective and unique reporting. Maybe we can’t support daily newspapers everywhere. Maybe some of those journalists will become independent publishers (see: Debbie Galant at Baristanet) and newspaper companies will run ad networks.

: There’s a great discussion going on in Philadelphia about saving the Daily News and that’s why I’m asking these questions: What does it mean to save it?

It started with Will Bunch writing on the Daily News blog Attytood. Philly blog king Karl Martino picked this up and sent email to folks he knows — bloggers, journalists, educators — suggesting that we get together to help explore this with Bunch. And the Philadelphia Inquirer’s blog prince, Dan Rubin, weighed in just as cutbacks were going on in his newsroom. Bunch’s opener was wonderful. Yes, he starts lamenting the loss of journalists’ jobs — of course; they are his friends and his colleagues and the people who produce his paper — but then he goes on to see the necessity of a different, a bigger future:

As I write this, the Daily News – where even before this fall the newsroom, with its depopulated desks, looked like a neutron bomb had struck, and where management chose to not even replace three staffers who died in 2004 – is nevertheless losing another 25 journalists, or 19 percent of the total….

It’s human nature, I guess, but the first inclination is to blame somebody, and there’s plenty of blame to go around….

But assigning blame won’t save the Philadelphia Daily News. Besides, much of the blame really lies with us, as journalists. We have, for the most part, allowed our product to become humorless and dull. In an era when it seems most people truly will be famous for 15 minutes, newspapers have stubbornly avoided creating personalities…or having a personality, for that matter. In a pathologically obsessive quest for two false goddesses – named Objectivity and Balance – we have completely ceded the great American political debate to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet, where people have learned that politics is actually interesting and even fun when people are allowed to take sides.

We prefer to talk down to the public rather than talk to them. Even at our very best – and there are many, many talented newspaper journalists in America – we are more likely to aim at wooing contest judges than at wooing new readers. And we have a knee-jerk tendency to defend our narrow world of messy ink printed on dead trees, when instead the time is here to redefine who we are and what we do.

We are, and can continue to be, the front-line warriors of information — serving up the most valuable commodity in a media-driven era. But that means we must be the message, not the medium, and so we must adjust to give consumers news in the high-tech ways that they are asking for, not the old-tech way that we are confortable with.

If we don’t change, we will die – and it will be our fault.

It defies all the conventional wisdom, but I believe that the Philadelphia Daily News can be an agent of that change – and not a victim. In fact, in seeking to destroy the Daily News in a death of a thousand cuts, our corporate masters in San Jose have, unintentionally, liberated us – because having nothing left to lose is another term for freedom.

Because with a staff that is now too small to cover every news story, we can learn how to cover just the stories that truly matter to people, and cover the heck out of them….

Hence, the “norg.” “Norg” because we need to lose our old identity with one dying medium, newspapers, and stress our most valuable commodity, the one that we truly own, and that is news…without the paper. Thus, we must now be news organizations, or “norgs.” …

Everybody up off your feet and give Bunch a standing O. That is exactly the kind of attitude and imagination and determination that will, indeed, save journalism.

This is what the Online News Association meeting should have been about. This is what journalism school must be about.

This isn’t about circling wagons defensively anymore. Nor is it about cutbacks. Nor denial. Nor resenting the new guys. This is about invention.

: Meanwhile the shock therapy goes on.

A major stockholder wants Knight Ridder to put itself up for sale.

Goldman Sachs says it’s a crappy year for newspapers:

I’s official: 2005 will be the newspaper industry’s worst year since the last ad industry recession. And things aren’t looking much better for next year either, according to a top Wall Street firm’s report on newspaper publishing. “Sadly, 2005 is shaping up as the industry’s worst year from a revenue growth perspective since the recession impacted 2001-2002 period,” says the report from Goldman Sachs, adding a warning that meaningful growth in 2006 is “very unlikely.”

The Wall Street Journal says the failing newspaper industry will see consolidation (free link):

Along with steel, autos and airlines, daily newspapers would seem to be yet another mature U.S. industry that is prime for consolidation. Analysts are increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for growth as advertising revenue continues to move online. Stocks of many newspaper companies now trade near multiyear lows….

Newspapers still dominate local news and advertising in many markets. That could attract a company such as Yahoo, which has moved increasingly into original content and would like to develop its local reach. Meanwhile, Google Inc. has expressed interest in entering the classified-ad market, where newspapers have deep relationships and continue to play a dominant role. Knight Ridder is part-owner of CareerBuilder Inc., the online classified Web site that competes with….

But Knight Ridder’s larger papers are the ones buyers are most likely to balk at. These papers, like those at many newspaper companies, are dragging down the company. Big-city papers have taken it on the chin as urban advertisers and readers have defected to the Internet. Knight Ridder has distressed papers in Philadelphia, Miami and San Jose, Calif. Circulation in those markets is falling, and big advertisers such as department stores are consolidating.

Lately, some of the most successful newspaper companies have stayed in the newspaper business by getting out of it. Washington Post Co. and E.W. Scripps Co., for instance, have both diversified into other industries….

If I owned a newspaper, I’d sell it, wouldn’t you? If I were Yahoo, would I buy it? Maybe only Yahoo and Google could consolidate the advertising marketplace to make big media work still.

I’m not going to complain about media consolidation when all this happens (though I know plenty of others will). What we’re seeing, I’ll say again, is just the dinosaurs huddling against the cold of the internet ice age. The poor, old, lumbering beasts have to stick together.

For the growth isn’t going to be on the big side. The growth is going to be on the small side, in new, ad hoc networks of content, promotion, advertising, and trust…. networks that could spring out of the one that is swarming around Bunch’s post, networks that care about news.

The goal is to save daily news, whether or not you save the Daily News.


Here’s a transcript of the NewsHour segment on shield laws, leaks, and all that.

Privilege for whom?

I am confused about shield laws. That alone is heresy for a journalist; we’re all supposed to be all for them, right? But I come at this from the perspective of those outside the castle — bloggers and just citizens — and so I don’t think it’s as simple as it seems. And that’s what I told the producer at Newshour when she called to ask my stand. They’re having me on anyway, as a heretic.

I don’t want to see an official definition of who is a journalist, not only because this is likely to exclude bloggers but also because official status can be given and can be taken away. Danger lurks there.

So why don’t we define journalism, for this purpose, as I usually do: as an act? Perhaps. But there, too, we risk excluding the person who commits a major act of journalism but once.

The third possibility is to define, instead, the quality of the whistle blown: this is so important to society that it’s worth protecting the source so we could get it. Of course, this puts the power to decide what’s important in the wrong — that is to say, official — hands.

So I don’t know where I end up. I confess my confusion.

The added problem is that there has been abuse of the system — or rather, the code, I suppose — on many sides. Journalists have overused unnamed and confidential sources. We should be in the business of revealing, not keeping secrets. In some cases, we don’t reveal sources just because we’re too lazy to get the named source or because we’re buddy-buddy with the source (that’s the way the tit-for-tat system works); in other cases, the disclosure is not worth the breaking of the compact that really matters, the compact we hold with our public: It is our job to tell what we know when we know it. It is not a privilege to hold secrets. It is a curse.

The sources use this as well, of course, hiding behind their own anonymity so they can spin spin, float balloons, hit and run. And we let them. We allow ourselves to be used.

The Newshour producer asked me whether I was uncomfortable with reporters, like Russert, testifying at trials, like Libby’s. I hesitated. I hate lawyers and lawsuits so much, I react with reflexive discomfort. But I suppose what makes me legitimately uncomfortable is that this becomes yet another way for reporters to be used: If you report something critical of someone with power or lawyers, you can end up sitting in court. That’s particularly uncomfortable for citizen journalists who don’t have a million dollars of The Times’ to blow on legal fees. The Plame prosecutor has said that reporters should be called as witnesses only sparingly. But, once more, we have the problem of an official defining what sparing means. And besides, reporters may find themselves in the odd position of not wanting to know something because it puts them in personal peril: We turn into a profession of Sgt. Schultzes. We know nossing!

On the other hand, it can’t make me uncomfortable to see journalists in the same role as any citizen. Didn’t an editor at the Online News Association almost tearfully plea that we shouldn’t call bloggers “citizen journalists” because journalists are citizens, too? Indeed. Journalists are citizens and need to stop living apart from the community but be again a part of it.

At the end of the day, transparency is still the best policy. The less we find ourselves in the position of keeping secrets, the better we serve our public. Do some disclosures, some scandals, some whistles blown merit getting into this mess of keeping confidentiality? Yes. Do we still need investigative reporting that traffics in such secrets? Yes. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a confusing and perilous mire.

: See also my Guardian column on the changing nature of secrets online.

Whither the biz

So I moderated — or tried to moderate — a panel at the Online News Association this weekend. Here‘s a story about it at the ONA site:

Try as he might, Jeff Jarvis couldn’t quite keep what he called the “dinosaur-bashing” and the “blogger-bashing” from rearing their respectively ugly heads at Saturday afternoon’s “Journalism 2010: Who’s leading the way?” panel discussion.

Though the former mainstream journalist-turned-blogger had hoped the discussion would focus on what online journalism has to look forward to in five years, some in attendance – including panelist Robert Cauthorn, who is president of CityTools – couldn’t help but take a few swipes at the established media – the dinosaur.

Cauthorn wouldn’t get off the snark express regarding the NY Times (which went on to win lots o’ awards at the banquet that followed). Others snarked at his snarking. As threatened, I read Rafat Ali’s scold of the ONA’s first day for their lack of passion. Somebody got up and argued back at “the blogger” that they have lots of passion. I got Rafat up — if at first reluctantly — not to fight back — Crossfire is dead — but instead to give his suggestions for what the ONA should do next year. He was quite the mensch, and the crowd recognized that with applause. But the snark express rode on. The editor of Projo emotionally said that she, too, is a citizen even if she’s also a journalist. No argument…. so long as the contrary is also accepted: Citizens can be journalists, too. A guy from the Scotsman issued the old saw as if he’d just thought of it that second: Who would you want to perform brain surgery on you, a surgeon or a citizen? I said I knew who I sure as hell didn’t want to perform surgery on me: a medical reporter. The bloggers were tired of being bashed for so long they bashed back; the dinosaurs were tired of being bashed in turn, so they bashed.

You get the smelly drift. There were good moments as well but it’s sad to see this destructive nya-nyaing from both sides, as if there are sides. We’re all supposed to be headed in the same direction and if we don’t recognize that then others who don’t give a fuck will just take over while the professionals piss on each other.

: To my amazement, I got email from a thin-skinned Gawkerite (an oxymoron, I would have thought) because of the last link above. Let me be clear then: I’m saying that while the bashers bash each other, people who are smarter and have a more authentic voice and are more nimble and less encumbered by old rules and egos will come in and take audience and advertising because they don’t give a fuck about the old rules of the old world. So I come not to bury Gawker but to praise Gawker.