December 16, 2004

'Tis the Season … to Keep Hammering

If you're in the newspaper business - either as an owner or a journalist - this seems like the season to be depressed, not joyful. The halls of newspapers journalism are decked in recent days with a spate of doomsday prognostications.

First comes Larry Pryor, executive editor of the Online Journalism Review, decrying, justifiably, the lack of new media risk-taking by news organization, most notably newspapers. Pryor writes (emphasis added):

"If they continue down this road, newspaper publishers will cede the communications business to Net-native publishers. They will miss the coming revolution in broadband and wireless digital technologies. They will not be part of exciting extensions of their core business, such as the creation of virtual communities, virtual malls and auction houses or partnerships in distance learning projects.

"It's a sad sight -- watching newspapers stand by as digital technology explodes, capital shifts to new media ventures and the world awakens to this powerful tool for communication and trade."

Next arrives a Wall Street Journal story about newspaper revenue projections in which an advertising executive, in describing the unappealing environment news columns hold for advertisers, labels reading the newspaper as "more like homework." Ouch.

Finally, a Miami Herald story about declining newspaper circulation says what many have thought but few have uttered: "Now many in the industry say they've come to realize it's not the content that's the problem, it's the form of the newspaper itself."

Actually, I would add the content is also a problem, but recognizing that the form - the rigid container approach to delivering news and advertising - does not offer the flexibility necessary to meet the needs and wants of today's consumers is a big step. This is the elephant at the party.

To web journalists, like Larry Pryor, it's a no-brainer that in order to reinvent themselves newspapers must follow the advice offered by a journalism professor in the Miami Herald story - newspapers "have to first see themselves as companies that process information. Then they have to figure out the distribution of that information.'' But easy adoption of innovation and formation of a new institutional identity doesn't come easily for old-line publishers who don't see immediate financial returns off the web or for tradition-bound editors who can't fathom why a reader might prefer a charticle to an article.

The other day, when I wrote about the need for newspapers to engage in intentional, not accidental journalism, Roger Karraker asked in the comments:

"Tim, do you ever feel as if you're talking to a wall? Your analysis and prescription are spot on. But I get the sense that the owners, publishers, editors and most reporters go blithely on. … This is like watching a train wreck in slow motion."

If you'll allow me, for a moment, a digression into introspection, I can tell you that Roger's question provoked some serious thinking about why I keep hammering at the wall and why I still continue to believe that newspaper journalism is, at its best, a necessary component in a civil society and why I still try to help newspapers do that type of journalism.

I arrived, as I usually do after such an inner walkabout, at the conclusion that the elements of journalism remain sound even if many practitioners of the craft are confused or even addled. This time, though, my optimism was seasoned with an unsavory hint of sadness, a rising whiff of a future absent of newspapers as a relevant community news medium. As Larry Pryor warned in his OJR article:

"Further stalling will make newspaper reporters and editors, and the brand of journalism they stand for, an endangered species."

In order to survive, newspapers must change their form - form, not standard - of journalism (not to mention their means of advertising delivery), but, as radical as those new forms may seem in most newsrooms, I no longer think that is enough. Many news executives know what to do, but they still don't do it. They are handcuffed by cultures that not only inhibit change, but frequently punish those who champion it. What's needed is a fundamental organizational makeover. The current newsroom structure - segregated departments, hierarchical decision-making processes, platform specific (instead of agnostic) content, and strict producer-consumer division - does not permit change on a large enough scale to break newspapers free from the traditions that bind them.

This brings me back to Roger Karraker's question: Do I ever feel like I'm talking to a wall? In this context, then, as optimistic as I usually am, the answer is yes, Roger, I do because I feel like the message - delivered not just by me, but by so many other lovers of journalism more capable than I - isn't taking hold: Adapt or disappear.

Posted by Tim Porter at December 16, 2004 07:39 AM


Keep up the good fight. When I left newspapers in the early '90s, it was partly because of burned out and partly out of distress. Now that I teach journalism, I am even more distressed at the world I have to send my students out into (although I don't reveal the full depth of it).

What offsets it all, is that for journalists, I can't imagine a more exciting time. I suspect once the walls start to come down, they'll come down fast. Newspapers are going to realize they can't wait for a "killer ap" and will have to start doing this stuff on their own. (Is there an industry that is less individually innovative than newspapers?).

The more people who can keep pushing on them, the faster those walls will crumble.

Posted by: Mark Hamilton on December 16, 2004 08:30 PM

A single snowflake brings on an avalanche ...

May the holiday season be filled with the conspiracy of love



Posted by: Jozef Imrich on December 21, 2004 12:36 AM
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