March 08, 2005

Webcasting the Vanishing Newspaper

The Media Center of the American Press Institute is holding a free webcast Wednesday (March 9) discussing the values of journalism in a post-newspaper world. The discussion opens with presentation by Philip Meyer on his book, "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age."

Jeff Jarvis is the moderator of the panel, which besides Meyer includes Mary Lou Fulton of the Bakersfield Californian and Northwest Voice, Stefan Dill of the Santa Fe New Mexican, and yours truly. Several hundred people have registered for the audience. More details and registration here.

(If you truly want to prepare, read my chapter-by-chapter review of Meyer's book.)

Here are the points I'm going to touch on:

 What replaces newspapers as the fundamental vehicle for journalism isn't known. As Yogi Berra said: "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." What journalists and newspaper companies need to be doing now in preparation for that uncertain future is rethinking the forms of journalism and remaking the structures of their organizations.

 Start by asking these questions: What are newspapers good for? How can they be useful to the community? How can they focus on that purpose? In other words, what current baggage must they jettison in order to repurpose themselves? What skills - journalistic, business, leadership - do they need in order to adapt?

 The risk-averse cultures of newsrooms must be addressed in order to accomplish change. Newsrooms are defensive (Who me?), oppositional (Won't work!), avoidant (Not my job) and perfectionistic (trees, not forest).

 Change will be difficult. The organizations with defensive, risk-averse cultures most similar to newspapers are highly bureaucratic entities like military and government agencies whose value systems reward inaction and discourage independence. Process takes precedent over people. Control trumps creativity. This is a leadership issue that requires bold action, not tinkering.

 Explode the newsroom. [Read: Exploding the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System for some ideas.] Explode the walls by tearing down the content silos of News, Sports, Business and Features in which all newsrooms operate. Explode the hierarchy that sends ideas downhill, strips rank-and-file editors of responsibility and causes reporters to hide their best ideas from editors for fear having to produce them for the next day. Explode the beat system. Most newspaper stories are about institutions or crime (Count them in your paper. About two-thirds will be official or police or court stories.) Focus on people, not process. Explode the staff. Hire for creativity, aggressiveness, critical thinking and writing ability. Journalism skills can be taught.

 Is it too late? Have newspapers reached a tipping point? More and more editors seem to think so. Phil Bronstein of the San Francisco Chronicle was quoted saying this in the Washington Post: "I could argue pretty forcefully that the free model and the non-newsprint model is what we're looking at in the future." And, John Squires, president of Sports Illustrated declared: "Print is dead."

 What are important are the principles of journalism, not their form. "The primary purpose of journalism," say Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach in their book, "The Elements of Journalism, "is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing."

They also say journalism's "first obligation is to the truth" and its "first loyalty is to its citizens."

These principles hold true in the information age, particularly the latter, but they need to be rethought in non-traditional terms. In other words, loyalty to the citizenry (or obligation to community) once meant, and still does, the responsibility of the press to keep a watchful eye on the scoundrels in power.

Today, though, the concept must be expanded to embrace the power of the community itself to watchdog its own institutions, including the press. It is a shift for the press from being the guardian of the community to being a participant in and enable of community.

Tune in tomorrow. It should be fun.

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Posted by Tim Porter at March 8, 2005 07:42 AM

WOW! We actually have a date ...

Last newspaper reader is expected to croak in 2040 Newspapers in the digital age

Posted by: Jozef Imrich on March 15, 2005 04:45 AM


Posted by: Jozef Imrich on March 15, 2005 04:46 AM
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