June 28, 2005

Dawning of the Age of the Journalist

Could it be that as the age of the journalism business wanes under the weight of an obsolete business model and changing audience that potential power of the individual journalist is on the rise? Are we entering the age of the journalist?

I think so.

What got me thinking about this was an article in the May 16 New Yorker (yeah, I'm way behind) that contrasted the sales of music CDs, which are flat, to the attendance at rock concerts, which has never been better. The magazine said:

"Consumers who seem reluctant to spend nineteen dollars for a CD apparently have few qualms about spending a hundred bucks or more to see a show."

Most rock and poartists today make their real money from touring, from being on the road, where they get to keep more than 50 percent of the gate receipts vs. the 12 cents a CD that may or may not come their way depending on whether the album's costs are ever recouped. As a result

" the fortunes of musicians and the fortunes of music labels have less and less to do with each other."

We are entering, says the New Yorker

" the first stage of what John Perry Barlow, a former lyricist for the Dead, called the shift from 'the music business' to the 'musician business.' In the musician business, the assets that once made the major labels so important - promotion, distribution, shelf space - matter less than the assets that belong to the artists, such as their ability to perform live. The value of songs falls, and the value of seeing an artist sing them rises, because the experience can't really be reproduced."

In this digital age, whose marvelous technology lowers the cost of music production and enables its universal distribution, thereby reducing both revenue and the cachet of exclusivity, the "experience" of seeing the music and of sharing that experience with others, trumps the music itself. "The old troubadour may have the most lucrative gig of all" in these times, says the New Yorker.

Apply this line of reasoning to journalism and it fits quite well.

 The mechanisms of the journalism business - distribution, production, editorial hierarchy - face threatening economic, demographic and culture pressures.
 The publishing exclusivity once claimed by the journalism business is lost to the technologically-enable democratization of the media.
 The value of most forms of news produced by the journalism business is reduced to commodity levels.

What remains are the journalists. Increasingly, individual journalists, whether they work on their own or for news companies, are showing an ability to connect directly with their audiences, using the Internet to extend their reach far beyond their geographic base.

Certainly, the web enables columnists for the national newspapers like David Brooks and Paul Krugman of the Times or James Taranto of the Journal to spur national debate that spills far beyond the readership of their host papers. That is to be expected.

More surprising is the reach of regional columnists like Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald or Dan Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee. During the California gubernatorial recall campaign that led we Californians being governed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Weintraub often personified the Bee's coverage, attracting praise and criticism from both sides of the contest.

Some newspaper reporters who are now better known in some circles for their blogs than for their printed work. The other day, in a post about using blogs to extend a reporting beat, [Read: Blogging the Beat] I quoted Todd Bishop, who covers Microsoft for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and writes the Microsoft Blog, saying:

" I was at an event where one employee introduced me to another as, "you know, that guy who writes the Microsoft blog for the P-I." That was an eye-opener for me, because it was pretty clear that they didn't know I wrote for the traditional newspaper, or didn't care."

Michael Bazeley, a tech writer for the San Jose Mercury News and author of Silicon Beat, said something similar:

"When I call people for stories or attend work-related events, many people know me now from the blog, not the paper."

Many people know Joshua Marshall better as the author of Talking Points Memo rather than the magazine journalist he was (and still is) before he began blogging. Other journalists, like Marc Cooper of the Nation, have followed Marshall's example.

And, of course, blogging itself and the still nascent emergence of forms of citizen journalism provide opportunities for individuals to straddle the worlds of journalism and advocacy in ways that create powerful connections between their unique points of view and their readers - a reader-to-publisher relationship that has for the most part dissolved between newspapers and their shrinking audiences.

Two years ago, I wrote:

"Quality sells. Relevance matters. The real lesson both the newsroom and the boardroom need to learn is that, in the age of the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer's attention by everyone from the New York Times to yours truly, all that's left is the journalism." [ Read: There's Nothing Left but the Journalism.]

Today, I might amend that to read: "All that's left are the journalists."

Success in digital media - which newspapers are becoming whether they want to or not - requires differentiation.

If news is commodity, then in-depth reporting has value. If routine government coverage offers nothing but stenography, then interpretive reporting has value. If the conventions of traditional journalism produce bland and boring copy, then personality and point of view have value. If newspapers have become disconnected from community, then relationships between writer and reader have value.

What does this mean in the real world of news organizations? The creation of newsrooms in which the emphasis is on depth and context, in which journalists who are passionate and innovative are valued over those who are production-minded and defensive, and in which the principle role of managers is to create an environment that makes the first two things possible.

The future of news belongs to those who can connect to readers. That's something people do better than institutions.

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Posted by Tim Porter at June 28, 2005 11:09 AM

At one time, it took so long for voters to learn about candidates in far-off places that the elections were over before they knew who was running. Hence, the electoral college, which allowed voters to choose someone they could meet to stand as their proxy. That is now out-dated.

What you are describing applies not just to music and journalism, but to movies and any other area where intermediaries and middle-men want to take their cut to bring producers and consumers together. The new connectedness has flattened the consumption structure, and anyone who was in the middle is going to get squeezed out. Time for music labels and MSM and theaters to wake up, smell the future and change their business model, or go sit in the corner with the buggy whip makers.

The future is not about enabling producers and consumers to find each other, it's about recommending one to the other.

Posted by: Dave Goodman on June 28, 2005 11:53 AM

The wave of disintermediation, the end of editors, is rolling.

Which, strangely enough, makes the linkers and the volunteer editors all the more important.

The internet abounds in these sorts of paradoxes. The future does belong to people who can connect to their readers and to the people who can find those people.

Posted by: Jay Currie on July 2, 2005 08:54 PM
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