September 03, 2005

Journalism by Every Means Necessary

One reason I have been writing less these past few weeks on First Draft - aside from the temporal summer slump and yet another plunge into Mexican real estate - is that I have run out of patience.

These days, when someone from a newspaper or a journalism school asks me to join a panel about the future of journalism or address the question of why a newspaper should have blogs, my inner response is a scream: You are slipping into irrelevance! You have an analog product in a digital world! Your economic platform is dying! You must do something! Now, go read my stuff for the last two years, and Jarvis and Rosen and Yelvington and Thompson and Sands and Robinson and the Readership Institute. Then let's talk.

Issue fatigue? Certainly that's some of it, although as I told my friend Tom Abate (MiniMediaGuy) the other day I'm still hooked on journalism crack. More so, there's a sense of preaching to the choir - of which I am only a volunteer member. I cannot make a living telling newspapers to change or helping them work through the issues that prevent them from doing so. As a smart women told me recently: Remember, this is an industry that thinks spending $1,000 on something is a lot of money. So, I have been paying the rent working with non-journalists, folks who think the future belongs to those who invest in it and that change is an opportunity for growth not a dangerous tampering with tradition.

In this sense, I haven't lost my voice, but I may be losing faith in the audience. And that saddens me. When I see the tremendous amount of good newspaper and online journalism that accompanies a horrific event like Hurricane Katrina, when I witness the normal glibness of broadcast reporters give way to truly emotional truth-telling of human suffering around them and when I and others acknowledge the deep, prescient reporting about a disaster that could have been prevented had public officials heeded the warnings of journalists, I want all this to survive on a large scale. But in order for newspapers to continue to generate the revenue necessary to fund this breadth and depth of reporting, they must reinvent their economic and editorial models. Otherwise, quality journalism will be limited to those who can pay for it, to those who subscribe to specialty magazines or newsletters. The masses, those most dependent on a government that is continually under the watchdog's eye, will be left with the chaff, the free, understaffed, poorly reported newspapers, the crime-ridden TV news reports and the growing mass of celebrity journalism.

The journalism gap is already real. It will widen and our communities will be the poorer for it.

I am writing this because I am on a plane bound for Argentina, to a conference on "periodismo y comunicación en Internet," where I will speak about how blogs can be part of a future for Pan-American journalism. Next month, I will do the same thing at the APME conference. In both cases, I have very little time and am unsure how to make the time meaningful.

Do I let loose the inner scream (You are dying! Change!) or proceed more patiently as if I were convincing a child to try something new (Have a taste; it won't hurt.)? Can you explain the nature of cancer and the need for treatment to someone in 20 minutes?

I suspect I'll do both - and rely heavily on the thinking of people more patient people than I.

I'll tell them that Jeff Jarvis says that blogging is a metaphor for shift in the publishing paradigm and a tool that puts a digital printing press within keyboard's reach of anyone.

I'll tell them that 45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing printed in newspapers (so found the Pew Center) and the transparency a blog can bring to the reporting, editing and sourcing process can go a long way to restoring that credibility.

I'll them how blogging editor John Robinson of the Greensboro News & Record sees blogs as "yet another way to reach readers with relevant information about their community and their lives" without conceding ground on journalistic principles. "Our blogs," says Robinson, "particularly those written by news reporters -- adhere to all the traditional journalistic principles of integrity, objectivity and fair play."

I'll them tomorrow's newspaper audience is already online and today's moving there at an increasing rate. One-in-five people who call themselves newspaper readers primarily use the paper's online edition rather than read articles in print, Nielsen/NetRatings found this year.

I'll tell them that more than 4-in 10 younger people - those between 18 and 34 - use Yahoo and MSN at least once a day for news, found Merrill Browns' aptly named report, Abandoning the News.

I'll tell them that blogging can deepen beat reporting and help develop new sources, as it has for Todd Bishop, the Microsoft reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

I'll tell them that blogging is fun, something the newspaper industry needs more of.
Says Michael Landauer, of the Dallas Morning News editorial page blog: "So why do we blog? … It's fun. It's another outlet. … As creative people, aren't we always striving for that? I mean, where else would I have written about the greatest movie lines this week?"

I'll tell them that journalists who serve communities, whether geographic or virtual, will survive the radical remaking now under way in the profession. Blogs create community by enabling and encouraging interaction. They enable journalism to extend into the community and they empower the community to commit journalism. As Hodding Carter said, "Don't cover the community, be the community." Look to the role Craigslist New Orleans and played in the Katrina aftermath for survivors and their families.

I'll tell them the advertising money we need to pay for journalism is following the audience online and we need to get our share of it. Online newspaper advertising is on a $2 billion/annual run rate and growing year over year at about 40 percent, says the Newspaper Association of America.

I'll tell them that Technorati, last "State of the Blogosphere" report says number of blogs - now at 14.2 million (55 percent active) doubles every 23 weeks, with major spikes occurring in the midst of big news events like the London bombing. The next report likely will show another jump from Katrina.

And, finally, just to scream a little bit, I'll tell them change or die.

Posted by Tim Porter at September 3, 2005 05:41 PM

Don't despair. Well, despair that newspapers aren't changing as quickly as they need to. But more and more journalists and even business-side folks are starting to get it. Keep hammering on this nail. You educate and inspire me with every post. On Thursday, our M.E. and I are going to explode the newsroom. Wish us luck!

Posted by: John Robinson on September 3, 2005 06:46 PM

hi there

i can understand your frustration. i've personally tried selling the idea to two newspaper groups. but obviously with fail. well no harm done. they will be 'enlightened' soon. ;)

but i must admit and admire the way things work at your end. not all is that bad, looking at it from my perspective. heck, you had new orleans inundated but new orleans was online. so much info, so much interactivity. likewise with the london bombings, taking just a couple of recent events.

again katrina, is a good example. innovative. though, about time, nyt times integrating print and online desks. wiki-ing opinion pieces. so much of 'participatory journalism' happening thesedays it is difficult to keep track. isn't that a sign that one day these 'old school' journalists, who unfortunately happen to be in positions where they can dictate who gets the job or not [ lol ], sure will figure it out when their readership dwindles.

well, i suppose i should be frustrated more than you. can't figure out how i got to this post of yours but things here are way different from what most people think.

the grass definetely is greener there. but it will happen.

anyways, the whole point was the walls between print and web need to be broken. it was thought off long time back. some of it has happened, some not. we back home had a discussion once.
do take a look.
one of the comments on this post is mine.


Posted by: satish warier on September 5, 2005 07:58 AM

I'm a dinosaur-era journalist, but, more important, the mother of two teenagers. Anyone here remember the old "Why Johnnie Can't Read/Write" days?
My kids and their friends spend much of their time reading and writing. Online. They read each other's personal blogs, they write their own online journals. They are all literate, creative, and excited about the notion of public consumption of their thoughts.

No one in their circles reads newspapers, few of them watch CNN, yet they are all 100 percent up on things like Katrina relief, exposure of the American underclass, the "racist photo caption" discussion our industry had last week and on and on. Why? Because they get their news online and they talk about it in their online journals and they exchange new sources of information every day.

Who's the guy who says kids don't consume news? He's wrong. Newspapers just need to figure out a way to tap into this wonderful kid enthusiasm. ma

Posted by: Mary Ann Hogan on September 6, 2005 10:59 AM

Let loose the inner scream, Tim.

Your audience needs to hear it.

Don't expect, however, that anything will come of it.

I talk to your audience every day, as a vendor selling innovative wares, and try to communicate the same message you're communicating.

At the levels at which change needs to occur, they're far more resistant to change than you think. They're far more ignorant of the world they live in than you probably suspect, and they're unwilling to let any reality intrude on their routines.

They won't begin to stop the bleeding until it becomes life-threatening. And even then the majority will sit there humming "suicide is painless."

In the meeanwhile, some intelligent screaming may reach a few of the many who need to hear it. Good luck!

Posted by: Joe Zekas on September 15, 2005 06:32 PM

Only the converted hear you, Tim. The papers cannot. They must die, so their mindset can die with them. It's tough to watch. The death of a thousand paper cuts.

My letter to a local paper:

The future:

Posted by: Mr. Snitch! on September 19, 2005 05:54 PM
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