A Challenge

Hi all —

It’s been quite a couple of weeks in the world of journalism. PC Magazine is following the lead of the Christian Science Monitor, becoming the latest publication to accept the writing on the wall in making the decision to abandon its print product.

“The viability for us to continue to publish in print just isn’t there anymore,” Jason Young, chief executive of Ziff Davis, said in an interview. Welcome to the revolution, Jason.

It’s a little early for New Year’s predictions, but look for 2009 to be the “Year of Migration.” More and more newspaper execs are going to draw the conclusion that the future lies with online delivery.

And, as that happens, the lamenters will moan about the death of an industry. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the death of print does not equal the death of journalism. In the true spirit of revolution, I say “Down with the Lamenters!

There is so much hand-wringing is going on these days over the future of the business. Yet, the lamenters wring their hands but don’t move forward. It’s like hanging out an Irish wake. Everyone is sitting around talking about the good old days.

We are in the midst of a revolution yet there is all this obsession over “How are we going to pay for everything?” Such concerns led one UMass journalism student to write: “I’m not fatalistic about journalism, but I’m hardly enthusiastic.” That’s depressing. Such attitudes are sweeping through the older generation of journalists who remain fearful of the future but it’s disappointing to see such attitudes beginning to influence the new generation of journalists.

To the student (who will remain unnamed) and to others, I say, get over it. Stop lamenting and start innovating. The future is now. It’s easy to sit back and whine about all the issues facing the industry and to speak fondly of days gone by where print was print and we all read and paid for classified ads in a nice an orderly way. Those days are gone. The old business models are gone. Print is going, going, soon to be gone. Time to join the revolution and develop the new models.

My good buddy David Cohn is part of a new wave of journalist/entrepreneurs who realize the old model is dead and is experimenting with ways to drag an industry historically resistant to change into a new model of doing business. His Spot.Us project expands the notion of crowdsourcing into crowdfunding. Will it work? Maybe. Maybe not. But, he’s decided to avoid the lamenters and to start innovating. In a recent blog post, Cohn said the key to the future of the industry lies in innovation and experimentation:

What we need right now is 10,000 journalism startups. Of these 9,000 will fail, 1,000 will find ways to sustain themselves for a brief period of time, 98 will find mediocre success and financial security and two will come out as new media equivalents to the New York Times. (The NY Times is part of this game, I’m not making a big/small media divide here, just using them as a standard).

Cohn, aka Digidave, is bullish about the future because of all the possibilities out there. It’s a revolution people! Patrick Thornton, aka The Journalism Iconoclast, writes that those standing in the way of progress need to get out of the way in a hurry:

If newspapers hope to survive these lean times, they must shed all remaining luddites and curmudgeons. Every employee will have to be a technologist. Newspapers can no longer afford to employ people who stand in the way of the future — in the way of progress.

If newspapers are to survive, their future will be radically different. That’s going to require radically different staffing. It’s going to require radically different thinking.

Time to get radical people! Time to re-frame our discussion here a bit and answer the question of: “With All These Changes Going On, How Do We Teach Journalism?” with a sense of excitement about the future. As educators and students we need to be pro-active and innovative. Are we going to join the revolution or sit on the sidelines?

Finally, I’ll pass along comments from an earlier post by Dennis Vandal, who very nicely lays out where we need to go:

  • I strongly suspect the present model may be unsustainable and that we may pay for selective services much the same way that broadcast television is free now. We may not like it one bit, but the medium is in its infancy and it is in its “we’re building it and they’re coming” phase. This period is presenting serious problems for the newspaper industry which has historically been truculent about change of any kind. The readers are switching over from print to web and newspaper companies are pretty much left holding the bag. They still have their presses and all their “legacy overhead” and they’re not too savy about building the value of new media and selling it well.
  • Some newspapers have understood for quite a few years that the change is coming. They will be around for a long time. They’ll figure it out. Remember radio and television? Thousands of television and radio stations been around for decades and they’re supported by advertisers. As for the newspapers run by clueless managers, they will fold and hard working employees with lose their jobs. That’s the bad part.

  • The good part is that a vacuum may well be created and filled by someone sharp, bright and responsive…and online.That where the analogy of the Wild West comes in handy. That was a shake out period and we’re facing another one now and we have no idea who the real winners and losers will be for sure. Our economic system is called capitalism but I prefer a somewhat more colorful term. I call it economic Darwinism. The future belongs to those of us who embrace the changes. We can be a part of be a part of that future but the road will be unconventional. It will be a time of entrepreneurial journalism and will be up to all of us to figure it out.




About journalismprof

Steve joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in August 2007 and has been working to incorporate multimedia across the curriculum. Since arriving at UMass, Steve has developed three courses modeled after his multimedia journalism course. The courses allow students to work in teams in a newsroom-like environment where they work on packages -- using video, audio and photos to tell stories. He is also working with students on developing amherstwire.com, a news Web site staffed completely by students. Steve has more than 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at washingtonpost.com. He also edits part-time for espn.com with the NFL and college football network.
This entry was posted in Business of Journalism, Future of Journalism, innovation and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Challenge

  1. Think mobile. We are a population on the move. News needs to fit into transit time, and news you can read while you are commuting, or having a coffee, or waiting in line is news people can use. The cellphone-size projectors that will hit the market in the next few months and can project content from personal devices for sharing, will change how we use news.

    Oh, and when we’re in front of another screen, whether its HDTV or a computer screen, give me my news.
    p.s. I even want that “Big Ass Table” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZrr7AZ9nCY) that Windows was touting a while back

  2. I’m the unnamed student, and although I’m comfortable with what I said being used as an example, and certainly don’t take any offense, I think it’s a little bit out of context. I’m not a thumb-twiddling Luddite bemoaning my demise. I blog. I shoot video. I’ll sing and dance if it makes for a good story. Or if it pays.

    But I’m a college student. I’m sorry that I’m a little annoyed that I’ve got to work a lot harder than I signed up for.

    Steve, I appreciate your optimism, because it hasn’t been fun the past 2 years being told by professors that the industry you’re going into – the only thing you can imagine doing – is moribund. And the J-dept is definitely shifting its focus, for the better, at a critical time.

    But “get over it” is something that’s easier to say on a lecturer’s salary than it is on an intern’s salary. You can’t buy eggs with credits.

    The new media outlets that exist now, and are financially viable, are awful. You can’t show me the Huffington Post and tell me that’s progress. But just because some of us are cynical doesn’t mean we’re not proactive.

    The old farts are the ones having an Irish wake. I never knew this Old Media guy, and I bet he’s not as great as they remember him, anyway.

    You are asking for a revolution, and a lot of us are ready for it. But if you’re asking us to stop bitching about it in the meantime, that, sir, is asking too much.

  3. David says:

    I do not hear ANYONE saying that journalism is moribund. NO ONE. What I do hear is a multiplicity of concerns, which is only healthy and, indeed, essential to making sure the traditions of the best journalism survive in the MULTIPLE future.

    One can disagree with aspects of your statement, Steve, without being a force against “progress.” Not all change is good. Not all change is viable economically. Not all change is in one direction. I was just in the Philippines over the Thanksgiving break–and found they have EXCELLENT newspapers. Hard-hitting, reformist, carefully edited. And there are 91 million people in the Philippines! (And I will never forget the conversation with a 20year-old hotel valet who noticed I was reading Obama’s “Dreams from My Father.” He was eager to o engage me about him. Where had he learned so much? “From the newspaper.”)

    I believe students need to learn to be good journalists, first and foremost. That includes, but goes way beyond, being alert to the entrepreneurial possibilities of the future. To be good journalists, our students will have to study and respect living (still primarily print-based) vehicles very carefully, and look with a weather eye on many of the passing fancies that claim the title “progress.” (This is not a problem. I find they have sharp instincts about what’s the real thing and what isn’t. They often teach ME.)

    There are many points of view about the future–wary, hopeful, disgusted, impatient–and I say, Vive la difference! I would like to see this forum enlarge its scope to reflect that fact.

  4. BJ Roche says:

    In response to Sean: Huffingtonpost is one thing, and I agree, it’s not the tops (although venture cap group Greycroft Partners just pumped, what, $25 million into it?)

    But what about politico.com? It’s a great site, innovative, informative and fun. I love The Arena, which brings together a few hundred really smart people, who weigh in on topics of the day.

  5. BJ Roche says:

    One more thing: I think that, in addition to writing skills, students really need to learn more about the world and how it works. This means political science, history, geography, sociology courses.

    Much of the research and reporting on social issues that used to be done by newspapers is now being done by dozens of policy organizations like the Brookings Institution, The New America Foundation, MassInc. But most students aren’t aware of these policy groups.

    They need to be.

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