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Paper Cuts

Is journalism really in danger?

Newspapers and magazines are shutting down, long-time reporter friends of mine are going back to school to become teachers and public policy experts, and a colleague of mine who teaches journalism confided that to justify his school’s value to students, he thought it had to be looked at as a general training ground for the liberal arts.

Not too long ago, at a closed-door gathering that brought together a bunch of well-known journalists to discuss the future of their profession, the specter of a journalistic apocalypse was raised. Government officials and corporate chieftans would go unchecked by investigative reporters, all laid off as a result of advertising dollars being siphoned by the internet. Incompetent or fool-hardy “citizen journalists” would have no idea how to get a story, and if they ended up in the wrong place a the wrong time, especially overseas, they’d be tossed in jail without the protection of a high-profile media brand. This final point drew much head nodding and discussion.

I originally intended for this article to sort through the shifting economics of the media industry. I was spurred on by an observation of a colleague of mine at an important, large news organization. He told me that his company’s web revenue was coming close to equaling the total staff budget for every journalist and editorial type at the place. Many hundreds of journalists.  And 10 times as many people were getting their news via the website than the print publication.  Yet, the print publication was still bringing in about eight or nine times as much money as the website, a strange by-product of many years of severe underpricing of web advertising by powerful media brands. Web advertising was a “bonus” or “value ad,” discounted or given away to support the sale of print or broadcast advertising, which was losing its value as the public migrated to the web. Now it’s too late to jack up the online prices.

From a pure economic standpoint, if this particular company shut down their print edition, enough ad dollars would flow from print to online that every journalist at the place could keep their job. But no way is that going to happen anytime soon. Too many people have their livelihood tied to dead trees. Truckers and printers and print ad sales people and those executives whose compensation is justified by big revenue numbers and selling advertisers on the experience of holding paper in their hands. The cost of maintaining real estate is another big problem for traditional publishers: internal politics nearly always make it difficult to shut down or reduce the space of large offices made much less necessary in the age of work-anywhere-with-your-laptop and online collaboration tools. The legacy issues standing in the way of restructuring are probably every bit as tough as those faced by the U.S. auto industry.

So, even with the recessions speeding the transition, the transformation process is likely going to be drawn out. To staunch the bleeding, cuts are being made across the board– give backs negotiated with the trade unions, departments combined, and journalists laid off. For most papers and magazines, what’s happening is a slow, painful path to exclusively publishing online that could be greatly accelerated, with fewer journalist jobs lost, if  media companies were more willing to quickly restructure themselves.

Not everyone can do it. Their content just isn’t going to be perceived as valuable enough by readers and advertisers and/or the publications won’t understand the importance of community and reader involvement on their sites– a story for another time. And a few don’t need to do it unless they want to — their content is so valuable that readers and advertisers will continue to pay enough to cover the deep expenses of printing and distribution. e.g.The Harvard Business Review or The National Journal.

Some media types are hoping if they hold out long enough, the Kindle and its ilk will more or less save their world via a printless print facsimile. Kindle fans working in journalism love it because the page format looks like print newspapers and magazines. As I see it,  Kindles are nice, especially for reading books, but they aren’t going to take the place of websites for newspapers and magazines: the flood of information and community on the internet needs to become part of the DNA of media companies. A reproduction of existing print pages just isn’t going to cut it and those who make too big a bet on it will easily be outmaneuvered.

Eventually, most big media brands are going to have to voluntarily get a lot smaller (although the good ones will be able to maintain the size of their edit staffs), or involuntarily be forced into bankruptcy. Newer media brands, without legacy restructuring issues, will become more competitive if established brands take too long to dig themselves out of their structural problems.  Models for low-cost digital publishing are quickly emerging. My new company, Buzzr.com, might eventually help here on the technology front with advanced and inexpensive publishing tools tightly integrated with social media. Generating sufficient revenue for these new, small online publishers to stay afloat, though, is currently an unsolved problem. That won’t last. I know of two start ups, currently in stealth mode, with great potential solutions for helping local publishers increase their revenue. I’m sure there are dozens of others in the works.

But will upstart websites, or revamped and much smaller existing news organizations, be up to the task of  creating great journalism? You’ll recall I said that at that closed door meeting of big-wig journalists there was much discussion about the importance of big media brands protecting properly credentialed journalists from the imperiousness of foreign governments. A blogger pursuing a story could be tossed into jail and no one would notice. Major media-brand reporters feel more protected, so they presumably, are more probing, more daring, more likely to get the story.

The world now know this assessment is false. What’s going on in Iran with Twitter and cellphones and YouTube is far beyond the capacity any mainstream news organization to collect and disseminate information. It appears some people are perfectly willing to risk dying to stand in the street and take cell phone videos. Meanwhile, most foreign reporters are confined to their hotels or being thrown out of the country.

And so where does that leave journalism?  The classic role of the investigative journalist, of Seymour Hersh uncovering the My Lai massacre, of Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran bringing the Killing Fields to the world’s attention, is permanently undermined. And not for the worse. There are about 4 billion mobile phones in the world. About 65% of cell phones are in the developing world, and about half of the world’s residents will have mobile phones by 2012, according to the U.N. Whether it’s famine or war crimes, it’s increasingly unlikely that major events will go unnoticed and undocumented. And this is a great social good.

And this is where the original intent for this article shifted: too many journalists are hostile to the emerging models of new media, even if the net social benefit is significant. It makes it more difficult to rally to the defense of journalists if they refuse to participate in what’s happening. “Journalism is just for journalists” is no longer a defensible position. So, yes, there may very well be a catastrophe for some journalists — but it’s a self-inflicted wound.

The value a journalist still brings to the party in a situation like Iran is sorting through all the information and making sense of it for readers. Perhaps that seems a lot less special to some than breaking exclusives based on first-hand reporting. In fact, it’s not all that different from being a blogger, policy expert, or historian, and I expect we’ll see great contributions to journalism from all of these quarters. Welcome to the party.

I think people will very much value good analysis.  They can’t easily make sense of the flood of unfiltered information coming their way.  Great journalism can emerge when the record created by ordinary people is interpreted by professsionals. It’s largely because of the potential of this combination that I’m not all that worried that journalism is going to suffer in the long term. Painful restructuring ahead?  Yes. Lower pay for journalists?  Yes.  Less paper? Yes.  Greater competition? Yes. Worse journalism? I don’t think so. I think it’s going to become clear post-Iran 2009 that the information gained by the emergence of new media is outweighing the losses we’re suffering with print media.

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