It’s time to change the conversation
This column was originally published in March 2009. Today (October 28, 2009) I participated in a panel for a Milwaukee Public Television program called 4th Street Forums. The topic was “Newspapers in Decline: A Threat to Democracy and Community?”
And this was the program description: The fourth estate is on its knees. Investigations, exposures, & all the hometown news seem in jeopardy. Can democracy survive without a vibrant local press?
Joining me on the panel were Louis Fortis, publisher of Shepherd Express; Mikel Holt, associate publisher of Milwaukee Community Journal; and Ricardo Pimentel, VP and editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Think about that for a second. Three mature-career print journalists and me, a mid-career non-medium-specific journalist.
And if you’re interested in my two cents, I’ll say I was surprised. Of course I expected these gentlemen to defend print – does an auto worker bash the union? But I was disappointed to hear all of them so firmly entrenched in the “Print = Journalism” equation. Mr. Fortis bashed the web by asserting that few people visit websites… they prefer print and the statistics prove that. He also said that TV news gets all their information from newspapers and just adds pictures and graphics to put it on air. Mr. Holt asserted that if the Community Journal hadn’t pushed so hard for School Choice that it wouldn’t have happened, “changing education forever.” He’s right about the last part, I’m sure. Especially in Milwaukee. Only Mr. Pimentel acknowledged the importance of the web, at least somewhat, by pointing out that it was a perfect place to augment the newspaper’s content and offer the immediacy readers desired.
All three balked at the idea of government funding to seed a new model for news production and distribution (because if an advertiser tries to exert undue influence you can go find another one, but there’s only one government. Just ask NPR and the BBC… oh wait, that last was my own addition), and wished for a world where advertisers were willing to pay good money for online ads and young people understood the importance of fact-checking – something all three used to differentiate themselves from the credibility-lacking internet. Unfortunately, newspapers screwed the pooch on online revenue years ago, ignoring the web’s value to readers and succumbing to the downward pressure on internet advertising prices by aggregation-based agencies like Double Click. As for fact-checking, that’s a legitimate concern. Because really, who has time for that? I’m kidding!
But that’s another story. This story is about how I left the forum all fired up to write a column on my experience. But, sitting at my computer, I realized I already wrote it. In fact, I wrote it twice. So the first one is below. The second is “Rethinking journalism: let’s get small.”
Let’s keep talking. This is important.
Is it starting to feel like one of those years where we all should just stay in bed? Every morning my clock radio wakes me to the strains of NPR and a plethora of disastrous news stories on every front of existence. Scanning the headlines over coffee doesn’t make me feel any better, and there are days when I am ready to hide under the covers until 2010 or so before I even make it to my car.
Especially troubling to me is the constant clang of the “Journalism is dead” bell. Journalism is not dead, if for no other reason than it must not be allowed to fail.
To be clear: these are transformational times, and when the dust settles (if it ever does), the journalistic landscape will be vastly different than the one most of us grew up with. Newspapers, the primary bastions of local, daily news coverage, have made innumerable errors in judgment in the last ten years. They screwed up with their unbelievably arrogant belief in their own infallibility and by embracing an ecosystem where online ads were viewed as “value-add” (a.k.a., “free with purchase of print”). And we screwed up, too, by insisting on having everything on the web for free and forcing the elimination of their revenue streams one by one.
Gone forever are the five tributaries of classified sales, display advertising, newsstand sales, subscriptions, specialty sections and annual publications that used to feed the daily newspaper river. All now depends on display ads in print and on the web, which, even in a healthier economy, would not be enough to keep a well-established news organization financially healthy over time. It doesn’t help that many newspaper ad reps still don’t believe in their hearts that online advertising has inherent value.
So let’s look at the situation pragmatically. Many in the blogosphere assert that they can do journalism better, but most issues-focused blog posts refer to news items published by daily newspapers and news networks. If someone knows of a terrific investigative journalism blog network that serves Milwaukee, please let me know – I’d love to subscribe to their RSS feed. That said, though with some regret for the loss it implies, there is a valuable place in the blogosphere to perhaps take over general coverage of opinion, lifestyle, humor, parenting and more.
Which brings us back to News (with a capital N). It’s a term that’s too often confused with journalism. But journalism is larger, hard news being one piece of it – the piece most worth saving.
The Random House Dictionary defines journalism this way: the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news or of conducting any news organization as a business. And it’s the second part of that definition that finds truth in the proclamation of the death of journalism. The current business model of news organizations is most definitely finished, and there is great sadness in that, though little surprise. The idea of your daily newspaper as a major local employer creating hundreds of family-supporting jobs, both blue- and white-collar, is destined to become a memory very soon. And it’s really too late to turn the tide, if it could ever have been turned.
What needs to be preserved is the first part – the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news – and with emphasis on news gathering as an occupation, not an avocation. For this, depending on community journalists (bloggers) is not an option, for many reasons. The healthy existence of some sort of organizational setting where professional reporters can perform the critical task of providing trustworthy, knowledgeable and consistent coverage of daily news and have the freedom to attempt to right wrongs and expose corruption must not die. Our very lives may depend on it.
[Note: Clearly I got this wrong. Bruce Murphy broke the pension story for Milwaukee World, then went more in-depth in Milwaukee Magazine. Shortly thereafter, he was offered and accepted a position at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.–March 21]
Those are just two examples and I bet anyone reading this can think of many more. But what’s to be done? We’ve all been fixed in the headlights of the oncoming truck when what’s needed is to re-engineer the highway.
I don’t have the answers any more than you do, but I think I’m not alone in my feelings. In the coming weeks I’ll be offering up some suggestions of my own, and hope it spurs some dialog. Please join in at any time, by commenting or contacting me through the website. We may or may not ultimately help to avert this impending crisis, but maybe we can shift the conversation. And that’s a start.