If newspapers were gone tomorrow

For those still following the small-picture “death of the newspaper industry” tragedy while the much larger “collapse of the global economy” unfolds around it, there is a worthwhile exchange unfolding between Jeff Jarvis and Dave Winer (starts with Jeff here, Dave answers here, Jeff responds, Dave replies).

It’s all food for thought but I want to highlight an analogy Dave raises today, which has, I think, a great clarity:

Imagine a group of doctors knew that all hospitals and pharmacies were about to shut down. What would they do? Might they do something to make sure their client’s health needs were at least partially attended to?

The same would presumably apply to many other professions, whose services are in some way necessary for life: police, fire, bus drivers, garbage collectors.

We’re often asked to believe how noble the profession of news is — now that is about to be tested in a whole new way. Are we just supposed to cry for this industry and throw our hands up and wait for the collapse before starting to put it back together, or would they like to help while they’re still here?

What’s valuable about this analogy is that it reminds journalists that they are actors in this drama, not victims. Victimhood is written deeply in the culture of the newsroom. It’s always the fault of the guys with the green eyeshades, or the publishers, or the advertisers, or even the readers.

Well, at this point, it hardly matters whose fault it is. Many of these ships are going down fast. If you’re a journalist who cares about the field as a vocation in the old sense (something to which you are called, and to which you feel a responsibility), if you believe that an informed public is a prerequesite for a functioning democracy, then think about Dave’s question. I am.

One of my formative professional experiences was working on the San Francisco Free Press in 1994. When the Newspaper Guild called a strike against the Examiner, where I worked, and the Chronicle (a strike over the jobs of truck drivers!), the Guild decided to publish a strike paper. We published a few editions on paper, but we posted daily on the Web. (The Well still has it up.) We did it partly because it was fun, but partly because we felt a responsibility to our community to keep providing it with news and information. That responsibility remains, whatever happens to the business model of the newspaper industry.

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  1. Scott, I worked on the Free Press too — it’s how I got my start on the web. Before that I didn’t understand how it worked. After doing technical work on that project I started to. It was an on-strike reporter who showed how linking worked and emphasized how important it is.

    I added teachers to the list of essential occupations, I remember as a kid in NYC there was a long teacher’s strike and how bored I got hanging out at home, and then they startted up a strike school and it was much more fun than regular school. The teachers, presumably, felt a responsibility to their students, much the way I’m asking news people to think about not just the readers, but the sources as well. I think news people often treat the sources as the enemy, when in some sense they’re a constituency too. I’ve stopped doing interviews cause I don’t think they got that. Lots of stories to tell about that one. ANyway, I’m rambling. Thanks for picking up the ball here.

  2. “…we felt a responsibility to our community to keep providing it with news and information. That responsibility remains, whatever happens to the business model of the newspaper industry.”

    Stirring words. But I don’t get it. For most of us with mouths to feed, the rousing vibe of journalistic duty goes about as far as the next paycheck. Take that away, and will the responsibility remain, in some all-volunteer wikified huffpostesque form? I kind of doubt it. The old model is clearly dying and a new one has not yet emerged, and while I’m all on board with 2.0, it don’t look so good from here… I agree, it’s a crisis. But its naive to allege that citizen journalism will replace the investigative, long-form professional version, or that professionals will bravely soldier on through the blank years in some volunteer-nut-graf-army capacity. Don’t you think?

  3. Scott Rosenberg

    James, you’ve made a big jump from my post (and Dave’s question) to the line about “citizen journalism replacing” etc. Notice that that isn’t something anyone here has said. What I’m saying is: let’s stop wasting energy saying “Oh shit, who took our jobs away?” It doesn’t get us very far, but that’s as far as a lot of people in the newsroom today seem to get.

    I’m not proposing that journalists henceforth work for free, and I don’t know too many people who advocate that. I’ve got mouths to feed too. But there are a lot of people just beginning to try to figure out how to reconcile their vocation as journalists with their need to pay the bills when the old way of paying for the work is disappearing.

    It’s more interesting to actually try to solve that problem than to devote any more energy to either (a) fighting to rescue a doomed paper (and broadcast) business; (b) pointing fingers at the big bad capitalists who steered the news business into its ditch; or (c) complaining that “citizen journalism” won’t work because we don’t know how it will pay professional salaries. The world does not owe journalists a living!

    In the worst-case scenario, if the old biz dies before we have a new one figured out, then, yes, I do think there will be some writers who soldier on for free (or a pittance) because they love it, or believe that the business will revive in some other form. Look around: it’s already happening. (This modest blog is one tiny example, though I make little claim for its value as journalism — and, yeah, I get paid for writing, too, fortunately.)

    There’s a whole chapter on this stuff in the new book, but it’ll be a few months yet before that’s gonna be available…

  4. Yep, I did make a jump there — you’re right, nobody above mentioned citizen journalism. But it’s quickly held aloft whenever the discussion turns to what comes next, how the vital role that journalism plays will live on after the broadcast and dailies collapse. And as you know, Scott, I’m about as far as you can get from an old-school hack newspaperman, but I guess – based on Jay’s incredulous response – that I’m more out of touch than I knew.

    It is a useful discussion: How might journalists apply their skills to new vocations, other than advertising and PR, which aren’t going so great either? Is there an equivalent out there that we’ve overlooked? And what do we do with journalism schools when small-town newspapers are outsourcing their city-hall coverage to India for less than a cent a word?

  5. Scott —

    What seems missing so far (or at least under-emphasized) in this debate is a good old fashion discussion of power.

    Sure, journalists who work in the old system are being thrown off the boat. But if the whole boat is sinking, what about the people who control the boat? What are they going to do? That seems to be the more important question.

    After all, we only have the system of journalism we have (with its vaunted professional apparatus of degree programs and prizes etc. etc.), because that system has long suited its owners. And if it no longer suits, they’ll take their money elsewhere. (Which is different from “pointing fingers at the big bad capitalists who steered the news business into its ditch,” per your worry. If you want to blame anyone for where the press is headed, blame the US gov’t for paying for the original Internet. I just think the big bad capitalists who own most of the old news establishment aren’t going to be afraid to kill a few sacred journalistic cows if that’ll help them stay out of the ditch a little longer).

    What seems to get in the way of journalists themselves talking about things this way is the peculiar piousness (piety?) of American journalism — which includes talk of their work as ‘a vocation,’ I’m sorry to say . Sure, there’s much to be celebrated in its fabled ‘source well and quote-both-sides’ thoroughness, but the self-admiration it breeds seems to blind those working within the system to how uncritically they’ve long adopted news values that first and foremost serve the interests of the people for whom they work. You don’t even need a wall between your advertising and editorial departments, in other words, if the editorial practices that you like to think of as utterly unbiased in reality reflect news values with very a particular politics — i.e. ones that uphold the essentials of the (commercially-owned) status quo.

    For a long time that was a deal worth making. But as the system unravels we’ll be helped in forging a better one by a cool and unsentimental political analysis of how things worked before. This isn’t the same as ‘victims’ looking for someone to blame. But journalists are victims here in the sense that victims, like journalists, aren’t the ones in charge. They have no real power.

    Thinking this way, I hope, lets journalists see that any grand, socially-valuable function they claim for themselves, they’ve long held (pretty much) entirely at someone else’s pleasure.

    It also offers them a route out of victimhood — showing why becoming publishers themselves, as many are, is such a vital and powerful and socially-positive thing even in the absence of advertising support.

    It might even help them argue that if what they do really *is* a social need (if journalism is, as Winer asks, like medicine or if it really is necessary for a functioning democracy, as you suggest), then they have a very good claim upon society to pay for it.

    Framed like this, I’m oddly cheered by this crisis. What’s remarkable about American media is the degree to which the vast majority of the outlets controlling access to knowledge of an essential kind (news) conform to the same model. As another poster to the Winer blog suggested, a serious consolidation of mainstream news outlets (especially on TV) wouldn’t really be such a loss.

    But worse, that model is built on a fiction of impartiality — I’ll take the opinionated competition of America’s early press or the huge political range of Britain’s current newspaper scene over that any day. When I consume the media in the UK (where journalists are widely, and healthily, distrusted) it’s clear to me that everyone (including the government-backed BBC) is selling an angle and I’m reminded that I need to make my mind up what to believe.

    It works for me. And maybe it’s the model we’re moving towards. If it is,I wouldn’t be devastated if it came at the cost of a little deflation in journalistic professional pride.

  6. Scott Rosenberg

    I admire the vigorousness of the point of view in the British press but find the coverage too often wanting in simple credibility (I mean, it’s become a sort of shorthand in the political blogosphere: “Report is in The Guardian/Times/wherever, take with grain of salt.”) My ideal would be some sort of mid-Atlantic combination, abandoning the American “objectivity” fetish (which is largely withering away on its own) but retaining a US standard for sourcing and general skepticism.

    For me, when I speak of “vocation” I hope I’m not mouthing an old-fashioned newsroom piety but rather pointing to the root motivation that gets any of us to sit down and write or go out and report. I lit out for the online territories so long ago that I can barely remember what the pieties of the old country were.

    I agree about “owners,” but with the proviso that so much of the US media is now publicly “owned,” which means there are *no* owners, in the sense of actively managing owners. The stockholders just want to see the return on investment, which is why the companies make all the short-term decisions and have never been able to sacrifice a little of today’s cash to build a different model for the future. Or the papers are family controlled through preferred stock, and the family members only care about their dividends, and sell once that is threatened (e.g., the Bancrofts; perhaps, next, the Sulzbergers?).

    For all its pain and added responsibility, I too like the model where we ditch the old “Chinese wall” and accept that part of being a journalist today means also figuring out how the business works. “Becoming publishers” ourselves. We didn’t always do that so well at Salon, but we tried. Even today, Salon, and Huffington, Josh Marshall, various others are still at it. And the number of small experiments is heartening. The new ideas and answers just aren’t going to come from the newspaper companies. I’ve stopped waiting for that.

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