If there is one overriding debate in the world of journalism, it’s whether technology and the Internet are going to doom traditional reporting or strengthen it in the long run. Putting it bluntly, is journalism’s cup half full or half empty? The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper has been the nerve center for this debate, with its reporters pushing the half empty maxim to the hilt, and journalism professor Neil Henry calling for reparations from Google.
Maybe that’s to be expected as the Chronicle is located right in the heart of the disruptive technology, in San Francisco where Craigslist has its home, and a quick jaunt down Highway 101 to Silicon Valley where Google and Yahoo live. And yet, in those same pages, reporters such as Dan Fost are chronicling the innovation brought by new media, and Dan Gillmor wrote an op-ed counterpoint to Henry titled, “Journalism Isn’t Dying, It’s Reviving.” So just within that single newspaper, the cup is half full with its popular SFGate website, while the cup is half empty as the print side makes another round of layoffs.
When I put the question to you, MediaShift readers, you largely came out on the positive side of the equation. And that includes one prominent representative of the newspaper industry, which is probably feeling the brunt of disruptive change at the moment. Beth Lawton, manager of digital media analysis at the Newspaper Association of America, said that the cup is more than half full for newspaper journalism:
Newspapers have boundless opportunity, and there has been a lot of positive development with newspaper websites and other technologies in the past several years. There’s a ton of innovation, neat projects and good thinking coming out of newspaper’s newsrooms, and there are good people working there…In addition, more people than ever before are consuming newspaper content, thanks largely to the web, and newspaper site visitors are a very attractive audience for advertisers.
Yes, change can be difficult and not so much fun. Newspaper executives need to face this changing landscape with their heads up and eyes (and brains) open — and the view that the glass is half full. It won’t be easy, and it will take some innovative thinking, internal disruption, business savvy and more. Armed with those tools, the future for the newspaper industry and journalism as a whole will be so bright we’ll all be wearing shades.
Entrepreneur Gil Zino agrees with Lawton about all the possibilities digital technology brings to journalism:
For journalists that embrace the new mediums, the cup is overflowing. Global distribution AND hyperlocal content subscriptions via RSS. Multimedia and links and living conversations. Of course on the other side of the table is the traditional newspaper owner/publisher staring into a much emptier cup. She needs to move across the table…quickly. But some will and they will thrive.
Erin Teeling at the Bivings Group was intrigued by the tete-a-tete in the SF Chronicle’s op-ed page, and went through each editorial to pick out the better points. But in her final analysis, she says that Henry makes some good points but goes too far as the doomsayer.
“I think that the ‘old media’ needs to relax a little, stop panicking, and learn from industry leaders,” she writes. “Instead of blaming competitors, newspapers need to learn lessons and keep up with technology. No one should be asking to get rid of newspapers, their websites, or professional journalists. But everyone should be asking our favorite publications to upgrade and provide consumers with the best services possible.”
Full and Empty
Not everyone saw the future in stark black-and-white terms. Bryan Murley at Innovation in College Media has a more subtle take on the issue:
The real answer is ‘both.’ As Dickens wrote, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ News media are going to be in for a lot of pain over the next few years — there’s no question about that. Much of it is of their own making, as leaders in news media companies have for too long been content to maintain high profit margins and resist investing in research and development. That tide seems to have turned at least a little.
And yet, Murley does lean toward the “cup half full” crowd:
I remain optimistic, however, that journalism will survive the shakeout that’s going to take place over the short term. There are too many bright minds who are working to innovate in the field for great journalism to die off. But I also think it’s a pipe dream that the companies that produce journalism are going to ever see the income they saw over the last century — especially newspapers. No matter how much online revenue grows, it will never equal print ad revenue for newspapers. And I can’t see declining readership numbers ever growing again, either. Of course, miracles sometimes do happen.
Some folks were more interested in the underlying causes for journalism’s pain. Steven Streight, a.k.a. Vaspers the Grate, thinks the problem is that newspaper sites are too cluttered in their design. “Online newspapers have to learn from blogs, Twitter, and successful information sites,” he wrote. “Instead, they just slap together an ugly ‘online version’ and think that if they build it, they will come. A myth.”
And Jim Bursch at MyMindshare believes that the problem is more about old business models. “The fundamental problem with journalism is that it is hitched to the ad-supported media business model, which is a third-party payer system,” he wrote. “Such a system is wrought with waste and innefficiency, and worst of all, it separates the interests of the producer from the interests of the consumer.” That might be true, but paid content hasn’t kept up with ad revenues online in the past couple years.
As for the notion of reparations, Jonathan Trenn believes that is preposterous:
The direct threat is not so much to ‘journalists’ or the editorial side, but to publishers and the business side. Craigslist, eBay, etc. take away revenue. Publishers get hurt, lay off staff — including journalists, and journalism suffers. And reparations? Please. The industry is in transformaton — the same can go for book selling, travel agencies, etc. In defense of the industry, changes are happening so quickly that it really is impossible to keep up.
That might be true, but it’s no excuse not to pay attention and try to evolve, if the old line media companies want to make a successful transition. Hopefully more people from the optimistic “cup half full” side will continue to counter and perhaps drown out the increasingly desperate voices from the pessimistic “cup half empty” side.
What do you think? Does journalism have a bright future in the Digital Age, a darker future with less hard-nosed reporting, or a mixed future of pain and eventual breakthroughs? Share your thoughts on this important subject in the comments below.
UPDATE: Howard Owens, director of digital publishing at Gatehouse Media, gives an interesting response to my question on his blog. He believes the glass is “one-third full,” being relatively positive about the future though also wary about the disruption to traditional journalism business models:
I’m pretty optimistic, and optimism defines how I run the business side of my life, but I’m full of empathy for the half-empty crowd, even as I bemoan their cranky-old-journalist whines. The fact is, while there are bucket loads of reasons to be optimistic, nobody has yet proven how we win…
While no newspaper [website] has won yet, I think if you could aggregate all of the winning plays in the [online] newspaper game, you would have one hell of a good news/community site, and I believe it would score big time in audience growth and revenue. To me, the game plan is there, it just hasnât been executed right. The big question is will enough of us execute it soon enough? We really don’t know how much time we have before the final buzzer. If we don’t get our act together quickly, we may find ourselves on the sidelines.
Not sure if I buy into the “final buzzer” metaphor, because there’s always an opportunity to change and adapt in the online realm. But it’s true that old line media organizations need to think hard about ways they can adapt, and do it not out of fear and loathing, but out of hope for a bright future.