‘Cup Is Overflowing’ for Future of Journalism

    by Mark Glaser
    June 19, 2007

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    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.

    (You can read Lawton’s long-form take on this question on the Digital Edge blog here. You can also continue the newspaper-related discussion at the NAA’s Digital Media Federation site.)

    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 hasn’t 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.

    Tagged: comments journalism newspapers
    • Mark, journalism has a great future. Local content producers have brand value and an authority in their local communities that bloggers and aggragators dream of. They just have to adapt to the new ways people like to interact with journalism content. Those who change slowly will certainly bleed the most.

    • I think the bar for being a good journalist is going up, even as the bar for being a journalist is going down.

      Is a journalist a reporter who breaks news? Well, news is becoming commodity.

      Is a journalist an analyst who reflects on news? Well, perhaps, there are more qualified experts on each topic than a journalist who doesn’t have much specialization.

      Those who do, ofcourse, are the good journalists, and they will always be sought after. It is mediocrity that will suffer, and suffer badly.

    • jordon

      I see new media as simply an improved platform for delivering the same old content. I wish old media outlets wouldn’t view new media as an inherent threat. Web 2.0 just allows you to display and distribute your content in a different way. The only radical shift is found on the business end, not the journalism end.

      I haven’t yet gotten a conclusive answer that newspaper layoffs are absolutely necessary–i.e. newspapers that do so are bankrupt–or if it’s just because media outlets are publicly traded and therefore must post huge profits every year. I don’t have a lot of sympathy if the latter case is true. It’s unethical–and bad business–to try to profit off an industry that’s theoretically operating in the public interest. All that money should be reinvested in the company–or held in a trust in anticipation of the bad times–and not paid out to shareholders.

    • jhm

      I have a different, and probably more cynical, take on the “best and worst” thesis. I see the quality of journalism being greatly enhanced by the increased participation facilitated by new technology. At the same time, I see this higher quality journalism being less profitable, and as a result, being less widely disseminated. I’m not at al convinced that this is a new problem, however, and the public’s desire to know should win in the end, even if it takes a series of catastrophes to bring this point home.

    • The bad news for “journalism” (seems so broad as to be pointless) is that, arguably, there is a vast over-supply of it.

      Are people clamoring for more “news”? No. Do people value the news they are getting? No — it is regularly demonstrated that people have no desire to pay for journalism (as it currently exists and is offered to them).

      The demand that supports journalism is the demand for advertising by marketers, not the demand of people for news. And that demand either exceeds people’s demand for news, or that demand is not aligned with people’s demand for news. I suspect the former.

      Professional journalists are sitting on a glut, or a bubble that is very sensitive. So sensitive that an inelegant and accidental phenomenon such as Craigslist can easily deflate it and throw an industry into a tizzy.

      Expect it to continue — it’s called a market correction.

    • My company, Real Girls Media, doesn’t believe in the “EITHER/OR” problem (i.e. old media versus new media, professionals versus bloggers). Through our first website, http://www.divinecaroline.com, we leveled the playing field by allowing everyone (authors, bloggers, journalists, everyday women) to publish within the same interactive platform. It doesn’t compete with or replace what they’ve done in the past, instead it enhances it.

    • The big question seems to me: how are web users consuming news? local with national/global? along with other information?

      Do web users want print-media type narrative, long paragraphs, or do they want web scan/skim content with bullet points and marching orders?

      Web users are very different from print readers, and newspapers need to hurry up and realize this, cater to the new realities of online readership.

      Print journalism has solved many of the advertorial vs. editorial puzzles that are menacing (or being discussed at) TechCrunch, FM Publishing, ValleyWag, Scobleizer, and TechMeme.

      Key issues include:

      * journalistic integrity

      * sponsored content, PayPerPost spam, and compensated opinion (“blog whoring”)

      * user generated content and comment moderation

      * crowdsourcing & citizen journalism aka “super commenters” (ala Peoria Pundit)

      * reader comments within the thread of the article itself, and possibly discussion forums, if comments escalate in quantity and certain issues warrant a forum

      * links to sources and making keywords, especially company names, hyperlinks

    • I like Rebecca’s comment above.

      Online journalism must morph into a nice blend of trained journalists and reader contributions, via comments and original news submissions, including photos, audio, and video material.

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