Journalism Will Survive the Death of Its Institutions

    by Lisa Williams
    April 15, 2008

    Massive layoffs with no end in sight. Wave after wave of acquisitions and mergers fueled by the excesses of artificially cheap capital. Widespread fear that an entire industry and its contributions will stall or simply stop.

    DEC stock certificate: FAILThis describes the news industry today, but it also described the high tech industry in the late eighties and early nineties. Digital Equipment Corporation laid off people by the tens of thousands; Data General and Apollo Computer sank beneath the waves; Prime Computer fought off a hostile take-over attempt by corporate raiders only to die of its wounds; there was no Sam Zell to step in for Prime. IBM and Hewlett Packard survived, but never regained their roles as central innovators in their industry.

    I am not a journalist. Today, I run a site that others often call an example of “citizen journalism,” but I am a high-tech person from a family of high-tech people. My parents met over a minicomputer; my marriage comes with free lifetime technical support; our kids will know their emacs from their vi. I haven’t gone anywhere, but your profession, journalism, has drifted steadily closer to mine. What’s happening to you and yours now – layoffs, being out of work, thinking about taking up teaching, wondering if your kids should follow in your footsteps – happened to me and mine a few decades ago, and it made for a few miserable Thanksgiving dinners paid for with unemployment checks and spent with laid-off aunts, uncles, and cousins.


    When our central institutions blew up, people asked many of the same questions I hear among journalists today. Without these institutions, who will fund the mission? How will we attract the talent we need to make the transition? Just as journalism without newspapers seems inconceivable now, it seemed inconceivable to many then that innovation could continue without the might, resources, and sheer heft of the companies that formed the core of the high tech industry. Who would write the next operating system? Create the next generation of microprocessors? Today, journalists ask how democracy will fare in a country without a robust free press. Then, technologists asked how the United States could retain its leadership position without big, powerful computing companies.

    There’s no underestimating the pain of the tech implosion: people who got laid off expected to be out of work for a year or more; people lost their houses, got divorced, left the industry entirely; lucky ones took early retirement packages. To make matters worse, many of them had deep loyalties to the companies they worked for and spoke with pride of the “HP way,” the “IBM way.” The breakdown also wasn’t sudden: from beginning to end the dismantling took nearly a decade.

    We decamped from the Titanic and dispersed in every direction in a fleet of kayaks: small, self-propelled, and iceberg-proof. We learned to be loyal to our friends and to the ideas and ideals that we had genuine passion for: because it was our friends who were going to pull us out of the cold water, and our ideas that would get us going again after a setback.


    What we discovered, of course, was that innovation survived the death of its institutions. Only ten years after DEC founder and CEO Ken Olsen stepped down amid layoffs, Google had its IPO. If you are reading these words on the Web, both of us are the beneficiaries of LAMP, the “web stack” that serves the vast majority of websites to browsers across the world. An acronym for its components – Linux, Apache (a web server), MySQL (database), and PHP (scripting language) – each started as the contribution of an individual and is maintained by a distributed cast of thousands. The central innovations of the web today don’t emerge from the labs of giants but from the dorm rooms of kids. And on them is built a big and varied industry with, yes, actual paychecks.

    Do not mistake this message as a prediction that the news industry’s current misery is mere stage-setting for a glorious resurgence. It isn’t.

    As the web, software, and news become a single industry, the stability and security we knew when our founding institutions were big and strong are gone and will never return. Gone with them are the sclerotic bureaucracy. Gone with them is the feeling of giving up changing anything because you can’t even figure out how many people to ask for permission. All of these and more are as dead as IBM’s dress code of blue blazer, red tie, white shirt.

    Good riddance!

    in 15 years everyone will assume Google and the NY Times are part of the same industryOn the decks of a career Titanic, you don’t have much choice but to sit back and let others ensure your safety and set your course. With a career in a kayak, you can and must set your own direction and learn the skills to keep yourself safe. You’ll discover what thousands upon thousands of tech workers discovered: you can do great work outside of an institutional, big-company context, and you can make a living doing so. High tech companies didn’t own innovation; the innovators did. News organizations don’t own journalism: journalists do.

    [This is an expanded and illustrated version of an essay that originally appeared in Nieman Reports. Up Next: Ten Things Journalists Should Know Now That Their Industry Is a High Tech Industry.]

    Tagged: business downturn future of journalism institutions journalism layoffs newspapers technology

    5 responses to “Journalism Will Survive the Death of Its Institutions”

    1. Annette Schulte says:

      Well-articulated comparison, Lisa. Nice job of being a calm, reasonable voice among all the Chicken Littles. You’re right; it won’t be the same, but I agree that those journalists who remain calm and chart a new course will make it.

    2. Gail Robinson says:

      This raises a lot of interesting and provocative points.

      As someone with a journalism background, it seems to me the problem with the huge changes in journalism is not the demise of a print product. That has been a long evolving process, going back to the days when people could listen to a baseball game or Fireside chat directly on the radio rather than being restricted to a newspaper’s coverage of it. Television accelerated that process and now the Internet has taken it far further than most of us imagined.

      The important thing is that quality journalism be available — in some format. And in the current climate no one has figured out how to pay for it, in print or on line.

      It’s fine to bemoan sclerotic bureaucracies and the gatekeepers at the nation’s media. Most of them richly deserve the criticism.

      But, however much we applaud feisty independent bloggers, quality journalism is hard work, takes skills and costs money. In the current economic climate for media, there is already too little of that going on. Papers shut foreign bureaus, reduce coverage of obscure but important government agencies and rely on second hand accounts. The volunteer bloggers are simply not picking up the slack — and are not going to.

      This is a real challenge particularly for those of us who believe that serious journalism is essential is we are not going to have an even worse government than we do today.

    3. Hi, Gail, Annette:

      First a response to Annette: You’re right, keeping a calm head is vital — and it’s also really hard when the issue gets personal, as it inevitably does when layoffs happen. But thei, problems of individual journalists are quite different from those of journalistic institutions. The good news is that it’s a lot easier to save individual journalists than it is to save their industry as it is currently structured.

      Hi, Gail:

      Your concern that democracy will falter if news organizations suffer more cuts (whether at newspapers, TV, radio companies) was exactly what I was thinking of when I wrote this piece. During the tech implosion, there were plenty of people saying that if our tech institutions didn’t survive, that the US would not maintain its leadership position in tech. Given the times, people generally said that Japan would outstrip us and become the world’s major technological power. This didn’t actually happen with the tech industry, but past performance is not a predictor of future performance.

      The crackup is going to be very, very ugly and things ARE going to get worse (for journalists and news organizations) before they get better. As the practice of journalism rebounds from this, my belief is that it will reorganize in smaller organizations more deeply devoted to local areas or topical coverage — and that they’ll be more likely to be able to make a profit because they don’t suffer from what we in the technology industry call “legacy problems.”

      Legacy problems occur when a company has success in one product area and then takes on an ongoing responsibility for the maintenance of that product, even in the face of declining profits.

      Newer organizations (think ProPublica, TPM, etc.) don’t have a lot of the same expenses that traditional news organizations do. I’ll use a print example: they don’t have to buy sidewalk newspaper boxes or make business arrangements to get them full, for example.

      Many, many of the newer, smaller organizations will fail, too. Being new and small is not a guarantee of success. What happened in the tech industry is that we had huge numbers of startups. Only a fraction “make it,” but while they’re operational, they make a contribution — by keeping people employed and producing something useful. Those that do make it keep doing so, and some tiny fraction make it really big and change the way people live.

      Oh, and this is a good edit for me: the companies I was trying to say were sclerotic were the minicomputer and mainframe companies of the late 80’s and early 90’s — not newspapers. I try to stay away from criticizing news organizations directly out of a desire for intellectual modesty; I don’t feel I have the right or the depth of experience to criticize, say, what Sam Zell does with Tribune Co.

      Gail, I actually think that you yourself are a good example for people in newsrooms that are facing layoffs. You’re doing serious work — but you’re using a new funding mechanism for it. I don’t have a complete picture of all the things you’re currently working on, but my guess is that you have taken on the challenge of being captain of your own ship — coming up with your own ideas, finding ways to fund them, and then doing a lot of the operational work (hiring people to work with, keeping the books you need to, etc) on your own. That’s an entrepreneurial lifestyle, right there :)

      Thanks for the input, both of you!

    4. Doktor says:

      blablabla. This article succeedes only in describing a certain trend (which my 90 year old grandfather who has no interest in it could have spoted 20 years ago) Otherwise it is completely ignorant to what journalism is as a business and a form of expression. How it works and how it functions. Same with photography, same with movies – everybodys a potographer, journalist and videographer these days – so what?

      I’m not in favour of the way big news organizations operate today. I’m actually a fan of the web new technologoy and I am doing self publishing on my own. But journalism and news need big organizations period. If at all the change which here is envisioned it will take decades if not 50-100 years.

    5. Doktor,

      The thing is that everybody is a photographer, journalist and videographer…and I would add an author and a designer. But very few are really good at it.

      Consider that while there are a gezillion blogs, the average blog averages 1.3 readers.. Also everyone has a book to write, but very few the books get readers.

      My take is that one dimension of what’s going on is that once the technical barriers are lowered so that every one can play, the real differentiator is skill, talent,experience and the ability to work pretty hard.

      Good news for the talented and hard working. For everyone else, there are lots of other ways to make a living. For the business guys, that’s a different story.

      The good news that the pool of potential talent is much larger than ever before. The bad news is until we innovate the best ways to make money, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

      You say, “If at all the change which here is envisioned it will take decades if not 50-100 years.” Consider that Google is about 10 years old.

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