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Opening Arguments

Shape of things to come

How depressing might your average newspaper journalist find this piece? Here's a clue: It's titled "When Losers Write History," which is adapted from a chapter in the book, "Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done To Fix It."

Imagine for a moment that the hurly-burly history of American retail was chronicled not by reporters and academics but by life-long employees of A&P, a largely forgotten supermarket chain that enjoyed a 75 percent market share as recently as the 1950s. How do you suppose an A&P Organization Man might portray the rise of discount super-retailer Wal-Mart, or organic foods-popularizer Whole Foods, let alone such newfangled Internet ventures as Peapod.com? Life looks a hell of a lot different from the perspective of a dinosaur slowly leaking power than it does to a fickle consumer happily gobbling up innovation wherever it shoots up.

That is largely where we find ourselves in the journalism conversation of 2012, with a dreary roll call of depressive statistics invariably from the behemoth’s point of view: newspaper job losses, ad-spending cutbacks, shuttered bureaus, plummeting stock prices, major-media bankruptcies. Never has there been more journalism produced or consumed, never has it been easier to find or create or curate news items, and yet this moment is being portrayed by self-interested insiders as a tale of decline and despair.

It is no insult to the hard work and good faith of either newspaper reporters or media-beat writers (and I’ve been both) to acknowledge that their conflict of interest in this story far exceeds that of, say, academic researchers who occasionally take corporate money, or politicians who pocket campaign donations from entities they help regulate, to name two perennial targets of newspaper editorial boards. We should not expect anything like impartial analysis from people whose very livelihoods—and those of their close friends—are directly threatened by their subject matter.

A few weeks ago, I was on a panel that interviwed about a dozen area high school students for the journalism scholarship we award each year. I am pleased to report that a great number of them plan to go on to journalism school and don't seem perturbed by all the turmoil in the industry. Indeed, they're delighted by the fact that no one knows quite what will happen in the next few years.

The author is right. Those who are spreading the doom and gloom are the ones who are being affected. If you think journalism is in trouble these days, it's only because you have a very narrow view of what journalism is. I've seen a lot of changes in my career, from the computerization of the design and layout process to the digitization of the finished product. But those have just been changes in the speed and ease with which we can gather and deliver the news. "News" is still what it always was and always will be, no matter how many changes come tomorrow. People always want to know what's happening, and some people are always drawn to the calling of finding out and telling.

I think too much has been made of the empowering of the individual in the digital age. Don't misunderstand -- it is a wonderful thing that people can use their Web presence to instanntly share something with the world without the help of million-dollar infrastructure or a team of editors. But that only goes so far. In fact, it adds so much to the wealth of information that the need for good gatekeepers to sort through and discard the chaff from the wheat.

It's just that we don't know quite how the model will evolve, and who will pay for it how and who will discover how to make money at it. But what an exciting time it's going to be as we watch that evolve -- and it will. Some people still talk about the Information Superhighway as if it's the end of the evolution. But it certainly isn't. For the last decade or so, we've only seen the train of the information revolution. Now, we beginning to see the emergence of the car. Just wait till the planes and jetpacks get here. If I were in high school today, I think I'd be one of those thinking about journalism school and delighted at the prospect of the wonders to come.


Harl Delos
Mon, 04/09/2012 - 12:39pm

Leo, you're not thinking clearly, perhaps because it's Monday.  The train has been visible for a LONG time. 

It was visible to the folks at the morning newspaper when "William Kunkle Journal Gazette" started doing electronic jounalism.  It was visible to the folks at the afternoon newspaper when "Wayne's Great Lady" started doing electronic journalism.  And it was visible to the baby boomers when the underground newspapers of the 1960s started doing citizen journalism  Toss in Moon Publishing, the Macedonian Tribune, Frost, Canoe, Bowhunter, and Die Blatt, and the broth just gets a little more flavorful.

Leo Morris
Mon, 04/09/2012 - 3:41pm

Sorry, I think of everything pre-Internet as stagecoach days. Notice that the Web is threatening the audience and advertising of other electronic media as well as us print dinosaurs.

Mon, 04/09/2012 - 4:10pm

Leo, lots of changes on the horizon.... lots of dinosaurs....loss of print journalism, landline telephones, honest democrats.

Harl Delos
Tue, 04/10/2012 - 12:32am

Leo: Notice that the Web is threatening the audience and advertising of other electronic media as well as us print dinosaurs.

I'm not so sure the web is as much a threat.  It's a threat to the cable companies that you can watch online, but it's easier to sit there are the end of a long tiring day and let the boob tube - sorry, the boob flat panel - wash over you than to click, click, click.  It doesn't make any difference to CBS whether you watch Letterman on WANE or you watch it online. Eventually, I suspect local stations will drop their network affiliation and broadcast local events, such as high school sports instead.

I already have Miro which scours the internet foe my favorite radio shows, and it wouldn't be hard to do the same with TV shows; all I need is to figure how to view the shows on my TV (and that doesn't strike me as difficult.)

If I owned a daily paper, I'd be struggling to turn it into a local internet TV station, producing a local 30-minute news program that gets updated every 2-3 hours, and if I had a broadcast TV license, I'd be doing the same thing, and I'd be putting obits and letters-to-the-editor on my website.  Local businesses need advertising, and there won't be 17 highly successful companies in the Fort Wayne market.