Journalism is facing a crisis.
Like video rental stores in the age of on-demand cable delivery, automated video dispensers like Redbox, and movie streaming Web sites, companies who convey the news through the medium of newspapers are finding themselves peddling a product with drastically reduced demand.
Already, Tribune Co. – a stalwart of the industry that owns the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times – has filed for bankruptcy.
However, unlike video rental stores that, without people to rent videos because of new-age delivery technologies, went out of business, newspaper companies still produce a valuable product: news.
All these companies need to do is figure out how reach the audience.
This is easier said than done, though, as other problems have arisen.
The other problems
As Todd Gitlin of openDemocracy puts it, journalism is facing many crises. The most notable additions are circulation, revenue, attention and authority.
The other, failure to penetrate the closed doors of power to make transactions more transparent, has been a problem for some time, he said.
Indeed in Matt Taibbi’s book “Spanking the Donkey,” he describes how the White House Press Corps agreed to prescreening of questions during the campaign season of 2004. Kowtowing to this kind of pressure creates a perception in readers’ minds that the Fourth Estate has lost its teeth, its relevance, its credibility. It’s hard to bring things out in the open when there’s no spontaneity.
Reduced circulation causes a loss of revenue, not because of the loss of paying subscribers – subscription rates cover the printing and delivery of the paper to them – but in advertising revenue. Fewer readers means less money ad space can command.
As for attention, people still stay informed, just not with newspapers. People receive bills and correspondence online, so why not get the news there.
Giving investigative reporting, fact finding and copy editing the ax is the first step to loosing authority. The quality of the product is directly correlated with the perception of authority.
Saving the ‘fish wrapper’
John Nichols and Robert McChesney at The Nation believe government intervention – in the form of public policy and subsidies – are the answer. This sounds a lot like the economic policies used to help stabilize the downward spiral of the auto and banking industries under the “too big to fail” doctrine that journalists so fervently write venomous editorials about.
Nichols and McChesney posit that the First Amendment not only provides for the possibility of a free and independent press, but also that the government must ensure that there is one.
But as they admit, the way the problem is being framed makes it difficult for a solution to be reached.
Government intervention may be required. However, it should be more in the form of fostering ventures into the cyberworld and regulating giant conglomerates’ ownership of outlets – not easing financial burdens of printing.
Part of the problem is that smaller papers – like The Gainesville Sun – are owned by a larger conglomerate – in this case The New York Times Co.
With the parent publication in somewhat of a dire financial straight, the smaller paper is forced to cut back and forward residual profit away from the community it’s supposed to be serving rather than reinvesting and improving the product.
Sounds like something the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission could delve into rather than simply handing out subsidies.
But, even that wouldn’t fix the problem.
How to do it
Embrace the new medium; view the Internet as an advantage, not an adversary.
The Internet provides many tools that make journalists jobs easier. Fact checking is easier online. Sending material from the field to the newsroom is easier online. Online content is cheaper to produce than print, and will ultimately be how the majority gets the news in the future.
That isn’t to say avoid the print stuff, but try and integrate.
Use Twitter to connect with people and discover tips. Facebook is good, too. Millions of college students can’t be wrong.
Employ RSS feeds to disiminate information quickly to readers. Recognize that many people will use an RSS hub – such as Google Reader – to collect and organize various news sites.
In days gone by, papers competed for readers’ (almost) exclusive attention, but this isn’t so anymore.
The Palm Beach Post, the Sun Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale and The Miami Herald once furiously competed for readers, now they share material. Albeit this is mostly a cost-cutting move in the print world, it’s commonplace in the digital one through linking.
Readers won’t be loyal to one news site at the exclusion of others. Acknowledge this and cultivate links when curating the news. Allow people to leave your site, knowing they’ll probably be back later. Make digging deeper more convenient by linking to sources rather than requiring the reader to search themselves.
To a point, that is. There are still some ethics involved in promoting off-site material and user-generated content and linking simply for linking’s sake isn’t a great idea.
But promote citizen journalism and the expression of ideas by fostering debate in an open marketplace.
Use the Internet in fact checking to strengthen the accuracy and supporting details in stories and allowing for quick corrections when an error occurs.
No reporter is infallible, but there are plenty of Daniel Lippmans out there who would help identify flaws if only there were an easier and quicker way.
Via the Internet, not only can readers get news, but they can identify mistakes easier, notify the news agency quicker, and the news agency can make corrections faster.
By being open to change, maybe journalism can switch from “grabbing its ankles,” as Taibbi said, and begin the not-so-far journey from ankle to bootstrap to begin pulling up.