Abandon Old Strategies to Survive in a New Era

William Gibson, the cyberpunk author, famously said the future is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed. True enough.

But the past is still with us as well, unevenly distributed. It’s worth keeping this in mind when we are tempted to conclude that we are approaching the End of Journalism As We Know It, or at least the end of newspapers, which in the minds of many (mostly newspaper writers) amounts to the same thing.

The year 2009 has been an ugly and painful time for newspaper journalists. We have seen a series of newspaper shutdowns including large dailies (Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer) and small (Kansas City Kansan, Tucson Citizen, Ann Arbor News). Some surviving newspapers have dropped some unprofitable days from their production schedule. The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press offer delivery only three days a week.

Thousands of journalists have been thrown out of work as newspapers desperately try to trim costs. The once-mighty Tribune Company is in bankruptcy. So are the Chicago Sun-Times, the Journal Register Company, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Others teeter on the brink.

From these and other data points, a hyperbolic narrative has been constructed: Newspapers are dying like the dinosaurs, the business model of professional journalism is hopelessly broken, and the republic itself is threatened by a vast wave of ignorance and blogging, which are somehow closely related.

Closely after that come desperate calls for special tax breaks and other government subsidies, and even laws criminalizing Web links and citations. Action is demanded against parasitic aggregators and digital vampires that are stealing readers and advertising from the true guardians of the People’s Right to Know.

It is craziness.

Banks are closing and auto dealers are going bankrupt, yet no one suggests we are facing the end of banking or that we’ll all quit driving.

In examining the future of journalism, it seems that many journalists lose their ability or inclination to check facts. Here are a few. The vast majority of America’s some 1,400 daily newspapers are still quite profitable (although not turning the eye-popping 40 percent margins some posted just a couple of years ago). Their websites are making money, and while the numbers are small in comparison with print revenues, they’re actually reasonably in line with the size of the loyal, repeat-user audience those sites have attracted.

And here’s the big one: The greatest challenge to newspapers comes not from Google News but from the same bad financial bets that are common to thousands of other troubled businesses.

This is not to suggest that Clay Shirky is wrong when he talks about an upheaval. He is quite right.

Technology is working deep changes in the way people discover, discuss and come to understand public events. Social processing of this information is moving from the family room and the dinner table onto networks. Information power is shifting from centers and institutions to edges and individuals. Anyone can be a publisher and maybe even a journalist at that moment when Flight 1549 crash lands into the Hudson River. Discovery moves from the newsstand to Twitter. Random-access linking disintegrates the old products. News sources bypass the old channels. Publics coalesce around experts rather than conveyors of expertise.

To the old order, all of this is chaos: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

In the context of such change, a journalist or a media executive who persists in operating as if we’re still living in the 20th century is guilty of failure to meet his or her moral and financial obligations to the public and to investors.

Yet that is exactly what all too many were doing, for far too long.

In other businesses, obsolescence is more easily identified and abandoned. Thrift-shop shelves are laden with abandoned 8-track tapes and dot-matrix printers, and no one would expect a profitable future in making such goods today.

Newspapers, however, continue to produce a product with the same general shape and the same general set of ingredients as a decade or even a generation ago.

Long after online stockbroker services rendered newspaper financial tables a ludicrous waste of paper and ink, many newspapers continued to cling to that expensive and meaningless tradition. Banner headlines about world events can be found on the front pages of many newspapers a day after that news was delivered to anyone who cares through the Internet and the 24-hour cable news channels.

While newspapers were quick to move onto the Internet, few grasped the implications and the opportunities provided by new technology.

It’s just another delivery channel, many said (imagining themselves to be enlightened), and we’ll give people the news in any medium they want. But it was the same old product, produced on the same old, stale schedule.

Newspapers could have invented search, directories and social networking. Few even tried. The resources that such projects would have required went instead to bigger corporate headquarters, color printing presses, and acquisitions of other media companies. Instead of investing in the future, media companies acquired more of the past, borrowing heavily to do so.

So we are left with today’s crisis.

A crisis, as economist Paul Romer has said, is a terrible thing to waste. This crisis has awakened those who were dozing in newsrooms and corner offices. Angry and confused, they are blaming everything and everybody in sight.

But this will pass. At some point, most will begin to take seriously the big, important, but slow-moving changes that Shirky describes and ask the right question: With these changes, how can we best create unique value?

There will be more than one answer to that question. Finding those answers will be a messy process involving failure and, for many, great personal pain. For the thousands of journalists, press operators, delivery drivers, and others whose lives will be turned upside down, it will provide no comfort to point out that the past is still with us, just unevenly distributed.

Yet many newspapers, which in many ways belong to that past, will be with us for some time. We still have horses, after all. In fact, there are more horses in the United States today than in Abraham Lincoln’s time, but we generally don’t ride them to work or have them pull our plows and wagons. What does that mean for newspaper journalism?

How long and how well newspapers and professional journalists persist in our future will be determined in part by how well they identify new ways to play socially valuable roles. As journalists, we must adapt to a world where we share information power with activists, businesses, and the people formerly known as the audience. Demands that the government protect us from change only distract us from pursuit of that future, which is already here.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Not an Upgrade — an Upheaval by Clay Shirky

    In his lead essay, Clay Shirky argues that the old models of journalism are broken primarily because in today’s online environment, self-created publics can parse the news however they like. The biggest failure of journalism in the online age is the failure to reproduce the front page – the news that everyone saw together and first. Today, individuals who want specialized or even personalized news can get it instantly. Readership has become impossible to control.

    In this massive upheaval, one thing that may be at risk is the provision of “serious” journalism – news stories about the city council, or about events on the other side of the globe. These stories aren’t being subsidized anymore, as they had been in the past, by getting bundled in with coupons and stories about sports. To provide serious journalism, new forms of patronage may be necessary, and Shirky’s essay concludes with a brief look at some models that may work. Yet no upheaval of this magnitude is really predictable, and the future will probably surprise us all.

Response Essays

  • Some Patterns in the Chaos by Philip Meyer

    In his response essay, Philip Meyer argues that while newspapers may be in financial trouble, journalism is on the move. In particular, citizen journalism, done by individuals who may have other careers or life paths outside of full-time journalism, is a key trend for the future. Certification for these journalists – whether through reputation metrics or through a formal certification process – will become increasingly important. Evidence-based journalism, specialty niche journalism, and journalism done through philanthropic foundations are some of the other key trends that are accompanying the decline of the generalist newspapers that dominated the twentieth century. Evidence-based journalism is more open to ordinary citizens, who may not have the contacts of traditional newspaper reporters. Niche journalism had a hard time finding an outlet in the old days. And, although the prospect may be unsettling, philanthropy is increasingly an important source of funding for these projects.

  • The Public May Need to Subsidize Itself by Paul Starr

    Paul Starr agrees with much of Clay Shirky’s lead essay, but he is not optimistic about the power of the public to self-organize. He argues that law, politics, and the unequal fortunes of people in society will all influence the process, and that this means that if we want responsible public-service journalism, we will likely have to subsidize it in a viewpoint- and platform-neutral manner, perhaps with tax exemptions.

The Conversation