The Future of Journalism

December 29th, 2008

Are newspapers about to go the way of the Pony Express, replaced by the faster, wider, longer reach of the Internet? Is blogging the future of journalism? I’ve been thinking about this a lot since retiring from a newspaper career and exploring the Internet in search of new possibilities for publishing my writing.

Modern American newspapers have lots of drawbacks. Few of them publish poetry, for instance, despite a lively history of enticing readers with poems by famous, local or justly whimsical poets. Decades ago, several of my poems were in major newspapers. These days, the Internet is a more realistic way of reaching poetry readers, although it doesn’t have the same heft as having a poem in the Chicago Sun-Times or New York Times.

Many newspapers are dropping or greatly reducing in-depth investigative or explanatory reporting. The latest trend at daily newspapers is to skip covering public meetings, given the downsizing of reporting staffs. The emphasis is on airplane and traffic accidents captured in dramatic photos and features about people doing something heartbreaking—such as losing their job—that busy readers hopefully will slow down enough to glance at, and get hooked by an adjacent advertisement.

“We need eye candy to hook readers’ eyes on the page,” an editor at a newspaper where I worked said at a staff meeting some years ago. This is nothing new. Newspaper editors since the days of “yellow journalism” have tried every gimmick they could think of to attract and retain readers—from raucous comics to outrageous political cartoons, juicy gossip columns to pinup photos of sexy gals. Yet 21st century Americans continue migrating to the Internet, which offers more of all of these attractions.

The question is whether blogs can provide the wide variety of news that newspapers traditionally delivered amid, and as a major part of, their eye candy. The Huffington Post and several other online news and commentary web sites are betting they can, with the idea of attracting sufficient advertising to pay staff. Online ad income so far is a backyard woodlot compared to the shrinking forest of newspaper ads.

The problem I foresee is that small, start-up blogs run by one person or a handful of people can’t sustain themselves. It takes a lot of effort to report news and write timely commentary. I helped a friend some years ago run an online magazine. The writers and editors volunteered their time, covering whatever personally interested them. Managing volunteers is quite different from issuing assignments to paid employees. After awhile, the web-magazine publisher got tired of trying to push volunteers to squeeze more time from their day jobs to compete week after week with print and online operations with paid staffs. He decided to go back to being a freelance journalist, writing for whatever publication he could sell on a story.

Yet, the idea that anybody with grit and gumption can start up a news and commentary operation is the history of American journalism. The future, I feel, is a fascinating work in progress.

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2 Responses to “The Future of Journalism”

  1. Kevin |

    Interesting post, Jan. I personally don’t believe that blogs are conducive to presenting hard news, for the reasons you lay out as well as others. Seems to me that presenting commentary is why blogs have thrived and I expect that trend to continue.

    Political blogs are, in my estimation, really nothing more than post-modern versions of the pamphleteers who churned out commentary and opinion pamphlets from printing presses in cellars and barns in the period leading up to the Revolutionary War. If one had an opinion, a printing press (or access to one) and the desire to disseminate that opinion… then one was in business. Most political blogs are virtually identical to that.

    From this point of view political blogs aren’t competition for traditional media. After all, newspapers existed and were consumed concurrent with the more hyperbolic political pamphlets 240 years ago. The more things change the more they stay the same.

    If I’m correct about this then print newspapers won’t die, they’ll just have to reinvent themselves within the new paradigm.

    It’s a topic that has interested me for a while now. Unfortunately, I think we’re in the middle of a somewhat slow motion paradigm shift and what’s happening won’t be entirely clear until after the fact when we can look back on it more objectively. Life inside a bubble is always hazy at best.

  2. Tom |

    “Slow motion paradigm shift” is an apt phrase. It’s going to be interesting to see how all this plays out.

    I think you’re both on the right track. Small blogs aren’t going to be serious players in the news business–except in a few rare cases, like we’ve seen in the past, where some blogger breaks a big story. But I think the really big ones and the sites run by major media outlets are going to become more and more important.

    Seems to me that reading the news on dead trees is slowly going away, and why shouldn’t it? Most of the world, in even the most remote places, is wired to some extent, and that’s where people are going. I think the major media organizations realize this and will keep going in that direction, if only because financial reality forces them to.

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