Saturday, January 13, 2007

Another take on saving journalism

People find their own way to Romenesko links but I thought this piece by John Nichols in the Nation offered some of the clearest analysis I've seen of threats to journalism by our industry's ownership and financial struggles.

Nichols discusses many familiar trends and ideas with an eye on journalism's role in democracy. He also notes the drain in the number of journalists actually reporting news in this country. I found myself nodding my head in reading this piece; as Nichols notes, journalism exists because people want it, and its value lies in gathering and disseminating credible information. Newspapers have a foundation of credibility that gives us an enviable base for the future, but as Nichols writes, the state of the industry separates to some degree the question of the future of journalism from the question of the future of newspapers. (My view is it's our game to lose). He writes:

"No matter what the fate of newspapers, developing new models for ownership of institutions that gather, analyze, comment upon and then distribute the news--be they newspapers, television stations, radio stations, websites or whatever the product of the next great technological leap--is essential to making sure that journalism survives and thrives.

"Much of the current media landscape would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago. Much of what will be is equally unimaginable. What is necessary now is a determination to insure that the media of the future deliver not merely for owners but for workers, news consumers and democracy. Perhaps newspapers really can survive in a form familiar to those of us who cherish them. But even if that is not to be, they must survive in a form that fosters a healthy transition from old media to new, and that preserves and, one hopes, improves journalism. The transition need not be tidy. It should embody the experimentation, adventurousness and glorious failures that our current crop of risk-averse publishers have shunned."


  1. It's impossible to argue with Nichols' conclusion -- that journalism is more important than the medium or the ownership that produces it. But I fear his failure to address the basic reality behind The Present Troubles leaves his overall argument somewhat barren.

    In my view, the problems don’t center on content or ownership. It’s more about the disassociation of revenue from content.

    We’re doing reasonably well in learning to migrate our journalism to new platforms; we need to do so better (and faster), but I have near 100 percent confidence in our ability to extend into a new multiplatform, multichannel world with our values and mission intact.

    The key challenge is to figure out what to do about the fact that advertisers no longer need us as much as they once did. Traditionally, our business was to aggregate audiences and then sell them to advertisers. Doing so financed our expensive pursuit of the mission.

    But advertisers increasingly can find audiences elsewhere, or even bypass the notion of audiences by plugging directly into consumers, as with company websites, eBay or Monster.

    Fortunately, the audience model still works; it just doesn’t work as well as it once did. We have lost the unique advantages (unfair advantages, to be frank) of operating as monopolies with high barriers against competition.

    Now we have to learn to behave differently. Financing newspapers or newsrooms with foundation money won’t change that. (If you think monopoly newspapers lost touch with readers, wait till you see what a non-profit newsroom does.)

    I see salvation in embracing a capitalist, audience-centered model even more closely. As Marshall Field famously said to a recalcitrant clerk, “Give the lady what she wants.”

    Don't protest that that's just a prescription for more celebrity pregnancy news or ever-more graphic hanging videos (though somebody will emerge to provide all that, God knows). If we’re truly responsive to the needs of civic life in this society, we’ll find robust, attentive audiences willing to pay, one oway or another, for what we provide.

    As Nichols rightly asserts, honest, fearless journalism is essential for self-government. And because it’s essential, it will be economic. It is for us to discover how to make that connection in new ways, replacing the eroding old ways that no longer suffice.

  2. I agree that this piece clearly spells out some central issues. Seems to me that it comes down to this: "Are journalism values still valuable?" If they are, and I happen to think they are, then we need to focus on how to connect with more readers on that basis. How did journalists reach a point where the public disassociates their purposes from those of a healthy democracy? Healthy communities? And if that association returned, would it sustain us? I'd like to find out. But first we have to revive the links that make us vital and trusted in our communities. I spoke yesterday to about a hundred residents in one of our fastest-growing areas. Most were newcomers. All of them crave a sense of community. And they want the Observer to help them find that. They are the sort of people aptly described in the book "Applebee's America." The book, which I recommend, says Americans are desperate to find and experience community. I believe newspapers can help fill that need, and in the process reassert their essential nature in the health of communities.