The Digital Journalist
Change is Inevitable

by Ron Steinman

July 2006

This is about process, not controversy. Controversy has a way of becoming ugly, often before it works itself out, or not. Controversy hangs around and nibbles at our heels. It lingers, often too long. Sometimes it even whets our appetite for more because there are those who thrive on its essence.

Everyone has his or her eyes on the controversy over the right to publish stirred up by The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal in articles they published about the United States seeking information on terrorists through the money transfer system used by worldwide banking. Rightfully, many are writing about that story and many are saying everything already said. With so much written, I have nothing new to add. While most in the media, and out, are dealing with the controversy surrounding newspapers and their right to publish, I plan to concentrate on process.

Process, that is method, course of action, and practice, either works or not depending on its strength. Process allows us to proceed to the next stage. This is, by the way, not about Dan Rather. Sadly, he is yesterday's news. It shows how quickly we forget. After more than 50 years in the business, Mr. Rather is not only old news; a far bigger story overtook him, upstaged him, if you will, for another conflict between this current White House and the press which it abhors.

On to process. In the short space of a few days in June, there were significant reports about coming changes in the news business. Some were predictable. Others pointed to a new future, especially for newspapers. Some were even revolutionary. Some of these would affect us immediately. I want to remind you of a few before they disappear down the rabbit hole of lost material. A few you know of and others may surprise, but they affect us all, whether professionals or not.

For some reason, news about newspapers gets very little space in newspapers themselves, and none ever on TV. As much as we criticize what is in print, we cannot live without it and deny its importance or power. What happens inside a news organization that speaks to change finds its way, though seemingly reluctantly, into the information mainstream, where it should be, especially in this era of desired transparency.

Though the advocates of the new would prefer to see the old die instead of having it adjust to innovative technologies and habits, they are in for a shock. What is old will not easily go away. Print is in a period of adjustment instead of demise. It is increasingly difficult to stamp out the mainstream media — MSM -- just to make way for the new. Movies did not kill radio or theater. Radio did not kill newspapers or magazines. Television did not kill radio. Online will not kill newspapers or anything else in print. On it goes. Print, even if digital -- as it is online -- will persevere. Each medium goes through a period of adjustment. Though the form may be different, the will to survive in the information business is powerful. Importantly, when we look back in a year or two, perhaps we will know which of these changes survived. Just as online today is an adjunct of mainstream media, perhaps in the future MSM will be an adjunct to online. Be prepared for adjustments, as they will surely come.

Today when advertisers make media buys they talk about platforms. They like to distribute advertising revenues across those platforms to reach the biggest audience they can. There is the newspaper itself. There are the Web sites owned by newspapers. There are independent publications online. Online is changing our lives. It will continue to do so. Interestingly, online where space is not at a premium, and where it is not anywhere near as costly as producing a newspaper, is where a news organization can run as many pieces it wants at whatever length it chooses. There are no printing costs and that is what helps make online attractive. For papers the price of newsprint is rising. Readership is down on newspapers just is it is down for TV news. Viewers are fleeing elsewhere. Appointment viewing is a major casualty in the new information age. People of all ages apportion their time differently and reading a newspaper is increasingly lower on the list.

Classified ads, a once important source of revenue for newspapers, are dwindling because of Craig's List and other free – yes, that word again -- platforms. Many papers recently reduced their stock pages that had thousands of listings of everything traded on stock exchanges everywhere everyday. Some papers dropped them entirely. Now if people want to see how their stocks are doing, they can go online, so goes the theory. That assumes everyone has a computer, the ability and the desire to read stock tables on computer screens. It is a supposition that is not always true.

Many years ago, The New York Times, as did other newspapers, in an answer to TV Guide produced a weekly TV magazine on Sunday that listed all the programs for the week and included some stories, some ad copy and picks of the week. At the Times and other newspapers, that section is no more. Apparently, it was a waste of time, and certainly of newsprint and personnel. The Times has kept its daily TV listings, a better use of space, probably less work and a savings in newsprint and production costs.

Newspaper Web sites are changing how we read and what we read, but just as importantly, how we see - that is, how we view - advertising. Go to any news Web site and ads bombard you from every direction. This is what Internet advertisers call rich media. These are ads that use advanced technology to hook you into watching them, with compelling action on the screen. These advertisements in full color move in many ways. They dance. They shimmy, and they shake. They have audio and video, can be interactive, allow you to play a game, and seek information from you about who you are and what you may desire. Sometimes it is difficult to read a story quietly without the ads, through their cleverness, demanding your attention. In print, ads do not move. You can easily ignore them. Concentrate on the story you are reading and give the adjacent ad a cursory glance before moving to another page. It is impossible to do so online. The other day I stopped reading a story on the to watch an advertisement that featured a paper boat navigating a waterway. The boat went around and around, disappeared, then returned without an apparent destination. But I watched anyway. I do not recall what the ad was pitching, but it was fun seeing a kid's homemade toy working to get my attention away from the story.

With this in mind, the Times will start putting ads on the front of its business section, a page once immune from advertising and for the good reason that ads should not hint at influencing story presentation in the world of business -- or any world. But why not? Those advertisements will not move. They will lie there as all prints ads do. Go to the Times' Web site where there is no real front page for the business section, or any section, and ads surround every story. The Times runs ads on the front of The Metro Section on Sundays. Does it matter? I do not think so. I am sure there is a long list of newspapers struggling to stay in the black. USA Today runs ads on its front page. The Wall Street Journal is thinking of doing the same. Newspaper Web sites are rapidly changing the rules.

These Web sites run as many ads as they can. After all, we do live in a capitalistic society. Someone has to pay for news content, but before we end the reign of newspapers as the primary source of news, consider this. According to reliable sources, some 6 percent, not a large sum, of all advertising money found its way onto the Internet at the start of 2006 on every variety of Web site. That 6 percent represents a gain of almost 40 percent over last year. It means revenue for the Internet is growing very fast, but it is still small compared to where the other advertising dollars go.

Another change we now see with papers as diverse as the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and USA Today is the shrinking size of those newspapers, all in an effort to save bundles of money. The Wall Street Journal will be narrower by next year. That august paper will have more pages, but when it does it will lose about 10 percent of the space it formally devoted to news. That's not a happy circumstance. The New York Times will probably do the same in the next few years. Are smaller papers better? If they continue to report the news, size will not matter, but my gut says readers better find as many sources as possible to get their news because they will not be able to depend on their daily paper as they once did.

Do these changes herald the end for newspapers? Probably not, but change begets change and who knows what will come next. It also means that newspapers will be with us for a long time. Not yet dead, not even really dying, newspapers are evolving and becoming something different. We can be sure they will never be the same again.

By the way, for anyone who reads a newspaper like the Times or The Wall Street Journal on the subway or a bus, there will be a period of adjustment as we learn how to fold the newer, slimmer newspapers.

The Internet has as many sources for news as anyone may want. It only takes time to learn which source you trust most for its honesty and accuracy. In the good news vein there is an important story out of Boston about the Boston Globe integrating "its news-gathering operations with the Web site" in an effort to merge all its –that word again -- platforms. One editor will oversee editorial operations for online and print and will "coordinate how news and features are reported, edited and presented online and in print." The better news here is that the paper's management says there will be no layoffs. The change makes sense as long as reporting does not suffer. Because The New York Times owns the Boston Globe, I have to believe that Times executives will watch this experiment carefully to see if it works and how it foreshadows the future.

Finally, there is this last pleasant surprise. With all the pressure on journalism, and with journalism under attack as it is you might think that journalism schools are suffering from decreased enrollment. Wrong. Numbers are up at schools across the country. Good. Journalism must still mean something to the young whom I applaud, if so many are still eager to become part of this profession.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.