Let Me Count the Ways,
If Possible
June 2009

by Ron Steinman

Look at journalism today. Look hard. Though much of what is taking place is apparent, if you blink, you will miss some of what is happening. Newspapers are closing. Others are failing and will also probably close. Reporters, editors and all manner of staff are losing their jobs. Because newspapers and print in general are under siege, everyone has an opinion about the future of journalism and, to be more specific, news in print. Some say that there is too much serious thinking in the journalism community. Others say there is not nearly enough and much of it is coming too late. But it is hard thinking and needed. Some is practical. Much is academic. All is about the future of journalism. It is about the failed past and missed opportunities as well as a desire to remake journalism if it is to have a future worth preserving.

Turn in a circle and for every degree, you will find a new or different idea of how to save newspapers. It is impossible to list everything everyone says about how best to keep newspapers from falling into the waste heap. It is as if the idea of newspapers, mainstream media, if you will, is slowly approaching dementia. Living in past glory is not possible. Journalism's future is all that matters. Survival is what journalism wants, but how is open to question. On some levels, survival in the old way might be a dream. I would be deceiving any readers if I said do not despair. It is apparent, however, that we cannot continue fully with the once hallowed core of journalism, the printed page, the broadsheet and the tabloid.

Many of the ideas on how to save the newspaper business come from pundits who are searching for answers they may never find. There are so many voices it is as if the thoughts are bouncing around in an echo chamber. Free from the constraints of reality, they tend to overwhelm us with one theory after another, most of which will not work. I would call it the Babel effect. Along with the many freelance thinkers about journalism's future is a group of theorists who believe the Internet will save those who embrace its every nuance sooner than later. They say that print will die someday soon and it cannot be soon enough for them. This implies that everyone has a computer, PDA, Smartphone, or whatever, and is anxiously clicking and thumbing his or her way to find information they once found in a paper. Not so fast. It is simply not true. Everyone can have an opinion. Importantly, and at times confusingly, one opinion is as good as another.

Journalism, though, when it can, is looking to survive by a number of shifting schemes, some possible, others not. One model that is not new has us pay for the newspaper online, the way we subscribe for home delivery. Another is to solicit payments for a news site's output or its selected portions posted online. This can be limited, as special needs and desires, or full service. Thinkers talk about other pay scales. They refer to tiered charges, similar in a way to what is taking place in sports arenas and new baseball stadiums with the better seats costing more money than the back rows. Each part of the Web site will have a different price and its own set of rules. It may work for some, but I am leery of that because the youth of America, the future consumers of news as we once knew it, do not want to pay for anything, especially when they had been getting everything free online. This sense of entitlement by the young may be the biggest hindrance to journalism surviving in the coming world of 3.0, the next path on the Internet. Some in this generation are so arrogant they believe they can create their own news sites through links they seek and use. But without news coming from somewhere else, all those links are useless. News and information does not come out of thin air.

That brings us to what everyone who cares about the future of journalism discusses daily. The cost of doing business for a news gathering organization is high. It will continue to be high and in coming years will be even higher. Without money coming in from advertisers and subscriptions of any kind, there will be a lack of funds to gather daily news and worse, there will be very little money for investigative journalism. Free is a wonderful concept but by its very nature, it fails the news business. As with any organization, it costs money to provide goods and services. If the product is free and there is no money coming in, the product will disappear from the shelf. The business collapses, whether it makes plastics or presents the news. Free must be a word we eliminate for consumers of news. Otherwise the world of news will be Orwellian. Controlled by the few and dispensed to the many, news will become a mirror image of craigslist, one classified note after another that people will pore over in search of personal gratification. There will be too much useless information and the overly "informed" will become even less informed than they are now.

Some gurus want print to become non-profits so reporters, editors and managers will not be responsible to owners or shareholders. Other ideas want print online to have firewalls, stonewalls, no walls. There are also those who have no ideas except they pride themselves in repeating the mantra of "I told you newspapers would fail. Why did you not listen to me?" Thanks for the help. Those who publish newspapers and magazines appreciate your crystal ball gazing. If only you had a workable idea or two beyond your doomsday scenario.

Not all newspapers and magazines are dead or even dying. There are some estimates that more than a 100 million people still read newspapers every day. Though a decline from former highs, that number of readers is not insignificant, however you parse it. Some are weekly and local or small-town papers. Despite the Internet, recent surveys show that nearly 60 percent of the young, meaning those under 34 years, still read a newspaper, even if not as often as they once did. In pre-Web days, the numbers were probably never very high anyway, unless the reader was looking for what interested him or her most. Do not be fooled by the reach of the Internet. Not everyone locks into a computer or his or her portable device all the time. Along with the decline in newspaper readership, TV viewing has also declined. In this severe economic downturn, advertising is off for everything, including once untouchable television.

Some newspaper Web sites are starting to pull in readers even if they do not draw advertisers in the numbers print formerly did. If print migrates fully to the Internet, which it might someday but not someday soon, will advertisers who believe that not everything sells on the Web support what was formally in print on paper? So far, advertising has not matched this early migration. It costs money to run a newsgathering enterprise. What if the money needed never becomes a reality? What then? I have no answer and I think no one else does either. Is there a magic phrase that will unlock the mystery of how readers seek information on the Web and who will pay? Only time will tell. It is my hope that history and culture are on the side of journalism but perhaps that is optimistic and thus in this world where so many expect everything to be free on the Web, it may prove to be a false hope. Yes, the migration to the Internet has started. Where it will end is anyone's guess.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of 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.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks at Ron Steinman's http://ronsteinman.wordpress.com.

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