In the Pursuit of Happiness
September 2009

by Ron Steinman

I, like many of you, am having a hard time trying to figure a way to save printed news. I pay close attention to everything in the debate over whether to charge, not to charge and how to charge for news content. It is the major issue facing newspapers as they try to survive.

There are conferences with concerned editors and publishers. Some are in public. Others are in secret. Academics produce learned papers. They look good on a résumé. Columnists question the future. Many pontificate. Most have little hope. Self-styled sages make statements to whomever will listen. So far, no one has the answer as to what will save newspapers. How to save newspapers and laterally, the news, as we know it, is the latest in an endless game of Trivial Pursuit.

Whatever anyone thinks, we must consider where the news will come from and the form it will take in the future. Free or not, pay wall or not, advertising or not. Some think private equity firms should back newspapers. There are discussions about using government funds for start-ups. Some proposals champion newspapers as nonprofits. Will NGOs serve as news sites the way they do as charities? Whatever the proposal, the Internet hovers. Only time will tell what will work. Until then, the debate will rage. Throw into the mix all those who believe paying for content is a sin no matter what the delivery system, and we have a mess on our hands that may be impossible to clean up.

In the academy and on the Web, some have established themselves as the new arbiters of journalism. They want to remake news in their image. I find that much of what they want is destructive. They act as if they are pragmatists but they lack principle. Enchanted by an Internet where freedom seems to reign, they will indicate they will settle for nothing less than a world where everything is free. I would bet my last dollar these thinkers do not work for free. In their self-designated role of culture warriors, they cater only to the children of the Internet age. They are not uninvolved youth. Rather they are aging adults who believe that by "democratizing news," the gathering of news will take on new meaning and, thus, new power.

The gurus of the new believe that individuals will openly feed off their concept of free. Because of this, they have faith that collectively people will be more creative and provide news to the audience in ways never before conceived. In other words, creativity will come on the backs of the original creators. Mashups will rule. Short takes will dominate. Cleverness will be the norm. Electrifying thoughts backed by depth will die. These are news haters. They assume they know better how to collect news and parse it than the time-honored ways of the past and the now enfeebled present. If these self-styled philosophers get their wish, the collection and ultimate dissemination of news, as we now know it, will die even faster.

Pay walls are a gamble that the majority of the moguls of print continue to agonize over. They fear that paying for content, whether online and increasingly on portable devices, will turn even more people away from print. Newspaper owners may be right. It is probably too late to change people's minds. The genie is already out of the bottle. The young are grossly uninformed because, by their own admission, they read almost nothing. Reading appears to be difficult for them. They hate to read because it probably means they have to pay attention. On the page, print is static. But all it does is make the mind go to places it normally does not want to. It seems that anyone under 29 cares nothing about the future of journalism as long as he or she has their various social networks to make them feel wanted. It is too late to capture this audience? Is there anyone left who values print and ink-stained fingers? Probably yes, but that audience is small and now older. It figures to diminish even further in years to come.

I grew up believing -- actually having it impressed deeply inside my psyche when I was young -- that anything worth something could not, should not and was not free. One had to work for whatever one gained as a result of whatever work one did. If I did my job as a journalist, there would be rewards. Clearly, as we now know, that idea of paying for a newspaper, and the information it provides, died with the birth and growth of the Internet. That is too bad. People believe it is their birthright to get news for free. The Web represents the anarchist's idea of pure freedom. As history shows, anarchy makes a momentary splash, and, finally, never has a good result. Unfortunately, the idea of free rules the masses. It is worth repeating: Free does not pay the bills for reporters and editors. In time, information may go the way of the dodo bird.

One thing stands out that makes me very nervous. I feel I am in a roomful of the smartest people in journalism, all of whom have answers but not one has a solution anyone trusts that will work.

© 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

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