Journalism in the digital age: A changed landscape

(Dateline Washington DC) The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held a workshop on December 1-2, 2009 titled “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” From a naive perspective, and indeed much of the public discussion on the issue has focused around the question, “How do we save newspapers?” But that is the wrong question.  On that, the FTC got it right.  The key is how do we transform journalism – specifically detailed, investigative journalism on the local level?

If you are looking for some in-depth thinking on the topic, head on over to Save the News or view the FTC workshop online. That said, let me highlight some of the assumptions surrounding the topic.

It is important to separate the means of delivering the news from the act of generating a news report. The former includes newspapers, radio, television and cable stations, websites and other technologies that assemble, produce and deliver written, audio and video content. These traditionally are large scale and expensive enterprises typically including big businesses and governments. In contrast, the act of generating a news report requires an individual and a recording technology such as a typewriter, computer or an audio and/or video recorder.

For you to read, listen to or watch the news requires both.  What the Internet and television before the Internet have disrupted is the business model that the delivery of news depended upon.

That is right.  Advertising.  The newspaper subscription you pay (or paid) went to the paper “boy” or the news stand and to the truck that delivered the bundles of papers to the them.  Advertising paid for the printers, the printing press, the news room, the reporters and everything else that goes into the maintenance and production of a newspaper.  Television began cutting into that revenue stream in the 1960’s but with a growing global economy (with the US at the center), very few people noticed until the 1990s.

Broadcast technology has had a major impact on reporting.  In 1982, President Reagan visited Montana in support of a local republican running for the US Senate.  I joined other members of our college newspaper and radio staff in covering the event.  Armed with pens, paper, recorders and cameras, we drove 180 miles to witness the event.  Driving back that evening we stopped for five minutes so that the radio reporter could call in his 30 second story.  The broadcast team was ready for bed.  On the print side, we needed hours to develop the film, write the stories, layout the paper and send it to the printers.  The paper stories included standard coverage of the main event, an article about the protest outside and two stories about the act of covering a “major media event”.

In the television age more and more people consumed their news in short format leading to “sound bites”.  So with advertising dollars moving from newspapers to television, more and more money and more and more emphasis went to short form reporting.  This left print reporters on a very short career path.  The print journalist skills included the ability to write, but also the intelligence to understand the issue and the persistence to get to the core of a story.  The “new journalist” needs to look good on camera while standing in front of a traffic accident and be able to repeat what the PR person from the local police just told them.  In 100 words or less, including your name and other self promotional information like the station call letters.

And so died journalism in America.

Instead of the problem, the Internet is an opportunity to restore journalism to American political culture. The Internet potentially replaces an expensive and cumbersome delivery model (the printing press) as well as an expensive but shallow delivery model (television) with something that is much less expensive, able to respond quickly and capable of being as shallow or as deep as the story requires.  Format doesn’t even matter as text or video or interactive or all the above can be done in the same story or sequence.

The major question is who will pay detail oriented, investigative journalists?  And how?

Through the Internet, advertising will play a role.  The Internet makes some form of a grassroots micro-payment structure possible. It would be nice to see a public option evolve through either membership or if through tax dollars in a method that control of dollars is separate from control of content.  On a related issue it is time for the cross-ownership regulations to go away.  At this point, it is impossible to say what delivery methods  will be competing in the future.  Suffice to say that at this point, it will not be newspapers versus broadcast television. Future business models will probably include all of the above.

Anyway, the old journalism saw of following the money is still true and relevant to understanding how journalism will evolved in the post-Gutenberg age.  One of the “prices of freedom” is the salary of it’s reporters.

to be continued…

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