catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 22 :: 2012.12.07 — 2012.12.20


The future of journalism in the free frontier

You could say that I’ve been in the newspaper business my whole life. I sent letters written in two columns to my college-age sisters. My dad and I delivered The Canadian Statesman to houses up and down our neighborhood. I worked with a friend to mimeograph the student newspaper during lunch breaks in high school. We returned to class with ink-smeared fingers, usually late. I became co-editor of the student paper during university.

I know about the ongoing discussions in newsrooms across this country. Whether they’re putting out church newsletters or national papers, editors wonder: Is new technology making newspapers obsolete? It’s tempting to say yes. But let’s step back a little. Put it into perspective. As Jewish-American author Dara Horn says, “People are very alarmist, but changes [like the internet] have happened many times before. The change from scroll to book upset many Jews.”

Teachers struggle with the impact of technology too. Whether they’re in charge of JKs or PhDs, educators wonder: is new technology making my students dumber? It’s tempting to say yes. But let’s step back a little. Put it into perspective. John Franklin Genung of Amherst College worries about what he calls the “problem of poor student writing” — sound familiar? He taught 116 years ago. Do today’s teenagers sound like “murderers of the spoken tongue”? That’s what Professor Clark of Hillyer College thought too…in 1958.

Nevertheless, it’s true that the last ten years have been tumultuous for newsprint. In April 2009, the New York Times’ top editor wrote that “saving the New York Times now ranks with saving Darfur.” But even while familiar newspapers fold, our “appetite for the news has become insatiable,” according to Slate magazine. The format may be changing along with technology, but — in a sea of information and opinion — reliable reporting and insightful editorializing are more valuable than ever.

In the 1990s, the internet seemed like a vast ocean of free stuff, from books to music. The Atlantic magazine, however, sees a tidal shift in that free ocean (see “Closing the digital frontier” and “Information wants to be paid for” in the July/August 2010 issue). These articles argue that as the number of newspapers shrinks, “reliable and reported information from trusted sources will remain valuable but may become harder to find, which means that some folks are likely to be willing to pay for good sources of it.” Furthermore, the columns that newspapers offer are not the same as online blogs; without editorial discernment, it’s easy to read only those whose beliefs confirm your own.

In other words, the future of the newspaper is not as bleak as everyone assumes. The internet’s founding principle, which defended “the unencumbered flow of everything,” undermines traditional notions of ownership and copyright. That system is hard to sustain and may be changing. By charging users who go online, smart phone pricing plans are already shrinking the boundaries of the free frontier.

It reminds me of a friend with a piano she didn’t want. She advertised it as “free” on an online exchange site. Even with a picture of the attractive instrument, no one responded. She changed the listing to $25. Still no response. When she asked for $50 she received two calls and one visit, but it wasn’t until the price went up to $100 that her piano sold. Capitalism 101: if it’s free, it must be worthless. Anything valuable has a price attached. If the internet learns that lesson as it ages, it could revitalize newspapers and magazines. As The Atlantic points out, “people have already begun subscribing to publications on the Amazon Kindle, even though they could get them for free online.”

After university, I ended up marrying my co-editor. We had worked on the student newspaper together, with techniques that already seem archaic: hot glue to paste each article onto the storyboard before driving the unwieldy thing to the publisher. The methods of production have changed, but the definition of a good newspaper has not: it’s a window on the world worth paying for, whether that window is on a screen or on paper.

A form of this essay originally appeared in the independent Canadian newspaper Christian Courier (, of which Angela Reitsma Bick is the editor. 

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