catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 22 :: 2012.12.07 — 2012.12.20


Print may be dying, but the truth will live

It’s been widely reported that newspapers big and small are dying. It seems like every day, another newspaper scales back and lays off workers as yet another digital news aggregator attempts to fill the void.

Last spring, the Daily Beast listed journalism among its 13 “most useless majors.” More than half of those majors relate to published media and art forms. Print revenues are sliding faster than this “news cat” down a staircase baluster.  There’s even a web site called Newspaper Death Watch.  These are times that would cause any journalist to start exploring PR careers.

It’s fairly easy to trace the start of this new era of journalism — the digital era — to the early 1980s (see this Poynter article on the digitization of the news), with the lion’s share of publications digitizing in 1990s, when the Internet became a household word.

Back then, many newspapers with web sites would save their most important news for the print editions. The web came second.  Then, as more and more folks began going to the web for news and entertainment — the kind they once got from their daily paper — a number of news organizations figured they needed to make the web a priority. Print, they surmised, should come second, not first.

Of course, these publications didn’t lead subscribers into this new literary epoch. They followed subscribers — or rather, former subscribers, who dropped long-time subscriptions in favor of getting their (free) information online. Being one step behind, instead of ahead, most newspapers continue to struggle to find a publishing model that works, and works well. As such, they are finding it difficult to pay experienced journalists, let alone hire and train new ones.

The reign of free content

I earned my M.S. in journalism in the year 2000. At the time, media professionals were nervous about the changing media landscape and spent a lot of energy puzzling over how to generate ad revenue on the web.

Journalism jobs were competitive, but not scarce. It only took about five years for that to change radically. By the time I moved from Champaign-Urbana to Milwaukee in 2006, the city’s biggest paper was hemorrhaging trained journalists. Very few publications were looking for writers. There was a glut of trained writers and virtually no jobs for them.  The writing jobs that remained either didn’t pay or paid very little. Those who continue to write do so out of passion for written communication and little else.

Though heartbroken by these changes, I am pulling through. I have many interests, from creative writing to non-profit public relations and teaching. And I’ve managed to find freelancing jobs over the years, though most of them were unpaid. Fortunately for me, this wasn’t a fiscal death sentence: I’m married, and years ago I chose to be an at-home mom. My first child was born three months after I earned my master’s. I now have three pre-teens.

So I’ve had this outsider-looking-in sort of view of the publishing industry. I’ve watched sorrowfully as it imploded, as large news organizations and book publishers floundered because they couldn’t shift gracefully enough into the new digital model of publishing that readers wanted and couldn’t cope economically with the loss of revenue as more and more readers expected their content to be free.

The medium is not the message

I listened as professionals lamented the demise of print and the feared the rising digital media empire. I watched as they scoffed at bloggers and rolled their eyes at aggregators.

Sometimes, I think the whole lament is kind of whiny and self-serving. Other times, I join them in their lamentations, mainly because I love journalism and printed books and magazines and I want to keep writing for them. Heck, I’d even like to be paid for the work.

But the truth is, I love consuming free content and look online first for news and information. My favorite invention of the late twentieth century is the Google search engine. I like to think I am a digital native, though I remember a time before computers.

We got our first computer, a Radio Shack “Tandy,” when I was 10. The first time I saw the Internet, I was babysitting for a family that had a mysterious thing called “Prodigy” that used a phone line to access people and content around the world. At the age of 18, I got my first e-mail account. I started building websites for fun a few years later, circa 1997.

After grad school, I made my freelance writing career work while nursing infants by telecommuting with the help of DSL (later, a cable modem). I often wrote content for online magazines and created my own e-zines. I had a Live Journal account. I started blogging. I own a Kindle and occasionally read books on it (though I still find it easier to get what I want from the library). I bought my first smartphone a year ago and use it to get most of my news via Twitter (though I still prefer the larger laptop screen). Only recently did I subscribe to a printed newspaper, mainly for the coupons.

Times change, and that’s OK. It’s fun to adapt to new technologies. I’m not terribly romantic about printed media, though I admit I’m a sucker for big old libraries and typewriters clacking noisily in bustling, pre-digital newsrooms. Change is a part of life on this ever-turning planet. What I love about print isn’t the medium. It’s the message. Like many journalists, I believe that democracy is protected and maintained by an informed, educated citizenry. As long as folks have access to information, we as a people should be able to govern ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong — in some ways, I selfishly wish printed newspapers, books and other media were still the main ways people took in information, mainly because this has been the way folks were PAID for the information they provided readers, and now those readers can get it all for free. Free content is a great thing if you’re a reader, but the flip side is that most writers must provide content for free, which is not good for those of us in the profession and has had disastrous consequences for the journalists trying to inform the public through their work.

Because folks don’t want to pay for content, many publications can’t afford to have fact checkers, foreign correspondents and investigative and enterprise reporters. What they CAN afford is celebrity gossip and aggregation, sharing the most titillating articles without properly vetting them. The problem with the Internet and all its free “information” is that a good portion of content masquerading as journalism on the web is factually inaccurate or — worse — intentionally misleading.

Recently I was hired as a part-time copy editor for a local group of community newspapers. Believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve worked in a physical newsroom since my days reporting for the Daily Vidette as a student at Illinois State University. Though I’m thrilled to be having this experience, this is a slightly awkward thing for me. For so long, I’d been trying to quit print, to give up the dream of being a newspaper journalist. And now, nearly 13 years after earning my j-school degree and two decades since the Internet began revolutionizing the print medium, I actually got a job (albeit a small one) editing copy for several print publications.

It scares me a little. I sincerely hope I’m wrong in wondering if I’ve been hired to work on a sinking ship. I’m hopeful that news media — including the news group that currently employs me — will adapt to the ways of new media and stay viable in the twenty-first century. Many journalists are adapting, even if traditional newspapers are finding it hard to stay lean and competitive in these times.

A new era with new rules (or: is the medium the message?)

The thing about it is, though, in the post-print era, journalism may not be the same as it was before. The rules of digital journalism seem to be different, as much as old school journalists may try to deny that. In his book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, Ryan Holiday describes four distinct media epochs, each one shaped by the main source of income that made a publication viable (paid subscriptions vs. individual paper sales). This current digital era most closely resembles the 19th century era of the penny press, where many editions of newspapers were sold individually based on how sensational the news was. This was the era that gave “yellow journalism” its name.

The twentieth century, according to Holiday, was a time of stability in the press, with newspapers sold by subscription. This stability allowed the press to develop standards and principals that are harder to adhere to in an age when, again, media professionals are fighting for readers, not hawking newspapers on street corners but pushing article clicks, thus subjecting readers to more advertisements.

As our print publications atrophy, as they lose subscriptions and ad revenue and are forced to continually shrink the size of their staffs, so the quality and reliability of the information they produce erodes. And in the meantime, the digital journalism that’s filling the gap isn’t always of the same caliber as the once copy edited, fact-checked material sent to press. Not only is the quality lower, not only have carefully developed twentieth century journalism ethics been tossed out the window, but this new “wild West” of information has allowed for some shady forces to step in and seize the reins. This will require news consumers to be more careful as they sift through the propaganda, uninformed opinions, urban legends, scams, fake news, photoshopped images and brand journalism masquerading as the unbiased, “objective” journalism of days past.

If, as some say, the Western world is an emerging Idiocracy of screen-addicted, self-indulgent, entitled, illiterati with no critical thinking skills, we will most definitely lack the discernment needed to uphold democracy. But if, as Lewis Dvorkin of Forbes writes, there emerges a generation of “sophisticated consumers demanding respect” who will “readily challenge information and knock back spin,” perhaps the future looks bleak only to those who idealize the past.

I’m not so foolish as to lament the burning print empire while the walls fall down around me. I believe we need to find a way to keep the ethics and values of twentieth century journalism alive while wielding the powerful communication tools of the new digital era. Journalists, teachers, writers and opinion leaders all need to embrace the many different and complementary ways to convey information to the citizenry, thus upholding the democratic system that so depends on access to information to educate its citizens and improve the quality of life of people around the world. To put it simply, whether print lives or dies, we need to embrace whatever changes come and make the most of them. The truth will survive, no matter the vehicles that deliver it.

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