Musings on the Death of the Newspaper Business

Trouble at the Chronicle (Scripting News) Dave Winer has some thoughts out on how to fix the newspaper business. Part of his remedy involves expanding the definition of who a journalist is. Dave suggests that in the future, “every educated person will be a journalist.”

He also argues that the newspaper business ought to embrace the best bloggers and actually have them publish under the paper’s authority. This would likely give additional legitimacy and credibility to key bloggers while driving more readership and advertising through some of the top bloggers out there.

Number two especially makes a lot of sense to me. Bloggers would like the additional exposure that a newspaper might give them and their reputation and increasingly bloggers know better how to drive traffic than the newspaper business.

I’ve got a background in journalism myself. Although I never went to journalism school, I worked as a writer, photographer, arts and entertainment editor, OP/ED editor and finally Editor-in-Chief of my college newspaper. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. It taught me about how to get public records, deal with the police and the courts system (we had a pretty grisly murder case by a school alum that we covered as well as a pretty high profile date rape case by a top international athlete at the school who ended up jumping bail).

It taught me the importance of objectivity when reporting news but also about how many very gray lines exist in the ethics of the gathering and publishing news business.

It was largely the fact that I missed journalism so much that attracted me to blogging. Blogging though is not journalism, at least not the way that I was taught journalism. Blogging is more like Gonzo journalism. It’s full of opinion and flamboyant writing that intertwines in and out of various news reports of fact. Fact checking is more lax overall with much of blog reporting correcting facts as readers respond.
Grammatical and spelling errors are much more tolerated in the blogosphere than in the traditional journalism that I was trained in.

Instead of having six or seven hours on a scoop now, blogging gives you six or seven minutes.

Where as a newspaper reporter might publish one or two well thought out articles a week, the most productive of bloggers can easily put out 6 to 7 shorter articles a day.

The newspaper business is definitely broken. I used to subscribe daily to The Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle. I’d always pick up a Sunday New York Times and spend a long and leisurely breakfast enjoying it. I’d read Rolling Stone and Forbes and Barons.

And now I don’t subscribe to any of them.

And even when I walk past the special promotion outside the BART station where someone is trying to give away a morning Chronicle I don’t take it. I don’t like the newsprint on my fingers and I know that I can get a much more customized and interesting reading experience for the day online through a mixture of news sites, digg, techmeme, blogs, twitter, flickr, zooomr, and many other places that my MacBook Pro will take me on any given day.

Especially with EVDO access my online news sources are never unavailable. They are more current than what is in the newspaper. They are more targeted towards what interests me. And most importantly, in many cases it’s interactive allowing me to interact through my blog.

I think there is still a place in the world for certain art type magazines. There is something about the aestheic of print that online still can’t quite touch. I love seeing my photos printed double page across in San Francisco Magazine. They look so much better than they do online. And I think things like JPG, which is very focused on the print aesthetics of photgraphy, are wonderful.

I’m certainly not the first person to say that the newspaper business is dead. Mike Arrington took a lot of shit for suggesting that the newspaper business was in trouble to their face late last year. The worst part about it is that some of the most wonderful people in the world work in the newspaper business. Some of the most genuine, interesting, and creative people forgo the big money, salaries and stock options to instead focus on doing something interesting, amazing that matters with their professional life. I’m not sure exactly where all of these people will end up, but I suspect that many of the best and brightest will simply migrate online as people like Om Malik and Matt Marshall have done.

In some ways I miss the romance of print journalism. It has a certain romance for me much like the smell of fixer and stop bath in the old darkroom. But those days are long gone and whether the newspaper industry admits it entirely yet or not there business is not just broken, it’s dead. And look, I buried the lead.

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4 Comments

  1. Jon says:

    I’m with you all the way on this one. Especially with getting print on your fingers, but then again, I’m a fussy, clean freak ;-) So, newspapers for me, no ta. But magazines, slightly different….

    Have just subscribed to JPG so looking forward to that. I do enjoy some magazine, mostly for the photography and I collect some of them. Evo (cars) is great and Wallpaper is very well put together. Also Living and Powder.

  2. alex says:

    Thomas, you make some very interesting points, but I have to disagree with Dave Winer’s quote that in the future, “every educated person will be a journalist.”

    Journalists objectively track down facts, speak to sources, gather that information and write about it as clearly and succinctly as possible. This sort of writing requires extensive training and dedication, and cannot be done by everyone. I also have edited a school newspaper, and have had to read through absolute dreck to find the good stories needed to put together a competent paper.

    As far as I can see, bloggers do not do this. Bloggers mainly write about what has already been reported on, merely adding their own opinion and other random information. I think that bloggers play an important role in this new media world, and I read many blogs myself. However, bloggers are truly consumers while the newspaper journalists are the producers in this food chain.

    I do agree with you that more newspapers need to embrace bloggers, and some already have. The New York Times does a pretty good job with their blogs (David Pogue and others). If more papers do this, they will become better papers.

    It will be a sad world if the newspaper business dies as many have predicted. We need dedicated professionally trained people to go out there and write about what is happening — without this we may have heard about disturbing events such as the domestic spying program . They may not get it right all of the time, but we still need them.

    I also hope that we never stop reading an actual paper — the “accidental” stories I come upon while paging through the paper are almost always better than the stories I originally intended to read.

  3. Ivan Pope says:

    Thing about Dave Winer is he doesn’t actually let you comment on his blog – so here’s mine:
    Firstly, when we call the death of newspapers we seem to be confusing a bunch of things. Is it that the model of journalism as a profession is dying? Is it that the model of a newspaper as a carrier of information is dying or is it that the technical method of distribution that involves printing on paper is dying?
    Firstly, journalists. Well, this is the dream of bloggers, and they may well have a point. But do we really have a problem with educating people to write well and objectively, to be professional? I would find this a strange attitude. Joseph Beuys said ‘everyone an artist’, but he didn’t mean that there should be no professional artists – and they didn’t die out because he pointed out a truth.
    Secondly, there’s the issue of what a newspaper is. A newspaper is much much more than a collection of news journalists. It is a living organism with a history and an ideology and an ability to publish a lot of complex information to a schedule and to keep fresh and to serve its readers and to (hopefully) turn a profit. Now, again, we may feel that the time for such complex organisms is passing, driven into extinction by the complexity of online information. Then again, we may have more need for them in a complex online age.
    Lastly, there is the issue of printing information with ink on paper on a regular schedule. This has been forecast to die for many decades now, and in fact has been slowly dying since the heyday of newspapers a long while ago. But it probably has a lot more time to live than would seem apparent to those of us who live almost entirely online.
    We need to understand the parts of the mix to be able to analyse what may happen next.
    And when Dave Winer says that in future everyone may be a journalist, that’s a nice conceit. A lot of people will be and in fact are. But even more people just can’t write to save their lives. Or, as was said in another context, ‘That’s not writing, that’s typing’.

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