The Future of the Newspaper, SSRC discussion, part II

As said, SSRC President Craig Calhoun’s page hosts an interesting discussion about the future of the newspaper here.

I wrote a comment. It is still awaiting moderation. I wonder if that is because it is (a) not up to par, which is possible, it is is certainly less to the point than the others, (b) has something to do with name recognition, the other participants are all well-known academics, I think this is unlikely, (c) reflects how the SSRC has organized the pre-moderation of the comments they allow on their site.

Anyway, never was a patient man, since I bothered to write the thing, I have cut and pasted it below. I post it here partly out of impatience, partly because I am vain enough to want it up somewhere when I took time to write it, and partly because I think I make some worthwhile points, most notably that we need to ask ‘what newspaper’ when we discuss the future of ‘the newsppaer’–I personally am more worried about the average newspaper than the prestige national dailies, as my comments below suggest.

– – –

Calhoun quickly slided from the overall question, ‘what is the future of the newspaper?’, to the more particular question of what the future is for the national newspaper.

When discussing the future of both journalism and newspapers (or ‘the media’, for that matter), I think it is important to keep in mind just how stratified the profession and the organizational population is, from well-paid reporters and nationally known outlets to precarious freelancing and generic chain papers. Stratification is a fact not only globally, as Boyer points out, but also within a country like the US.

So I have a few thoughts about the future of the mid-sized American newspaper, the kind that serves a small metropolitan area, the kind that has a daily circulation of, say, 40,000, and will often be the only newspaper in a given location, and hence one of few organizations doing actual newsgathering. Such local monopolies have been phenomenally profitable in the past, and underwritten a lot of newsgathering, but clearly that is changing now as jobs are cut everywhere–and in contrast to major national and international events (Calhoun’s example of Mumbia springs to mind, surely, there is no shortage of journalists there right now, and won’t be at future events of that type–power law distributions of attention from both audiences and the industry will concentrate effort right there, just as political conventions and royal weddings will continue to draw hundreds or thousands of journalists writing essentially identical stories), it is exceedingly unclear to me who will cover the next misuse of power, case of corruption, or conflict of interest in a city like Bridgeport, CT. There, the last Mayor, Fabrizi, used cocaine while in office, and the Mayor before him, Ganim, is serving nine years for racketeering, bribery, extortion, mail fraud and tax evasion. What happens there if the Connecticut Post is reduced to an advertising sheet? The NY Times has been cutting down on its reporters in the region. A NPR affiliate does some reporting. A few political community blogs contributes a fair amount of actual newsgathering. But the alternatives to the ConnPost are few and far between.

The NY Times and a few other nationally known brands can probably transform themselves into the kinds of multi-platform brand management/news production companies that Boyer writes about, or branch out in the test preparation, continuing education, or what not. Others can pursue what Gitlin calls the ‘fragment-based’ strategy of magazines and many online sites, and appeal to a single, often geographically distributed, audience. These options do not seem to me to be open to the Connecticut Post. I like the Connecticut Post. I like the fact it is there. But I would never for a second want a cent of my 401(k) invested in it, because I think it is in a deeply precarious position.

So what can it do? Hope for the public subsidies that more and more are arguing for, even if the idea continues to be anathema for many American journalists? Hope for non-profits to step in (a shift in mentality from ‘profitable’ to ‘fundable’ news production)? Hope that the transformation of government institutions and the growth of independent oversight bodies that Schudson writes about will bring down the costs of reporting? Wait for an angle owner to materialize?

What can the paper itself do? I don’t know. The owner, MediaNews Group, seems hell-bent on cost-cutting and consolidation, but I have yet to see much in terms of new ideas from them. Or even a serious attempt to implement some of the ideas that have been floating around for the last decade or so. So, OK, blame the corporate bean counters, and blame technological change. Things were much better back in the day, at least for most journalists. But what about journalists themselves? Whether it comes to the adoption of new technologies or the pursuit of new forms of content-production, one sometimes gets the sense (from my own research on the adoption of new technologies in Danish newspapers, from the research pursued by others, and anecdotally from spending many of my waking hours with journalists, journalists-to-be, and their products) that journalists are their own worst enemies. At least some of them–it might be useful to distinguish broadly between ‘new’ and ‘old journalists’ the same way we talk about new and old media. The idea of an emphasis on the things that even these cash-strapped mid-sized local papers (indeed especially these) have monopoly on, namely local news, combined with a stronger development of their community side (from ‘the’ newspaper to ‘my’ newspaper) requires taking seriously user-generated content, involvement with local community events, etc—and thus either an expanded journalistic professional self-understanding, that embraces the idea that facilitation of discussion and community are valuable parts of what journalists do (as they have been historically), or a diversification of the workforce into professions trained to and willing to work with communities. This model should be able to sustain some sort of operation. It is not pursued. The front page of the Connecticut Post website today is filled with national news. Why? Who are they kidding? Why not just link? And print a few national stories in the print edition and get on with the job of covering Bridgeport and what they are up to in Hartford?

That model may lead to a scaled down operation relative to the heyday of the 1980s (at least in areas that still has a location-bound population and commercial life, but arguable, that continues to be the case for much of the country). Such local newspapers may cease being career destinations, and be more like incubators that no longer employ journalists for more than a few years (according to payscale.com, a journalists with 1-4 years of experience earns about $33k/year, whereas one with 5-9 years earns about $44k/year on average), but give them a chance to show what they can do, that they are ‘new journalists’, and function as stepping stones for people interested in pursuing a further career later either in more resource-rich media elsewhere, or perhaps a transition into various forms of communications jobs in their local community–think of the way political campaigning only is a life-long career for a very, very few of the many young, talented, and driven people who take it up at one point or other in their life, but still often ‘leads somewhere’, into non-profits, into government, etc.

There are hundreds of mid-sized local and regional newspapers like the Connecticut Post around the country, and a few may be saved by angels, but the rest, and especially the chain-owned ones and the ones dominated by a traditional form of journalistic self-undesrtanding, are likely to continue to cut and cut and cut while they wait for the elusive new business model, the subsidies they may not even really want, or the angels that there may be precious few of. When thinking about the future of the American newspapers, I like to make a provocative comparison to the future of monasteries in Europe, seen from the vantage point of, say 1600AD–the question at stake when the transformation set in was not the survival of ‘the monastery’, because some survived in recognizable form, even as others were transformed to educational institutions, eventually to resorts, and what not, but the dramatic contraction of the continent-wide institution of monasteries. That contraction seems to have been partly driven by precisely the kind of unsustainability of individual organizations that ‘the American newspaper’ as an institution face today, arguably exacerbated by ‘old journalists’ reluctant to embrace new technologies, new forms of funding (whether subsidies or non-profit), and new journalistic practices. I root for a generation of new journalists, and hope there will be jobs for them as they go out into the world. There will be newspapers in the future, probably even printed ones, and every country will, I think, continue to have a ‘paper of record’–but at the local level, they may be few and far between, unless change happens soon, and that scarcity will, I fear, be much more pronounced and pernicious at the local and regional level than at the national level.

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2 responses to “The Future of the Newspaper, SSRC discussion, part II

  1. Hi Rasmus,

    My comment is currently trapped in moderation as well, so I’ll join you and we’ll just start our own lowly grad-student back and forth here:

    I’ll join the ranks of Columbia University folks weighing in on this question.

    First, I’m glad to see this issue getting the attention it is, though its sad that it has taken the impending collapse of the newspaper industry to get us here. My own thoughts on this come out of a multi-year project examining local news production in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. You can read about the project here. I’ve been conducting online qualitative work on this topic since 2006 and completed 5 months of on-site fieldwork earlier this fall.

    http://journalismschool.wordpress.com/2008/07/09/what-im-doing-1-the-big-picture/

    I think it’s useful to reframe the initial question we’re asking as “What is the future of news reporting?” (I’ll add to the list in a moment). Asking the question as it is usually framed– “what is the future of the newspaper” or, more often “what is the future of journalism”– can lead to a conceptual muddle. By asking, what is the future of the newspaper, we are limiting ourselves to a medium, to a product (and probably setting ourselves up for disaster; I think the local or regional newspaper is doomed). By asking, “what is the future of journalism,” we are lumping a number of distinct forms of work together. After all, critics, columnists, and providers of news analysis for the New York Times can all be considered journalists. So can editorial cartoonists. It might be interesting to ask, “what is the future of editorial cartooning,” but its probably even more interesting to ask, “what is the future of news reporting,” or as I call it, “the gathering together of ‘news objects.’”

    We can start answering this question in any number of ways, methodologically speaking. My own tack has been to look closely, almost obsessively, at the processes of news work, the kind of work that members of a particular media community do, and let them define for themselves what reporting and journalism are, and how it is changing.

    I think that the future of reporting, sad to say, is bleak, at least under the circumstances we’ve known it to occur: reporting is at the wrong end of economic trends (it is expensive) audience trends (people may not care about it) and technological trends. Its funny to think that something so banal as talking to people and reading documents is so costly, but it is. All s not lost, however: I think new forms of reporting / advocacy / conversation will emerge, that may look a lot like this.

    http://youngphillypolitics.com/city_paper_effects_ypp_poll_and_other_online_organizing_budget_cuts

    Reporting, in other words, may become the province of social movements– not newspapers. The fast we come to terms with the fact that someone can be both a reporter and a member of a social movement or issue constituency, the happier we will be with this outcome. At the same time, while reporting may be more tied to movements, movement members who become reporters may increasingly resemble the newspaper reporters of old. I guess we’ll see.

    As an add-on to the final point, I just saw this interesting post:

    http://nextnewsroom.ning.com/profiles/blogs/innovation-how-one-labor-union

    “Innovation: How one labor union has become its own news organization”

  2. Pingback: SSRC debate beyond SSRC « rasmuskleisnielsen.net

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