A News(paper) Analysis

10 06 2009

Whenever I tell someone I’m an unemployed journalism major looking for newspaper work, they immediately bemoan the sad state of the news industry. However, while I agree with this sentiment on a personal level, I’m actually not concerned about the future of journalism itself. Things are changing and a certain amount of growing pains are to be expected.

The essential problem (at least for one such as me) is not a lack of jobs, but an abundance of journalists. Journalismjobs.com has new entry-level postings almost every day, but each of these is immediately swarmed with applicants. New college grad that I am, I can’t really compete with someone with five years experience in the field.

Even with that in mind, there are two unquestionable truths. First, ad revenue is falling for publications across the country. Second, large national or regional papers are cutting back on staff.

Yet this doesn’t mean journalism is dying. Newspapers aren’t going to disappear. Perhaps print editions of newspapers will in the future, but the idea itself isn’t going anywhere. After reading a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review that pondered the future of journalism, I’ve reached two conclusions.

1) The companies most threatened are the large ones that must compete on a global or national scale, like say the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune. This modern age features a myriad of easily accessible sources for such news, from citizen blogs to foreign media outlets. RSS and other methods of news feeds allow users to bypass a direct visit to most sites and aggregate information instead. Maintaining foreign news desks or funding investigative reporting is an expensive proposition and a losing one, when competing against cheaper Internet-only operations.

However, smaller community newspapers can still thrive in this environment. For most small American towns, the local newspaper remains the sole source of information about said community. Yahoo news isn’t going to bother posting items about Smalltown, USA. In fact, the convenience of modern technology allows such newspapers to do more than they’ve ever done before and create a better product. When the recession ends, these papers will be poised to do quite well.

2) Journalism, both large and small, will become increasingly fragmented and collaborative. The web Site Politico is a good example of this. Formed by veteran political reporters from the Washington Post, it created a (hopefully) sustainable model by going after a very targeted audience and has become a staple for political junkies. It competes directly with media giants in both print and TV but is a fraction of their size. The new age of Internet journalism will give rise (and indeed in many cases already has) to thousands of niche publications. The idea of a single publication (such as a newspaper) covering all topics at once will give way to people reading several separate sites instead.

Since stories can be uploaded via the Web from practically anywhere, the need for a central newsroom becomes less important. Full-time staff positions will grow less common and more work will be done on a freelance basis. This will help news organizations remain lean and keep their overall costs competitive. All these changes, will of course affect how news is presented, consumed and ultimately, paid for.

The industry is in the process of adapting and integrating into our brave new Internet-dominated world. Collectively, there have been more stumbles than successes, but the consumer demand for quality news and journalism hasn’t dissipated. Great progress has been made in how to adapt content for online consumption (videos, blogs, etc.), but little attention has been given to how to pay. The approach has been to sustain any online operation through online advertising, but after a few years of experimentation this method has fundamentally failed.

Thanks to the analytical software available to advertisers, clients know more about the reach and effectiveness of their ads. While this allows for the creation of more targeted campaigns, the exact nature of it has weakened the traditional leverage publications held and therefore reduced the rates they can reasonably charge.

Businesses are now emerging to introduce new fee structures that take lessons from proven methods of online payment like PayPal and the iTunes Store. Eventually, one such of these methods will come to dominate the market. Expect to start paying for your online reading and expect it soon. Newspapers really can’t afford it otherwise.

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4 responses

11 06 2009
David Chico Pham

Over here in DC, I’ve speaking to journalists about their state of affairs. Most agree with your above conclusions. One thing I would like you to address is the attraction of working for a big city newspaper versus covering small town news for a regional paper.

Although as you mentioned that small community newspapers can live on, the action, why you got into the field, or chose your major is not to cover new zoning laws for Decatur, ILL. Instead it’s to capture something bigger. The action is in these big macro things. And that usually is in big city newspapers. This means if big city newspapers are closing shop, aren’t jobs sorely lacking?

Frank, don’t go into this line of thinking of, “well there some people who got into the field to cover small regional news.” Its like saying those who signed up at academy weren’t looking to stop bad guys and slide over the hoods of cars like the good ole days. No, they signed up to give out chicken-s tickets to law biding citizens, i.e. parking tickets. and harass skateboarders.

You have a good point about niches. What do you think about Newsweek’s new format and online content? How about the Economist’s model for revenue? New York Times behaving like a non-profit? Your thoughts?

11 06 2009
Bill

I think I agree with your conclusions. I find the general tendency away from centralization and towards diversity, fragmentation and particularity to be a good and fruitful thing. True, it makes the world of journalism more complex to navigate, but a richer environment is always harder to navigate swiftly. There are some other great conversations and interviews about this subject at http://www.ourblook.com/component/option,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid69 Both Charlotte Grimes and John Yemma have interviews there about the future of journalism. I have found it a useful source on these subjects.

16 06 2009
Becky

I have to agree with Bill on the move towards the local as being a positive trend. I think it helps to encourage diversity and enrich culture on a community based level. Although I want and need to see the “big picture” news, the smaller communities and the unique journalism stories to be found within those locals are something to be more valued as the world becomes more and more connected by technology and the global economy.

16 06 2009
relativepragmatism

As someone trying to break into the field, Bill, the complexity of the Internet’s influence is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, there are more opportunities than ever for people to contribute to the world of journalism. On the other, these outlets often hand things out in bits and pieces, steady work and steady pay can be hard to come by.

Thanks for suggesting those other resources on the subject. There’s a lot of discussion going on about journalism’s future and it’s being done by some very smart people. This is part of the reason why I’m not too worried, there are too many people who care about what journalism means and stands for in America to simply let it die.

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