Journalistic Futures

Hot off the press!

Hot off the press!

The drama over the fate of journalism continues. John Stewart’s masterful – perhaps even cruel – sundering of modern financial journalism standards, with Jim Cramer as a proxy, has cast a harsh light upon the insufficiencies and shortcomings of those who profess themselves as gatekeepers and guardians of the public’s informational channels. The continued closing and collapse of newspapers across the nation has been front-page material for months now, as parties in favor and against New Media avenues wage textual wars against each other, either vying for the superiority of digital distribution, or hotly arguing the continued importance of paper-based media.

But the most notable thing about this histrionic mess of intellectual chest-beating and democratic theorizing is how… singular its focus has been.

Try looking up anything about international newspapers suffering. You’ll get maybe one hit out of every few hundred – CanWest has taken a few hits, the global recession’s hit all forms of non-vital commodities (and non-local information tends to be seen as non-vital for those families that are more affected by local economic turbulences than what happens even just a hundred miles away. Most families of the world, at that), and generally you’ll run into an article about the collapse of American news corporations.

You’ll notice very few alarms being run about, say, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the BBC… Okay, the Daily Mail’s cutting a thousand jobs, and The Scotsman’s parent company is in debt – who isn’t? Hong Kong’s papers are actually doing alright – France is actually giving out free papers to everybody of age, making it impossible to determine if the adamantly socialistic nation’s free press is artificially supported or not, and South Korea’s papers are apparently doing just fine. For all the hysteria we have been lambasted with over the last few weeks, why isn’t anybody else screaming?!

I’m very reluctant to say this, but all the same, it is extremely tempting to, in light of the utter lack of evidence either way: it may very well be that the whole debate over the future of journalism only applies to American journalism. That though the system is creaking across all corners of the world, it is only symptomatic of the massive hit everything else has taken in the current recession. It is tempting to suggest that rather than online newspapers being the true killer of newspapers, and a detrimental distortion upon journalism in its entirety, online information distribution methods are merely soaking up the blood spilled by something inherently damaged about American journalism alone.

I can’t back up this hunch. I’ve been researching for an hour now, digging and digging at the various cross-Atlantic and cross-Pacific news sites for even the barest hint that there might or might not be an international trend here, but all anybody wants to talk about is how the big names of US papers are taking it in the chin. I can only say, with wavering confidence, that the lack of any such news along these lines are perhaps evidence in favor of my suspicions: all this screaming and hair-tearing and beard-pulling and hysteria is for naught. All we’re seeing now is the final end-result of the good old American past time of corporate conglomeration. Though massing corporations under a large, singular umbrella isn’t unique to us, the US news scene has seen a particular fierce, nearly unchecked example of this, figureheaded masterfully by the bane of my own worldview of Journalism: Rupert Murdoch. As we’ve seen, it has been the financial practices of big corporations, taking on dubious means of increasing their bottom line, that has been the center of this ongoing financial crisis – and the larger the corporation, the more likely they’ve had stakes in this wonderful game of fantasy money that’s bushwhacked the entire world.

A hundred papers, one owner.

A hundred papers, one owner.

Furthermore, the effect this conglomeration of papers have had on newspaper policy has been lambasted and criticized for more than a decade now – the increased reliance on AP and Reuters feeds, soundbytes, flashy headlines and nut grafs without substantive content, Stewart’s now infamous critique on the buddy relationship between papers and sources… rather than a decay in the substance of journalism from the ground up, the sickness, at least to my perspective, has apparently gone from top down – and is almost unique to the corporate culture that has festered in America for the last ten years!

Furthermore, the papers that are still thriving – or, at least, still surviving – in the current era has long since established a strong online presence, fueled by a complex and functional system of data distribution that intertwines online and offline news as collaborative and complementary tools, instead of natural enemies. The NYT is still up and running – the venerable and nigh-untouchable BBC is still perhaps the standard for professional journalism. I’ve got them hooked up on my RSS feeds right next to all the blogs and the Google News feed I trawl through every day, sometimes every few minutes, to keep up to date on the world around me. Just as TV failed to replace movies, just as music cassettes failed to kill the radio, there is no actual reason to assume that newspapers will see a total replacement by online content – especially considering the problem of attempting hyperlocal or even regional information dissemination using anything but an equally geographically-limited distribution network!

I smell a rat. I smell a single, wet, overfed rodent, arrogant in its physical dominance over its own kin, until it realized that this also meant it was the slowest to run away from the prowling cat. Yes, it is very likely that we are, in fact, seeing a major and distinctly ubiquitous paradigm shift – it is my belief that the uniquely powerful nature of the internet as a distribution method really is the sort of convergent breakthrough that saw the drastic diminishing of, say, the telegraph and railroads. It is also my belief that the only fundamental difference between online news content and paper content is not the content, not the origin (seriously – copypaste, and you have the same story on both mediums), and not even the conflicts of interest that will arise from one of the two real changes: how they get the revenue.

Papers have always been ad-driven. Anybody arguing otherwise hasn’t looked at their company’s accounts recently: fifty cents for a weekday issue doesn’t even begin to cover the operational expenses, and any smart schmuck would realize that internet ad revenue affords a greater level of distance between the paper and advertiser. They’re space-renters, not indirect shareholders, and you can pack a hell of a lot more advertisers into a single webpage than you can in a week’s worth of papers.

The one other real change is that online news really is overall superior. Same content for drastically reduced overhead costs? Audience not limited by the geographic limits of your distribution system? Hello! Wake up and smell the roasted beans! A single RSS feed gives me more articles at my fingertips, and easier ability to skim through all of them, than a massive bulk of papers! Two, three, and ten more feeds gives me a broader swathe of perspectives on the same issue, as well as let me track down any stories the majority might have missed from the rush to report on the biggest and brightest shiny objects out there.

Newspapers will survive. They will survive by being a newspaper and less a newspaper. They will survive by being fast, agile and flexible enough to adopt and adapt to the latest tools, instead of acting like a stereotypical Luddite, and embracing the same follies wracking the RIAA and MPAA. They will survive because there is and will always be a hunger for information – it is in our very nature as a sentient species. The question isn’t whether or not the industry is dying – because, as far as my own short-sighted, bespectacled eyes can tell, everybody else’s news industry’s still chugging along – but whether or not the American news industry deserves to survive in the face of a history of horrible, asinine policies both financially and journalisticly.

If the Old Guard refuses to find a solution for their own demise, believe me: we born and bred for New Media will – will – stage one hell of a coup. They are wrong to blame us, but very right to fear us: the young and ambitious during any times of turbulence are always the first adopters, and first masters, of the toys and tools of the new paradigm. If they refuse to harness the shifting tides, if they refuse to do their jobs, Journalism will find new disciples, driven by unblemished ideals and unabashed necessity. Every kid still struggling to maintain his grades in class, every scruffy intern doing the gruntwork and low-profile articles for your local alt-weekly (and how unabashedly happy we are when we get to do even a small – but bylined! – feature), are in this for the ideals and glory of journalism – not the money, not the corporate politics, and for those of us wise enough to realize its foolishness, not even the fame. Do you really think that we disciples of Mencken and Thompson, we apprentices of Stewart and Colbert and the entire world-class research staff under their control, won’t try absolutely everything in our power to track down the Truth? Do you really think that there won’t be anybody or anything to step into the power vacuums left by the ailing, sickly sentinels of the Fourth Estate?

Foolish to even entertain the notion. Those of us driven to journalism, not as a hobby, not even as a career, but as a lifestyle, will seek out success in the current paradigm.

By all means necessary.

Like you didn't know I was an HST fan.

Like you didn't know I was an HST fan.

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~ by Gonzo Mehum on March 24, 2009.

4 Responses to “Journalistic Futures”

  1. Canadian here, we get the odd article now and then in the newspaper about print becoming obsolete, but otherwise things seem business as usual. The paper I happen to read has an online partnership with canoe.ca, which has been around for quite awhile.

    I didn’t even know there was huge hype over The Death of Newspapers :P

  2. You’re seeking international and cross-cultural confirmation of social trends, ideas, and memes presumed by Americans to be catholic and global.

    …good boy.

  3. Hrm. Trying to be a media empire and expect that all of the arms will always be profitable sounds like a great idea to me, Rupert. Arr. Except that part where your newspapers are probably going to be loss leaders at best when compared to your other media enterprises. Arr.

    Some of those international newspapers have State backing, though. I wonder if that’s helping them out or not.

  4. I just stopped by your blog and thought I would say hello. I like your site design. Looking forward to reading more down the road.

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