Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Evolution of News Coverage

I guess you could say that I have some experience in journalism.

I have bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism. I've worked for newspapers and a trade magazine. I've taught reporting and editing to undergrads. I even did some freelance writing for the local paper when I was in high school.

When I was growing up, it seemed to me that newspapers would always be around. But already this year I've seen some newspapers go out of business entirely (e.g., Rocky Mountain News) and others stop printing and go online exclusively (e.g., Seattle Post–Intelligencer). And the ones that are still standing are cutting jobs or hours to try to survive.

In a democracy, it seems to me, there will always be a need for journalists, for people who will cover the news. What is less certain, at this stage, is what form that will take.

The other day, The Editor's Desk blog asked if blogs count as news coverage.

The question was inspired when the author of the blog, Andy Bechtel, did some investigating about allegations of anti–Sarah Palin bias at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times that came up on a segment of "The O'Reilly Factor" — which had been inspired by perceived absence of coverage of David Letterman's remarks about the former vice presidential nominee.

Bechtel reported finding that "each newspaper has covered the Letterman–Palin flap — in blog form, with several posts on several blogs." Thus, Bechtel was prompted to ask his question.

Then he gave his answer. "I think that as journalism expands online and shrinks in print, blogs should be considered a significant piece of a newspaper's coverage plan," Bechtel writes.

I'm inclined to agree. But I guess a lot of things haven't really been clarified yet. A profitable business model for new–age journalism has not emerged yet. Until it does, the future of news coverage will be uncertain.

One thing that does seem to be clear is that blogs are gaining more of a presence with traditional publications. A blog for, for example, recently asked who will pay for journalism if the journalism business fails. I thought that was a particularly poignant place to ponder that prospect (how's that for alliteration?).

Writing these blogs seems to be a role that is taken on by veteran writers as extensions of their traditional duties at some publications, by young recent college graduates as unique duties at others.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the idea that electronic "citizen journalist/bloggers" can fill the void that is being left by the elimination of daily newspapers, especially those bloggers who will be free to post their writings directly to the publication's website, bypassing the copy desk entirely. That seems to be inviting libel suits and other legal actions aimed at re–defining and re–interpreting communications laws.

But perhaps that is inescapable. Just like the recent transition to digital television, big changes are coming in the news industry. Some news sources — particularly those that provide national and international news — may remain free indefinitely because so many competitors will continue to offer their content at no charge. Those outlets will have to find other sources of revenue.

But, to have access to local news, internet consumers may have to subscribe to an online service. They may not like it, but they may have no choice. If your hometown newspaper is the only news organization providing coverage of your commmunity's school board or city council meetings, charging readers for access to those reports may be the smart thing to do.

That's just a sample of the many issues that will have to be resolved. And the resolutions may be different from one market to the next.

One thing seems clear to me. A democracy will always need a free press, even if that press no longer exists through ink and newsprint.

And even if its online presence is not entirely free.

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