Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Journalism in the Digital Age

"I don't think a tough question is disrespectful."

Helen Thomas (1920–2013)
Longtime White House correspondent

Once, when I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, a student asked me what I thought newspapers would do about the then–emerging internet. Would newspapers survive?

At the time, I thought I gave a wise reply. I told the student that I thought newspapers and the digital world would find a way to peacefully co–exist, and I really did believe that.

I remember thinking of my first newspaper job. I covered the police and fire beats in those days along with a couple of reporters from two local radio stations. We were in competition with each other, but it was a friendly competition. We often helped each other in double checking our facts. I never felt that people who listened to either radio station did so instead of subscribing to my newspaper, and I don't think either of those radio reporters felt that people who read the paper did so instead of listening to the radio.

It was generally understood that many folks did both.

The manner in which news was delivered had changed when I had that conversation with my student — and it has changed even more since — but newspapers always existed alongside the newest technological advance, whatever it was, and I believed newspapers would find a way.

But nearly all newspapers failed to grasp the nature of the challenge they faced from the internet.

Initially, most newspapers treated the internet like some kind of commercial fad. They put the fruits of their employees' labors, their content, online because, well, positively everyone had a website. It was like an email address. If you didn't have one, you were not legitimate.

But newspapers didn't treat their websites like another part of their newspaper — for which a price must be paid — because it was online. They didn't take it seriously, and so they charged nothing. Like many people, they contended that home computers wouldn't last. Computers were novelties. It was only a matter of time. Funny. Folks said the same thing about radio and television.

To be fair, few, if any, people could foresee the changes that have occurred in journalism since I had that conversation with my student. In an ideal world, perhaps newspapers would peacefully (and profitably) co–exist with the digital delivery system; indeed, I believe there was a time, a relatively brief time as it turned out, when the proverbial window was open to such an arrangement, but it slammed shut without any warning.

One of the things that newspapers failed to understand was that folks quickly got the idea that, once you paid your admission fee (internet access), everything online was free. Copyright law magically stopped at the water's edge.

I think that will change. In fact, it is changing already. Communications laws — i.e., copyright and libel laws — will be expanded via court rulings to apply to the digital world. That really is simply a matter of time.

Some of the more visionary operators of websites concluded early on that there was money to be made from charging for access to their wares, whatever they happened to be, and from hiring people who could position the digital arm of a newspaper to be on the cutting edge, but few of those websites actually were arms of newspapers.

By the time newspapers realized they were losing print subscribers — many of whom, no doubt, found they could get the same material from the internet for free — it was too late for most. Charging for access to online content was a lost cause. Savvy online news readers knew that, except for local news, they could find articles on just about anything anywhere else, and subscription rates plummeted.

Advertising revenue has paid the bills for newspapers for a long time, but advertising revenue declines when circulation declines. In the recoveries that tend to follow economic downturns, circulation usually rebounds. In the current economy, it has become a death spiral. The internet has advantages that newspapers are not likely to overcome.

If I could go back in time and re–live that conversation, I would tell my student to focus on small– to medium–sized newspapers because they were the ones uniquely positioned to provide news their readers could use.

I live in the Dallas area, and I tell my students the large city newspapers in the Metroplex — the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star–Telegram — will provide some but not all of the local news being generated in the smaller cities nearby. They simply don't have the manpower, and the tendency of some newspapers to rely on citizen journalists who can post their articles directly to the website overlooks the fact that trained journalists are much more likely to ask the questions that need to be asked and provide the information that readers want.

They're more likely to double check their facts. Their stories are likely to be better organized, and they are more likely to utilize little writing strategies that professors have been talking about in journalism school at least since I was a student. These tactics make articles easier and more enjoyable to read.

That part hasn't changed. Well–written articles make a news website stand out and have a greater tendency to make such a site a destination site that people will want to visit again.

People in those smaller cities around here can get some local news through radio stations and cable access channels, too, but the local newspaper is more likely to send a reporter to a city council meeting or a school board meeting. More detailed accounts of the high school football or basketball game can be provided by the local sportswriter. Local police and fire news won't make the big–city newspapers unless it is a really big story.

Writing for a small– to mid–sized newspaper isn't as glamorous as covering the White House or Capitol Hill, but it is the purest form of journalism remaining. Through it, journalists can serve the purpose they were intended to serve — being the eyes and ears of their community.

Not its conscience.

Too many journalists these days appear to think that they are expected to choose sides and belittle whichever side is opposite theirs. I'm not even sure that is what should be done when a piece is clearly labeled opinion; I'm absolutely certain that it should not be done in news coverage.

(When I was studying news reporting in college, I was told to present the facts as neutrally as possible — and let the reader reach his or her own conclusions. The professor who told us that once worked for the New York Times. I believed what he told me. I still do.

(Opinion writing was a different subject, and we were encouraged in that class to be sure that all opinions were confined to the opinion page[s].

(That's another problem with modern journalism. The line between news and opinion is blurry, indistinct — but that is really a topic for another discussion.)

In hindsight, I am inclined to think that I gave the concept of compromise more credibility than perhaps I should have in that conversation with my student, and, based on what I read in an article in the American Journalism Review, many in the business agree with me.

Speaking of the New York Times, Mark Potts writes in the American Journalism Review that a problem for the Times — which has dabbled over the years with a few ways of charging for access to online content — is divided manpower.

The priority at the Times, Potts writes, is the print edition. "As long as there are both print and digital products coming out of the same newsroom," he observes, "the natural internal tensions and conflicts may be too great to find a workable middle ground."

Especially when the same people are expected to perform both functions simultaneously.

Some newspapers have resolved that problem by hiring special staff to keep the website up to date while the other staffers work on the print edition. But that isn't feasible for most newspapers.

Potts argues that "the ultimate answer for the Times and other papers may lie in the nuclear option: ditching print — or greatly minimizing it — so that we're forced to deal with the digital issues as our primary concern, not a secondary annoyance."

I hope it doesn't come to that. But, to survive, newspapers will have to adapt.

"[I]t's not just about being more creative digitally and spending less time worrying about what's on Page One," writes Potts. "[W]hat's needed is a top to bottom newsroom rethink of content forms, workflows, technologies and products to adapt to a rapidly changing world."

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