Saturday, January 3, 2009

The future of journalism

I won't rehash the many discussions about the future of journalism. It's obvious that the field is changing in a major way, that the traditional old newspaper is in jeopardy, that periodicals are less willing to cast themselves into print (both PC Magazine and Dr. Dobb's Journal are going Web-only). Clearly, they won't be able to charge enough to make themselves profitable in light of the loss of advertising (even though the Web model is still not set yet; it isn't clear that there will be sufficient revenues anywhere).

It seems to me that the cutbacks are coming, initially, from the ranks of "real" reporting, that newspapers are much more likely to pare the foreign and financial news in favor of three things: 1) more news of local flavor (the Chicago Tribune yesterday lavished a regular season hockey game, the so-called Winter Classic held in Wrigley Field, with more than 5-1/2 pages of coverage; the college football bowl games got 1-1/4); 2) entertainment news, because there's nothing that will bring back the young people faster than matching quizzes where we figure out which celebrity had which oddly-named child; and 3) more by-lined opinion pieces, including those odd off-center pictures that are all the rage (I'll grant that some reporters look better with half faces).

I really wonder if any of this will work. More local coverage may help circulation somewhat, but it still has to be news over novelty. A hockey game in Wrigley Field is unusual, to be sure, but page after page of what, in the end, is just a hockey game seems a questionable use of precious newsprint.

Covering entertainment seems a loser, given the number of outlets for that kind of "news"; a newspaper has to offer something extra, and grainy pictures of Brad and Angelina will never compare to those found in People magazine (or on the Internet, for that matter). Combining the first two seems even more questionable, given the lack of bona fide local celebrities in all but New York and Los Angeles (it's difficult for me to see a great city like Chicago falling all over itself when there is a not-so-rare Joan Cusack sighting, for heaven's sakes).

We're then left with opinion pieces, and that's probably the biggest hope for current publications, that they can offer words of wisdom from the experts and pundits of our time. But then, what do we actually get?

We get the likes of George Will (the nation's psychologist), David Brooks (the nation's sociologist), Charles Krauthammer (the nation's warmonger), and Peggy Noonan (the nation's dotty aunt - read this for her take on the recession; short summary, she's not seeing it when she walks around, but, if there is one, we will fix it only to ruin ourselves, or something). These are the seers, the people who will induce us to drop our dwindling dollars at the newsstand.

And yet...

If someone said to me that I could only have George Will or Mark Thoma, David Brooks or Brilliant at Breakfast, Peggy Noonan or Carrie's Nation, in each and every case I'd take the latter. The three I've cited, and many other blogs, are places of opinion where I can learn something, have my assumptions questioned, can get information from multiple sources. The "big" columnists tend to source very rarely (except for the "I spoke to a high official...") and offer completely predictable views on any subject that happens to interest them. It's not that I disagree with everything they write (not even Krauthammer!), it's just that they never present anything in a particularly interesting way, and they don't point me to anywhere else - it's just whatever emerges from their brainpans as deadline approaches.

If major publications want to save themselves, they need to get away from the idea that their "brand people" are going to do it. There is a welter of opinions free for the taking on the Internet, many more fascinating than the standard bunch. Maybe they need to redouble their efforts on basic reporting, the kind of thing it's hard to get from the blog world; if they can't make that work, then maybe we need to accept that the old world of journalism really is over.

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