The Fate of Journalism

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Author: Arielle Darr

Whether going home to a rural town, small suburb or big city, Oxy students might be surprised to discover that their local newspapers cease to exist. A new study featured in the Editor & Publisher journal predicts that over the course of the next two years newspapers in major cities across the country may go bankrupt and out of business. The article “Several Cities Could Have No Daily Paper As Soon As 2010, Credit Rater Says,” emphasizes a critical turning point in the newspaper industry.

Tough economic times have left working Americans pessimistic about the future of the business world. According to the report about the outlook for U.S. media and entertainment done by a credit rating firm in Chicago known as Fitch Ratings, “the newspaper industry is the most as risk of defaulting.”

In fact, according to the Editor and Publisher article, “Fitch believes more newspapers and newspaper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010.” This grim outlook comes “as the newspaper industry struggles to reinvent its business model in the midst of an economic downturn and falling advertising,” said Lorene Yue of the ChicagoBusiness.com. While the end appears to loom near for several papers nationwide, the crisis is not limited to small local papers.

Recent implications of the economic crisis, as well as the consequences of our shift to a more technologically inclined society, can be observed in widely circulated local and national newspapers. In recent months, job cuts, buyouts, and required days off without pay have been the consequences that face many papers nationwide according to Eric Alterman’s article “Out of Print: The Death and Life of the American Newspaper” featured in The New Yorker. In early January, The Boston Globe – Boston’s most circulated paper – announced its plans to reduce its payroll by 50 newsroom jobs or 12% of their news and editorial staff. According to the Boston Globe Business Team, the result of this staff reduction, the fifth since 2001, “is because the Globe, like newspapers everywhere, struggles with the migration of advertisers and readers to the Internet, consolidation of the retail industry, and a recession forecast to be the deepest in decades.”

“The economic downturn hasn’t helped,” said Globe spokesman Bob Powers.

Many news companies like Gannett Co. and Tribune Co. have continued to trim their costs, and papers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and The Rocky Mountain News – Colorado’s oldest paper – were put up for sale. Other papers facing job cuts are The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, The Hartford Courant, The Baltimore Sun, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times, among others.

While the economy has played a drastic role in the decline of the newspaper industry, the role of technology – specifically the growth of the internet – has greatly impacted media in the United States for over ten years. As technology has become more advanced and easily accessible, the internet has presented the American public with a multitude of possibilities that transcend the traditional print newspaper of our past. Staying updated on local, national, or even global news can be free and does not even require one to ever pick up a paper, as there are several television news stations to pick from or internet resources to investigate. In fact, according to James Warren of The Atlantic, “newspaper penetration – the number of households looking at a paper – now amounts to less than 18 percent of the population, compared with 33 percent back in 1946.”

In the past the newspaper industry has had to compete with the invention of the radio and television. Today, accessing news is as easy as typing a URL or search word into a web browser. To keep up with the high-speed trend, most newspapers and television news programs have created online counterparts. The development of online newspapers has decreased the popularity of print copies according to John Gardner of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent in the article “Newspaper industry facing huge challenges.”While a decline in readership and circulation is problematic for the newspaper industry, advertisers are also targeting different sources – popular internet sites – that are soaking up the advertisement profit. This has further caused papers to lose revenue in an already tough economic situation.

In their article, The Boston Globe Business Team quotes Louis Ureneck, chairman of Boston University’s Journalism Department saying, “These are the darkest days for newspapers. They have more readers than ever when you count online readers, but they have yet to figure out how to translate the interest in news on the Internet into revenue.” In addition, new modes of news reading have developed in the form of mock television news shows (such as The Daily Show) and the online blog craze, where anyone can post anything and there are thousands of different blogs to choose from. These increasingly popular media sources have transformed the way many American’s get their news and have created even more competition for more traditional news outlets.

Whatever an individual’s preference, it is clear that technology has changed the course of journalism. As papers face more and more challenges daily, the Internet has been more successful than ever. In a February 4th, 2009 update by Daisy Whitney from TVWeek.com, a recent comScore report revealed that “web video viewership jumped 13% in December from the month before.The online audience measurement firm found that Internet users in the United States watched a record 14.3 billion online videos in December, a 13% rise from the previous month.” While only focusing on one sector of the Internet, this study clearly demonstrates the Internet’s popularity and sustainability as a resource that will continue to rise.

While the current situation looks grim, “today’s trends don’t necessarily mean the end of newspapers altogether, but it does signify a change in the media as we currently know it,” said Gardner. Many speak of a reinvention of journalism to keep the newspaper industry afloat. Some are hopeful that the newspaper industry does not necessarily need to be in print and in fact can gain certain benefits from technological advancements. “To me, it doesn’t matter whether the printed word.appears on a piece of paper or on a screen. The technology actually could allow for some incredible journalism – long narrative, hyperlinks, audio and video, etc,” said New York Times journalist and professor of journalism at Columbia University, Samuel Freedman, in a Weekly interview. The problem, according to Freedman, is not adapting to the technology but “whether enough advertising will ever come to news organizations, or whether a financial model that uses memberships (a.k.a. public radio) or non-profit status can stabilize the economics of the industry.”

Others are not so sure the newspaper industry is ready for the change. “We are in a new era in terms of communication and unfortunately the news industry, particularly print, have been very slow to change the way they do business,” said assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Richard Stevens.

Increasing use of the Internet and wireless devices for news may be a sign that the end of print media is near. “We’ve got senior citizens and we’ve got middle-aged people still subscribing to newspapers, but it could be an historic inevitability through the passage of time that the next generation of senior citizens are using wireless devices,” said Dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Paul Voakes.

However, former Los Angeles Times Writer and Editor and Adjunct Professor of English Writing at Occidental College, Bob Sipchen, believes that there will always be as place for print media in the United States. “I have no doubt that print will outl
ast TiVo and Wii, Blackberry and most other hot media/platforms/content delivery devices or whatever you want to call them.” This, however, does not mean that the notion of traditional media will not evolve.

“We’ll have good newspapers for a long time to come. That said, though, I think it’s the ‘news’ part that’s important and it will thrive in some still undefined multi-media form,” said Sipchen. This new form of journalism is important because “there’s no doubt that the internet will gain supremacy soon – if it hasn’t already,” Sipchen said.

This does not mean the end of journalism or the newspaper industry, but rather a modified version. “We haven’t experienced a communication revolution like this probably since the printing press was invented. But I don’t think that means automatically that the print industry is doomed. I just think it means that they are going to have to rethink the way they do business and find a new philosophy and a new place in the American media diet. We have to change or die. It’s evolution. It’s that simple,” Stevens said.

While the future of the newspaper industry is not certain, there are people speculating about consequences that can potentially arise if many newspapers disappear by 2010 as Fitch Ratings predicted. “At the most basic level, it means that citizens in a great many cities won’t have a reliable print source of local news,” said Freedman. “National papers like the Times or USA Today or the WSJ can’t possibly fill that role, nor can websites like Politico or ProPublica. Websites will exist, of course, but where will they get their content? And so many blogs are amateurish and/or geared to opinion rather than reportage.” As much as people look to other sources for news, it would be virtually impossible for all these media outlets to function successfully without the help of the newspaper industry.

In addition, questions about the legitimacy of our American democracy arise with the possibility of a downfall of the newspaper industry. “There’s a reason that the founders made protection of a free press the First Amendment to the Constitution; a reason that Thomas Jefferson famously said: ‘Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate for a moment to choose the latter.’ Democracy can’t exist in my view without a robust free press,” said Sipchen.

Despite these consequences, there are Americans who cannot see the traditional newspaper industry surviving as it currently is. Paul Gillin, a newspaper enthusiast who spent much of his life as a print and online technology journalist, runs a blog called Newspaper Death Watch: Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and the Rebirth of Journalism. He says that, despite the title of his blog, he has “always had the greatest respect for the institution of the newspaper.”

However, Gillin also writes, “Sadly, the economic foundation of these media scions is badly broken. The high fixed cost of print publishing makes the major metro newspaper business model unsustainable in a world that increasingly wants information to be free. Readership has been in decline for 30 years and shows no signs of ending. Meanwhile, new competition has sprung up online with a vastly superior cost structure and an interactive format that appeals to the new generation of readers.”While his site and message may appear pessimistic, “Ultimately, this painful decline will give birth to a new model of journalism built upon aggregation and reader-generated content. I’m an optimist, and I think the new journalism will be better in many ways than what preceded it. It’s just that getting there is going to hurt a lot,” said Gillin.

To college students and young Americans, this trend is clearly relevant. It is primarily the younger generations leading the internet revolution and entering the workforce; therefore it will be these generations that will transform the future industry of journalism.

Many young people look to blogs or television shows, such as the aforementioned The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, to get their news. “I think The Daily Show is a great source in the sense that it devotes more time to serious news and serious books than ANY network newscast,” said Freedman.

“But it also has a self-selecting audience – that is, only people who already know the news pretty well can get the jokes, so that’s who tunes in. My problem with depending just on blogs is that they’re mostly opinion and if you don’t also know the objective reality that you can too readily take opinion as fact,” said Freedman. Young people will have to evaluate and determine legitimate methods of taking news from sources beyond papers. In addition, the people who choose to enter the world of journalism are entering an industry with a very uncertain future. What is known is that there will be a lot of changes to undergo, and yet still college students are sacrificing this to do something they believe in and love. In a poll featured on the Newspaperdeathwatch.com, posed the question “would you advise a college student to pursue a journalism career.” With a current total of 150 votes 21% said “yes,” 60% “no” and 19% said “it depends on your specialty.” These results further illustrate the recurring trend in schools. Students continue to major in journalism, but many are wary of the difficulties ahead. “There will be jobs because the trade itself – journalism – is indispensable and people will always pay for something that’s indispensable. In the short term, though, many of my massively talented and experienced peers, let alone freshly minted young journalist, are hurting,” said Sipchen.

Still, future journalists and newspaper enthusiasts have reason to hope that the newspaper industry will bounce back. In an email exchange with former Oxy student, Peter Frick-Wright, Sipchen received “an interesting online video clip of comic book guru Scott McCloud discussing comics in the digital age. He used a term I hadn’t heard that will take comic narrative in a significant new direction: ‘Durable mutation.’ I think that’s what journalism is looking for now. There is going to be a place for strong, honest, entertaining, engaging, skeptical journalism. There has to be. It’s just that no one knows what shape or direction that durable mutation will look like yet,” said Sipchen.

For all generations – young, old, technologically adept or not – the future of the newspaper industry in the United States is an issue important to all Americans and the subsequent future of our society. Uncertainty lies ahead. This does not mean death but rebirth. As those in power try to adapt to hard times, young people everywhere with dreams of becoming journalists strive to continue the legacy that is American journalism. Freedman encourages them to remember, “Don’t give up. There will be journalism and there will be a news industry and there will be jobs. As I often say, do what you love now. If it doesn’t work out, you can always go to law school later.”

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