Can newspapers & journalism survive?

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"No one is certain how it will all shake out."

After 25 years as a reporter and editor at The Miami Herald, The Atlanta Constitution, the Los Angeles Times, The Orange County Register, and The Honolulu Advertiser, news executive Mark Platte recently moved into broadcast journalism as news director for Hawaii News Now, Hawaii's largest broadcast news entity. He told me: "Journalism is absolutely under siege, and though we keep hearing that it's actually a good thing that more and more people can practice journalism through blogs, tweets, and other electronic means, it's absolutely a false notion. Great media institutions spend time and money to research, investigate, and publish important stories worthy of the public's attention. If that goes away, we are a poorer society."

Crowdsourcing and the end of fat, happy days

All Tim Berners-Lee wanted to accomplish when he conceived the platform that would lead to the creation of the World Wide Web, on Christmas Day 1990, was to make it easier for a group of geeky, genius physics researchers to communicate and share their research. Even a few years in, he had little sense that he and computer scientist Robert Cailliau and others had set in motion a force that would trigger the third major shift in human communications and culture, from print to digital.

Elisabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change has written extensively about the second major revolution in communications and culture, from manuscript to print (the first revolution being from oral to manuscript). She traces three seminal movements in human history directly to the invention of the printing press—the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and modern scientific inquiry. Point being, communication and media revolutions are far more sweeping than we understand in the moment, and we are living through the very early years of another pivot point in human history as far as communication and culture. Prior communication revolutions have disrupted multiple domains—science, religion, politics, education, medicine, commerce, and media of course—and the digital version is no different. Newspapers and journalism are hardly alone in their pain and disorientation.

"We're not the only industry that's been affected by disruptive change, and we shouldn't think of ourselves as being the only one," said Marty Baron, editor of The Boston Globe, one of the earliest newspapers to embrace an aggressive strategy on the Web and in the digital space. "Take a look at the music industry, the entertainment industry, the travel industry. There are a whole range of industries that have been dramatically affected by changing technology. Where we as an industry failed ourselves was not investing in research and development. The industry had its fat, happy days and it wanted to maintain its fat, happy days.

"When I look at the signature innovations in the media environment of the last 10 years, not a single one of them grew out of a traditional media company. Not Google. Not Flickr. Not YouTube. Not Facebook. Just run down the list of the most interesting new players in the media environment and not one of them came from a traditional media organization," Baron said.

Through the decades, newspapers and journalism have been reshaped by several communication and media innovations. The invention of the telegraph, radio, television, and cable all forced dramatic rethinking. Some entities didn't make it. New ones arose. The principles of creative disruption did what they do in the way that they do, bringing pain and uncertainty, but also progress and innovation.

But the Web is different from past disruptions. It is a combination of all of them rolled into one, and then some. It's audio. It's video. It's mobile. It's ubiquitous. It's ever-present. It's instant. It's whenever you want it, wherever you are. Today's version of the Web radiates a completely different energy than even the early days of the Web in the 1990s when we had dial-up connections. Broadband and speed are what truly reframed the world for media and information enterprises like newspapers.

"The old business models are not working in part because they are based on old understandings of what it means to read a newspaper," said media scholar Henry Jenkins. He has been at the forefront of probing how digital-age forms of sociality, connectivity, and communication have affected journalism, entertainment, and media. "News consumption is now much more of a collective than a solitary experience," said Jenkins, who recently joined the University of Southern California after leaving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directed MIT's Comparative Media Studies graduate program. "We still imagine the classic image of the gentleman having breakfast, sipping tea, his newspaper open in front of him, seeking refuge from any and all interruptions. … The problem is that while some of us old-timers may still read the newspaper that way, most of us do not."

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Spring 2011

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