March 22, 2009

The Only Thing To Fear Is Fear Itself

Posted in Media overviews tagged , , , , at 12:08 pm by M L Clark

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a 146-year-old publication, printed its last issue on March 17; moving forward, it will be online-only. The San Francisco Chronicle was similarly threatened last week; it hangs on with the possibility of becoming a non-profit organization, or merging with other regional news outlets.

Though friends send me links about the most striking losses in the print and broadcast journalism fields, the truth is that I’ve been following job losses, mergers, bankruptcies, and budget cuts for three years now. Anyone with any sustained interest in journalism has done the same for at least as long. The first post on this blog, written a year ago, especially notes the lengthy articles written in various publications over the past few years about the future of journalism — though many will say the discussion began in the ’90s, or earlier, and they’re likely right: I just haven’t been in the field that long yet myself.

In any case, it’s not a new debate, and that’s precisely what I feel many people don’t realize when they weigh in. Especially striking is how conversation on this topic is framed around these most prominent losses, such that my friends’ questions become “What are you going to do in journalism [in light of this]” or “What do you think the future of journalism will be [in light of this]?” These are good questions, but troubling ones, because they guide the answers as reactions to these events — when really, the answers at this point should stand incident-independent.

But before I get to these specific answers I should note that those outside the realm of journalism are not the only ones framing their questions and concerns in direct response to these monolithic collapses. Rather, quite a few disgruntled journalism majors and members of the industry are weighing in, too — to tell everyone how they’re “getting out.” In the case of journalism majors, boy, let me tell you: the reaction of many in this regard does nothing to placate my dislike for their programs; rather, these petulant grads make it clear just how many acquire their degrees with an unhealthy dose of entitlement — to jobs, to stability, to automatic repute in the journalism world. The journalism greats of old did not learn journalism in classrooms; they came from other degree programs, or else no university or college education at all, and in either case plucked up enough courage to engage their city publications and start as low-level reporters, working their way up to notoriety.

This lacking drive can be felt in the newsrooms just as much as it can in classes: members of the traditional media corps are also jumping ship to other careers. While the financial imperative is understandable, especially among those with families to support, less so is their blind endorsement of others doing the same. I would, for instance, kill to hear someone say “I don’t have the means to pursue the profession in this changing environment — but I wish all the best to those who stick with it anyway.” But of course, to say something like this, one would have to grasp a basic, underlying tenet of this whole transformation: specifically, that its existence is the one fact we can and should rely upon.

Yes, journalism is changing. Is the human desire for information about the world we live in changing, too? No. Not at all. So there will always be a need for news — and with it, people to acquire, distribute, and analyze this news. As such, our questions as journalists are the same as they’ve ever been:

1) What is the quality of current news reporting?
2) What can we do to improve or maintain this quality of reporting?
3) What areas of our world are under-reported?
4) How can we address these lapses?

Some commentators are so mired in questions one and three — their fears about what is being lost in the midst of this dramatic upheaval — that they can’t progress to questions two and four. Frankly, this is more troubling than the answers to one and three themselves. Yes, the quality of current news reporting is greatly diminished by newsroom and foreign bureau cuts, to say nothing of explicit job losses. Yes, huge lapses in the quality of investigative journalism, both at home and abroad, are already being noted by journalism organizations. All right, we get it.

But as two notable bloggers, Clay Shirky and Steven Berlin Johnson both note in very lengthy, but exceptionally potent essays, the fixation on these problems as signs of The End of Things is narrow-minded and fear-based.

What we exist in is a time of transition, a time in which new vehicles for reporting will rise up to supplant the old. This means that, as the old forms of media are diminished (I hesitate to suggest they will ever fully disappear: I find that doubtful, myself), gaps in coverage, and sponsorship for this coverage, necessarily emerge. Johnson likens this void to the expectant nature of computer magazine readers in the mid to late eighties: the potential for a huge new data stream was there, but as of yet unformed; and though many a reader would eagerly await the next issue of, say, MacWorld, surely none could fathom the modern day equivalent: an excess of Apple news in print and daily online. Shirky emphasizes this point in his own essay: We cannot see the shape of things to come, but in the meantime, the only thing to fear is fear itself.

And so, like the realm of computer information in the eighties, so too is the world of journalism now increasingly an expectant void — with many current lapses noted in response to the first and third questions, and few concrete, tried-and-true answers to these lapses in the second and fourth. And yet the need for answers to these questions persists — as does humanity’s overarching, all-consuming need for more information about the world we live in.

The moment that unrelenting inquisitiveness disappears, then we can talk about the sky falling in Journalism Land. Until then, it’s only our own pride and complacency that needs to be checked: For journalists today the task is not to moor ourselves to any one vehicle for the acquisition, distribution, or analysis of news that matters: rather, it’s to stay adaptable, keep learning, maintain humility, and engage the changing media landscape with an open mind and a loyal heart.

And any who can’t manage this (for reasons other than their need to attend to lives in their care) probably weren’t pursuing journalism for the right reasons in the first place — so to them I say, thank you. Thank you for getting the hell out.

1 Comment »

  1. Andrew said,

    It may grant new and innovative ideas, but an easy transition it will not be. As much as it pains much of the world, myself included, money still speaks loudest. Even as people transition to the internet, it is a gulf between subscription for paper delivery and online ad revenues, which I know have plummeted between 75-90%. Without the funds to do the hard work, the creative journalism, to put feet to pavement as much as necessary to get the job done, it will be a much harder world to work in, one perhaps where we don’t need censorship or panning in order to be hit with a much reduced pool of opinion and insight.

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