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Old Dec 25th, 2009, 11:03 PM   #1
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Future of Journalism

This is too tangential to the discussion in the Global Warming thread for me to post it there, but I'd like to hear other's considered opinions on this article regarding the implosion of the news industry. I'm especially interested in SINC's opinion's on this, as a professional in the field, but I'm also keen to hear what others have to say on the issue.

Personally, I think the newspaper as an entity is going away, permanently. That being said, I think the role in society of the investigative journalist remains essential, and remains something people are willing to pay for. I'm not sure how this will pan out, but I'm thinking that future reporters will all be free-lancers, and the future Woodworth and Bernsteins will be selling their scoops to the highest bidders. The problem here is that, in the analogy I've used, I'm thinking the RNC would be a very high bidder, and the public's "right to know" is therefore in grave danger.

If anyone can see a salubrious solution to this obvious societal problem, please lets' hear it.
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Old Dec 26th, 2009, 01:33 AM   #2
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Originally Posted by bryanc View Post
This is too tangential to the discussion in the Global Warming thread for me to post it there, but I'd like to hear other's considered opinions on this article regarding the implosion of the news industry. I'm especially interested in SINC's opinion's on this, as a professional in the field, but I'm also keen to hear what others have to say on the issue.
I am not as old a newspaperman as Don, but I put my time in that field, doing every position from beat reporter and obit writer to arts editor and food critic. Even did "production manager" and "editor-in-chief" on some publications.

Although there is still some great, genuine journalism being done out there, its definitely not in its heyday and I'd say greatly on the decline (in newspapers). It's not PROFITABLE, y'see ...

I think most reporters today are too comfortable, too cozy with their sources, too compromised. TV journalism is almost completely dead, and that (more than anything else, IMHO) is what killed good print journalism. I kind of wanted to get back into regular newspaper work at some point and I'm disappointed it likely won't be around (at least in terms of big papers; small papers and trade papers are doing okay it seems to me) for much longer, but I don't subscribe to the school of thought that the internet killed newspapers anymore than I believe television killed movies. What's killing newspapers is NEWSPAPERS.

They're full of fluff, bad writing, easily-disproven hype and nonsense, editorial idiocy, too much advertising, "advertorials" (gaaaaah!), mindless feel-good "verbiage" (AAAAAAH!) and the same damn comics that ran when I was a wee LAD, as though there have been no new cartoonists of any talent for the last 40 years. People may be pretty gullible or have poor reasoning skills due to bad-quality education, but don't mistake that for STUPIDITY. Most people do still have a BS detector and they still sense that they're being lied to most of the time.

Managerial and editorial mistakes abounding, but the worse being the idea that newspapers have to be corporate profit centres. Dumbest. Idea. Ever. And worse, the profit motive has totally compromised the newspapers' abilities to reform even if they wanted to. They can no longer be bold and fearless and revolutionary and daring. Now they have to manufacture artificial outrage, hype and fear to keep the readers they once kept by being original, informative and accurate. Newspapers should alway be owned either by small companies that run them mainly as a community service, or by companies that make great profits on other stuff and consider the news division a "public service" that loses a bit of money. That's the way it used to be, and it worked.

There's still a rich market out there for publications that offer solid, well-researched, investigative and in-depth journalism. Trade mags often do quite a bit better than mainstream mags, particularly when the mainstream offers so much fluff and so little substance. I haven't dipped into too many Canadian newspapers and mags yet, but I've seen some pretty bad ones and a few really good ones. At least Canadian publications and media TRY harder than their US counterparts ...

The problem comes back to education (every time); more people need to learn how to really READ (as in "critical analysis" and complex levels of understanding), then you need to train reporters on how to really REPORT (not just act as PR stenographers or ideologues -- far too many of those sorts in the "news" business these days). There can be some editorial bias in newspapers, that's not really a big deal -- but you have to confine it to the editorial section as much as possible. I personally think its okay for papers to have a "left" or "right" slant (at least editorially) if you've got a savvy audience -- they'll decode your bias right out and get to the actual information -- but you've got to try and keep it out of the reporting, because the goal of the news should be to learn the truth. That's been largely forgotten these days in favour of making the facts fit "the narrative" or just taking what's been said by the "players" literally on face value, ignoring the fact that what they say is pure "spin." Hell, "spin" has been embraced as a facet of journalism. In my day, we called that "bullshit" and tried hard to ignore it and find out what's really going on ...

The guy who invented the concept of "advertorial" needs to be tortured to death, as does the fellow who decided that TV news programs (and then newspaper and radio news) needed to be profit centres instead of being "carried" by the entertainment divisions. Tortured to death HORRIBLY.

I'm not too worried about the future of investigative journalism. Some of these blogs out there have moved into that field with great success, driven more by PASSION than by PROFIT. That's a good thing, and I don't think you can ever really kill off the need to find out the real story.

But as I said above, a smarter AUDIENCE would increase demand for smarter WRITING. This is why "reason" "logic" and "critical analysis" need to make a HUGE comeback in schools ASAP -- we are currently living in an epidemic of ignorance (and worse, ignorance that's CELEBRATED) that threatens to take us back to a new Dark Age.

I'm not sure how this will pan out, but I'm thinking that future reporters will all be free-lancers
Essentially, Matt Drudge has already invented this (though whatever credibility he once had is long gone, he is -- or should be -- an industry joke by now).

Personally I think you need to google "citizen journalism" and look at some of the work being done on blogs (both left and right, though I would have to tell you honestly that more genuine journalism appears on "lefty" blogs than "righty" blogs, at least in the US). Magazine journalism (which I have always called "post-mortem" journalism since it excels mainly and deconstructing and studying an event AFTER its happened rather than WHILE its happened) may well find a renaissance in the next generation of e-reader/media tablets/"the iSlate"(?). There's a GREAT DEAL of value in such analysis.

The "alt-weeklies" still do a lot of good work, and most of them IMHO have a good mix of solid content and entertainment, and less ethical compromises than you'd expect. "Real" newspapers could learn a lot from those publications, particularly on the ethics side.

This confounded emphasis on being "first" rather than being "right" has got to go, and ironically the generation that largely ignores newspapers and flouts the language of corporate journalism (ooh, there's a phrase I hate) may very well be the ones to return journalism to its roots -- the careful, considered, concise search for truth.

(and for the cynics who will say journalism has never been like that -- oh yes it has. I was there. It was never perfect, of course, and swings back and forth through the eras, but it existed.)
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Old Dec 26th, 2009, 01:48 AM   #3
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I agree with some of what Chas has to say here, but I believe that the problem isn't so so much that the newspapers have to be profit centres--it's that in the days of bigger investigative journalism, they were MASSIVE profit centres. They could afford to be bold and name names and still be the only way for advertisers to reach certain readers. You have less of a chance to do that when you're on a razor-thin profit margin or actually losing money

Investigative journalism will continue online and elsewhere with the various camps championing their own left and right-wing investigators as audiences continue to polarize.
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Old Dec 26th, 2009, 02:36 PM   #4
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I find most news today regurgitated from one or two sources and there's a good chance this will be the trend for the future. Financially struggling newspaper and TV industries have fewer and fewer of their own people in the field.

I think freelancers would have a hard time in what's generally referred to as "investigative reporting". Woodward&Bernstein would not get "deep throat" without their association with the Washington Post. Some sort of agency association and/or accreditation will be required to access events, people and sources.

Just this past week we have seen the Supreme Court of Canada allow a new libel defense. Which will certainly lower the overall standards. Especially in the bloogger sphere.
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Old Dec 26th, 2009, 03:24 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by bryanc View Post
This is too tangential to the discussion in the Global Warming thread for me to post it there, but I'd like to hear other's considered opinions on this article regarding the implosion of the news industry. I'm especially interested in SINC's opinion's on this, as a professional in the field, but I'm also keen to hear what others have to say on the issue.
Please forgive the length of this post, but once I got started, it snowballed just a bit. I should add that in my over 40 plus years in newspapers, I served in every conceivable position from the circulation department to the board room. I also served as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer as we grew the company from 19 publications when I took over to 165 publications when I retired 12 years later.

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” - Mark Twain

That quote may aptly sum up the situation facing some newspapers today. While many so-called “experts” are more than ready to pronounce the newspaper industry dead, and mostly by their own hand, nothing could be further from the truth in some cases.

To understand this overall prognosis, one must first understand the newspaper. In fact the very term “newspaper” does not adequately describe the predicament many publications find themselves in today. Note I use the term “publications” and not newspapers.

I can agree with chas_m that there are many thriving publications out there that serve niche markets and do so very well. Some of them use the newspaper format, while others use varying formats ranging from glossy magazines to simple newsletters to online only editions. The key to their success is found in that small word “serve”. If they focus on a single industry, a single professional association or whatever, they survive because they serve a useful purpose to the end user or reader.

Those publications focus on specific areas and stay within the boundaries of their subject matter. I suspect bryanc can relate to some of these publications that he reads, related directly to his field, be they in whatever format including those online only editions.

But bryanc’s question did use the term newspaper, so let’s have a look at the industry itself. You can loosely divide newspapers into two distinct types, those being weeklies and dailies. And each of those types can be broken down into other categories such as tri-weekly, bi-weekly and dailies who publish anywhere from five to seven times a week. For the sake of argument, lets leave it as simply the two parts, daily or weekly for purposes here.

I’ve worked for, and with dailies that have circulations of anywhere from 10,000 to 150,000 readers. And while dailies do indeed have a local news component, usually relegated to the third page or even more commonly, the front page of the second section, they have a much broader focus than a weekly. As such unlike the weekly, they carry more national and international news and sports than local news. They also tend to categorize news into little “boxes” like lifestyle or business or automotive sections for example.

The layout and content is so varied, that an average reader might only touch on 30 percent or less of the content in any given reading day, depending on their interests. It also leaves the door wide open for a reader specifically interested in that “automotive” or “lifestyle” section to skip the paper altogether and visit a favourite web site containing the content sought via computer, or even more common now, the cell phone. The advantage to the reader in this scenario being, there is no ink on the hands, nothing to “buy”, nothing to carry and no waste of unread material to dispose of when done.

These dailies, usually dubbed “metro” dailies will surely have to continue morphing toward the paperless space of the web, or more likely, a combination of web and print to once again serve their cliental. Perhaps technology will evolve to allow metro dailies not to rely on their presses so much and to embrace the web. Imagine being able to print scannable links that could communicate via a simple click of your hand held device to get full details and pictures on that story on the internet. Since printing and distribution comprise the major portion of a daily’s costs, being able to compress all it’s news into a constant 12 page tab format linkable to the web for example, would result in great savings.

I can easily imagine pools of investigative journalists working not for newspapers, but for news provider firms who sell stories to dailies in ready to publish electronic form. That would leave the dailies staffing requirements limited to coverage of local government, police, fire, sports and feature material.

Gone will be the days of each individual paper, particularly in a group ownership position with individual sports editors and star columnists like days of old. I fought for this concept for many long years as a cost saving measure, but could never get it by the board of directors.

It was common for dailies located in Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Winnipeg to each send a contingent of columnists and photographers to major sporting events like the Grey Cup, The Stanley Cup, The Masters and the list went on, driving up the cost of coverage. Why, I argued, could not the sports team from an individual paper be used in rotation each year and supply copy of the event to all the other company owned papers? That way, a team of four could replace a contingent of 20 and reduce travel costs by a whopping 80 percent. Editors successfully lobbied board members to shoot down my idea.

Weeklies on the other hand are a different kettle of fish. Their prime objective is to deliver local news only, to fill their pages.

Most weeklies serve smaller communities and traditionally found it difficult to recruit good reporters. At not much above minimum wage, reporters who were class leaders at J-School were snapped up by the metro dailies. The larger bulk of the average reporters wound up in those poor paying entry level positions on weeklies.

And J-Schools did the weeklies no favours with their course content either. Reporters arrived fresh out of school ready to become instant investigative reporters on those small town weeklies. The first thing we had to do was to de-program them from the J-School pie in the sky they had been taught and introduce them to the real world of weekly reporting.

I coined the term “Refrigerator Journalism” many years ago and used it when initiating new reporters to weeklies. It was a simple concept. While we would cover council, police and fire beats, we would call that our “hard news” team and they would be the more experienced of our newsroom staff.

The balance of the staff would be responsible for “Refrigerator Journalism”. Quite simply that meant that if the coverage was not clipped out of the paper and hung on the fridge door by readers, it didn’t belong in our paper. To successfully complete this concept, we had to have pictures and names and faces in stories that people could be proud of and want to keep or display the printed version. It might be the guy on the high school hockey team who got a hat trick on the weekend. Or it may have been the figure skating display put on by the local club. It could be the science club at the school or a volunteer group planting flowers.

I also used to remind reporters that while they may have learned the “Five Ws” in J-School, it was missing the “H”. It should be: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How”. It is this type of community news that weeklies are, or should be, full of for readers.

That is why weeklies today in their traditional newspaper format are still widely read, cover to cover by residents of small communities. Many of them don’t even have a radio station and the weekly becomes their sole source of local news. They can get all the city, national and international news they need the same way city folks do, off TV, their computers or cell phones.

The death of weeklies is largely exaggerated indeed.

Back in the early nineties we began our assault on the internet by establishing a company web site. It was mostly about who we were, what we were and where we were located. Then we began to add our papers to the site in a drop down menu form, one by one as we developed individual web sites for each paper.

Our internet development team, of which I was a member met with much resistance, particularly from the editorial side who shunned the sites and viewed them as nothing more than an extra workload that no one would read. Ditto for the ad sales types who refused to even try and sell something they had no belief in being an asset to their clients.

In short, we had to beg and in some cases order, people to get involved to keep us on the forefront of web development. Anyone today in the business simply has to recognize the power of the internet and its impact on the industry. That early presence gave us a leg up on many other newspapers that did nothing while we set up our base structure. It also increased our classified revenue, albeit until the likes of Craigslist came along.

But weeklies too were not without their challenges. Most of it came in the form of a free distribution competitive newspaper and to make a long story short, eroded the paid circulation to nil on most weeklies. That left weeklies scrambling to seek replacement revenue streams, and find them they did.

Corporate owned weeklies, managed by bean counters and Bay street types who have no concept of how community newspapers work are hard at work destroying weeklies and providing start up opportunities for laid off employees by their own very actions. They are now ordering local publishers to modify their publications to become “cookie cutter” packages, (these publishers sometimes having four and five papers to manage as other publishers were cut out to save cost as “weekly clusters” were established), all using the same format, the same content, and the same ads in some cases to further reduce costs. Corporate greed is a nasty thing when senior management types, who fear for their jobs, don’t have the balls to stand up and holler “wrong”. The once proud history of individual 100-year-old weeklies are being eroded at an alarming rate.

I wrote about this on the Toronto Sun Family Blog recently. It is a blog by and for the laid off or retired members of the Sun Media group, now owned by Pierre Karl Peladeau of the Quebecor group in Montreal. You can learn an awful lot about the plight of newspapers by spending some time on the blog educating yourself about the industry and its successes and failures alike. It is located here:

Toronto Sun Family: 1971 - 2009

You can read my comments and the reaction to the weekly cuts here:

Toronto Sun Family: 1971 - 2009: Re new weeklies

I hope I have answered some of your questions bryanc.
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Old Dec 27th, 2009, 01:51 PM   #6
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Thanks for the well-informed and well-written analysis. It will be interesting to see how the dust settles over the next decade or two in this field.

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Old Dec 27th, 2009, 03:15 PM   #7
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Old Dec 31st, 2019, 12:32 PM   #8
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It's 10 years later. How has this thread started by bryanc fared?
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Old Dec 31st, 2019, 01:20 PM   #9
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1. People no longer value news coverage enough to pay for it.
2. The news coverage has lurched even more horribly to favour the left.
3. The Canadian government is paying news outlets for favourable coverage.

Originally Posted by CubaMark View Post
It's 10 years later. How has this thread started by bryanc fared?
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Old Dec 31st, 2019, 10:42 PM   #10
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Hello, Bigot.

Not enough by an order of magnitude.

And, and, of those that did, most of them did it to themselves. If I have to explain further, you wouldn't understand anyway.

Originally Posted by CubaMark View Post
More than 3,000 journalists lost their jobs this year. These are some of their stories.
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