Are Journalists the 21st Century's Buggy Whip Makers?
Newspapers might vanish, too, if they continue to ‘dream of past dominance while taking their product and trying to fit it into their competitor's terrain.’
In 1990, at the height of the Pacific Northwest battle over whether to cut the last virgin "old growth" timber, many loggers and sawmill owners panicked. Their specialty was cutting and sawing giant trees and, if the national forest supply disappeared, their equipment and skills were obsolete. Environmentalists were not sympathetic. These woods workers, they argued, were no different than the buggy whip makers put out of work when the automobile arrived. After all, times do change.
Today, the availability of inexpensive digital cameras and recorders, the triumph of the Internet, and the explosion of amateur Web-based publishing—MySpace.com, blogs, e-mails and Web sites—puts similar stress on those of us who remember the "good old days" of fat and sassy monopoly newspapers. When anyone can record and post information—the commodity for which reporters, editors, producers and photographers are paid—journalists are in danger of becoming a luxury society no longer can afford.
The direct cause of shrinking news staffs is a loss of advertising and circulation to new digital competition. But my questions—and they are still only questions—are whether recent layoffs because of loss of revenue are only part of the technological earthquake. Will the ubiquity of information make traditional journalism less valuable or even obsolete?
To paraphrase Andy Warhol, in the future everyone will be a journalist for 15 minutes. When crime victims can post wrenching accounts of assaults (and accompanying photos of bruises) and politicians bypass the press with Web-based campaigns, then the role journalists traditionally play is being usurped. Instead of sitting in the front row of history being made, we're now two or three rows back at hurricanes, tsunamis, wars and campaigns, with our view sometimes obstructed by on-the-spot, competing amateurs whose accounts of the event provide immediacy, passion and, yes, rumor, exaggeration and misinterpretation.
That's exactly the point, journalists protest. We aren't simply descriptive witnesses of spot news, but careful, accurate and fair reporters of what we observe. We collect vast amounts of disparate information and synthesize it into coherent stories. We cover the whole range of news, not the day's fancy of the blogosphere. We provide a sense of history and perspective. We're eloquent. We're witty. The world's pundits, gasbags and gadflies take their cue from what we produce. In short, we're indispensable.
But let's face it; a fair amount of traditional journalism has been mechanical, shoe-leather stuff. Sit through a routine council meeting or congressional hearing. Check the police blotter. Travel to a disaster. Record what is going on in stenographic fashion. And the less inspired the reporting is, the more it becomes obsolete in the Internet age. Why cover a council meeting, publishers might ask, when the handful of readers who care about it can access documents and testimony online? Why travel to a distant forest fire when those who want to follow its progress can go on the Web to find photos, a wire story, and some eyewitness accounts?
People used to pay newspapers to gather information that was often expensive or tedious to find. But with the Internet, we have lost our monopoly on information. Yes, newspapers have numerous advantages, but so did horses. They were quieter than cars, less likely to get stuck, could be fueled in a field, and didn't depreciate as quickly. But have you commuted by horseback lately?
I live in a small city of about 15,000 about 60 miles north of Seattle. Citizen Web sites on contentious land use and community issues often offer more detailed information and trenchant analysis than the local weekly. Their weaknesses: one-sidedness and a tendency to come and go. Still, amateurs with a cause have more time to devote to researching an issue—and more Web space to show what they've discovered—than the harried reporter on the tiny staff of a paper publication. At our Starbucks, the only newspaper we can buy is The New York Times, published 3,000 miles away. This adds up to one mega coffee corporation plus one mega media corporation equals local journalism be damned. Seattle's dailies, by their admission, are more "Seattle-centric" due to newsroom budget cuts. Coverage of national and regional news—not to mention international stories—is increasingly left to the five big national newspapers—the Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today—and the wire services.
From an old-line journalist's perspective, what's even worse is our declining relevance to advertisers. I shop for an automobile, appliances, electronics and even clothes online. I found my house online. Some people find spouses online. Is it any wonder newspaper revenues are shrinking? And this same earthquake has rocked the travel industry, the advertising industry, the real estate industry, the telecommunications industry, and even the movie industry, where "a cast of thousands" is replaced by digitized extras. Guidebooks and maps give way to handy navigation systems and Web sites. Receptionists were long ago replaced with robotic telephone menus.
A New Media Terrain
While journalists might be becoming a luxury the media business is ready to do without, media jobs aren't disappearing. In fact, they are on the rise as Web sites and blogs emerge to disseminate an ocean of information in ever more clever ways. For someone who yearns to shuttle or repackage information, or comment on it instead of generate it, the good times are rolling. Specialty newspapers and magazines—aimed at enthusiasts—which pull in advertising by doing friendly pieces on the industries they cover are thriving. The number of books published and movies made each year grows, and TV channels are proliferating.
But the on-the-ground newspaper reporter—whose purpose is to fulfill an essential function of our democracy not just by disseminating information but also by analyzing it, detecting patterns, spotting trends, and increasing societal understanding—is being starved of resources. Lifetime security is long gone. Travel budgets are disappearing. Overseas bureaus are closed. The most veteran and knowledgeable reporters—expensive to keep on board—are being encouraged to leave through buyouts and cutbacks.
Despite this depletion of resources, the need to "make sense" will not go away. Those who are adept at being incisive and eloquent will be even more valuable, migrating to national publications. (And I'll read what they write at my local Starbucks.) But what of local yeomen, journalists who make government and society function with more accountability and understanding because of their reporting on regional, state and local issues? Will they continue to serve this purpose or has evolution of technology doomed them like the dodo bird?
Newspaper journalism has a strong case to make. At its best, it offers a combination of perspective, authority, penetration, accuracy, comprehensiveness, brevity and ease of use that other media can't match. And newspapers offer something the Web can never really duplicate—the serendipitous discovery of an intriguing article or a remarkable picture, an eye-opening cartoon or an explanatory graphic, all in the process of just turning the page.
But newspapers rarely do a very good job of making their case. Rarely do they directly challenge their competitors by touting the quality of their information; instead they dream of past dominance while taking their product and trying to fit it into their competitor's terrain. Yet newspapers have expertise and archives that dwarf the competition. Reporters use only a fraction of their notes. Almost none of a newspaper's decades of accumulated information—its archive of history—is effectively marketed and sold.
Maybe newspapers can—and will—reinvent themselves. It seems almost certain that journalists will write with more expertise for more targeted audiences willing to pay for slices of premium information. Some of the daily newspaper reporters laid off from their jobs will likely migrate to special-interest publications. And this might be fine for the survival of our species (the reporter), but writing for narrow audiences sounds like a recipe for boredom and not particularly good for democracy, either. Our society already has too few who know a little bit about a lot and can make sense of the big picture.
The Web, meanwhile, has too few well trained in the pursuit of accuracy, fairness and perspective. Like the Platte River, Web journalism threatens to become a mile wide and an inch deep.
Surely folks want to keep us buggy whip makers around. But then again, sawmills did close, and if you want a buggy ride, go to Central Park.
William Dietrich, a 1988 Nieman Fellow, is an author and Sunday magazine writer with The Seattle Times.