Having grown up inÂ Brooklyn, speaking an accent that’sÂ almost aÂ dialect, I’ve alwaysÂ enjoyed regional idioms andÂ theÂ folk wisdomÂ they reveal. One of my favorite acquiredÂ sayings is, “that dog won’t hunt.”Â That’s howÂ good-old-boys describe actions or ideas they consider to be unworkable.
These days I think ofÂ newspaper journalism as a dog that won’t hunt.Â IÂ say this sadly becauseÂ I enjoy newspaper work. But facts are facts andÂ it costs money toÂ employ a bunch ofÂ journalistsÂ even if individually theyÂ don’tÂ make much. Eric Schmidt worriesÂ about the future of newspapers.Â Their demise would leaveÂ GoogleÂ bereft of content to scrape, as heÂ told Frontline.Â Â
ButÂ journalism’s hard times cannot simply be blamed onÂ the web.Â Rafat Ali, shown above, was “a laid-off dot-com reporter who’s making money online writing about, well,Â making money online.” That’s how Wired News profiled him in 2003. Last week hundreds of media entrepreneurs, investors and observers gathered in San Francisco under the banner of Ali’s Paid Content.
Now that dog can hunt.
Daily journalism, by contrast,Â has grown accustomed to being supported, of notÂ having to think too hardÂ about where money comes from.Â Editorial departments areÂ remarkably separate from advertising. That’s one of the hallmarks of newspaper culture and it is meant to insulate coverage from commercial pressure to the greatest extent possible.
NowÂ long years ofÂ being disconnected from the economic realities of the business hasÂ made the newspaper guys weak. They don’t know how to make their writingÂ valuable.Â Newspapers areÂ hoping to transfer their business model to the web.Â The Los Angeles TimesÂ became the latest big paperÂ to revampÂ its editorial operationsÂ around the web.Â New research indicates that readership increases substantially when online viewers are considered, but these online readersÂ don’t command nearly the advertising revenue, per capita, as the declining ranks of print readers.
Meanwhile it’s a bleak time for paid news gatherers, as this report suggests:
“The media industry slashed 17,809 jobs last year, a nearly two-fold increase from the 9,453 cuts in 2005, outplacement consultancy Challenger Gray & Christmas said. The figure was the industry’s largest annual job-cut total since 43,420 media job cuts accompanied the collapse of the technology bubble in 2001, the survey said.”
The futureÂ — and here I mean of the republic rather than the folks getting riffed — need not be bleak if the loss of paid newsgathering positions is offset by a greater citizen participation. That is the promise of We Media and the citizen journalism movement. But citizen media has yet to earn its stripes in the watchdog department.Â
Meanwhile paidÂ journalists willÂ have toÂ learn howÂ to makeÂ moneyÂ from their works.Â Thay will have to get entrepreneurial.Â It may be possible for more hadworking specialty reporters like Rafat Ali to pick off topics that lend themselves to some sort of electronic trade publication.
But newspapers won’t be able to cherrypick topics. They can’t just cover the money-making topicsÂ that fill the sections inside theÂ paper. Ideally, theyÂ have to write about the powerless and confront the powerful.Â While critics feel mainstream media hasÂ performed poorlyÂ in this regard I do not see any successor institution ready to do at least as well if not better. As the New Yorker’s Malcomn Gladwell blogged recently:
“We are dismantling the institution of newspaper journalism precisely at the moment when it seems to be of greatest social value.”