Journalists: Keep the Change
The tireless digital journalism evangelist Amy Gahran has an excellent post on the Poynter Institute’s site, calling onto the carpet the newsroom foot-draggers blocking the way of journalistic innovation. She describes the culture in these newsrooms as “toxic.”
While she doesn’t name names, she describes types with an eerie verisimilitude. If you’ve spent time in newsrooms, you know these people well.
A few observations: Many of the folks who responded to the column (and Amy herself. And me) are change agents working from outside–former newsroom hands now working as profs, consultants, teachers, coaches and goads. We’re not in the trenches with the deadweight. As a former member of the newsroom of the Washington Post (through 2006), I can tell you tossing grenades from the inside is a lot harder than from the outside. I have the powder burns to show for it.
[He rushes to add: This is not to negate or devalue outsiders’ contributions. In fact, journalists can’t get here from there without people like Amy, who work elbow-to-elbow with journalists making the digital transition.]
Anyway, as evidence accumulates that ink-on-paper newspapers are in a death spiral, the internal opposition is hardening. And the newspaper itself is an impediment to change. As long as a daily newspaper exists, the best journalists in a newsroom will feed it and protect it and nurse it along.
I’m reminded of a nature TV program I saw where in an attempt to revive his dying mate, a male elephant tried to mount her as a way to forestall death.
And so it’s appears that a fully liberated group of insiders, those obligated to transform, will have to move the profession forward.
I’m thinking of the journalists who are lucky enough to work for operations whose leadership has the wisdom to fold the paper product when it’s still a strategic choice, not a pathetic end-game move of desperation.
Journalists who remain to work in a purely digital environment have no option but to “get it,” to quit dithering, to stop trying to embrace the dying elephant. The elephant will be gone. They have to move on.
To cite only one day’s worth of headlines from the I WANT MEDIA newsletter:
- The Madison, Wisc., Capital has closed its print edition–but will retain 40 journalists for a digital-only version.
- The Berkeley Daily Planet will drop from twice-weekly to once-weekly print publication, with a daily report on the web.
- The Lakewood (Ohio) Observer is publishing online every day — but going to print only every two weeks. This was reported in Advertising Age’s new Newspaper Death Watch feature.
Then there are several good examples of former lumberjack journalists starting their own digital news operations.
I don’t know how many publishers will have the courage to cut the ink-and-paper cord while the company still has capital, borrowing capacity and a positive balance sheet. I suspect more of them will do it out of desperation when it’s too late.
I have no idea whether these purely or mostly digital operations will do good journalism. But since the option is no journalism at all, it’s hard to see much downside.
As Amy points out, retrograde defenders of the faith are missing a fantastic opportunity to embrace culture-transforming change. They’re missing a wave of energy–and fun. More profoundly, they are missing the chance to ensure that their world-class public service work survives in a new era.
Indeed, joining the transformation would itself be a form of world-class public service.
Let’s hope the skilled old hands don’t just rage against the change until the buyouts come.
And that the publishers are wise enough to get out of print while the going is still good.