Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Death of Journalism

It was a rough week for the newspaper business. The Rocky Mountain News, the oldest newspaper in Colorado, shut down yesterday. On Tuesday, the owners of the San Francisco Chronicle said they might have to go out of business. The Chronicle news is especially striking--while Denver has another paper (Denver Post), the Chronicle is San Francisco's only newspaper.

Newspaper journalism has been hurting for a long time, but lately, it seems to me at least, the situation has gone critical. The problem is pretty basic. Less and less people are buying newspapers, and more and more are relying on the Internet to get their information.

When I was a student at Boston University, I would buy the New York Times every day. I got into the habit of flipping through the paper at the desk in my dorm room or inside a conference room at my part-time job downtown. I got into the habit of reading the newspaper, and that habit has carried to this day. I still buy the New York Times each day on the way to work (delivery doesn't save me anything), and lately I have purchased the Boston Globe more and more, given my interest in local political races.

We had the Internet when I was in college (I am not THAT old), though it was in its infancy. My dean at BU, Brent Baker, used to say that the "newspaper will never go out of business, because you can't take your laptop into the bathroom." While that's still true, the new young news consumers, like my brother Brett, just don't buy the newspaper. They consume their news online.

With the rise of online journalism, consumers can get all the news they want online. Beyond losing revenue from selling a product, newspapers are hurting because of declining or stagnant circulations, which means less revenue from advertising. Also, because the Internet provides a direct channel to consumers, businesses are only beginning to experiment with communicating directly to consumers; no newspaper or reporter needed.

Everyone is a journalist today. Companies publish their own blogs. Even regular Joes like yours truly wake up on Saturday morning and decide to write something interesting (I hope). I have had an ongoing debate with a co-worker (yes, you Chuck) about whether or not this is a good thing.

On the one hand, more writers means more perspectives. Adam Gaffin over at Universal Hub reads what I write, along with potentially thousands of other blog and Twitter posts each day from other Boston-area residents. He then presents what he thinks is most interesting or pressing on his blog, along with his own thoughts. Reading his blog gives one a nice review of what's happening around Boston, sometimes with the perspective of several contributors provided on one topic.

On the other hand, with the close of newspapers and the rapid decline of journalism, we are losing good writers. I am not a professional journalist; and I don't pretend to be one. My thoughts on this blog are often opinionated. I don't always look to get both sides of an issue and present an objective argument, either because I don't want to or because I don't know how.

I read a troubling story last year about how the number of White House correspondents is dramatically less than it was when the last new President came to Washington. This means there are less professionals writing about Washington. There's less content for amateurs like me to read and use to develop our own opinions.

In college I learned that no journalist can be 100-percent objective. It's just too hard for a human to do. However, if you understand this as a news consumer, you then understand the importance of getting your news from numerous sources, so that you can make your own judgement based on several "objective" accounts. It's scary to me that the number of sources is dwindling quickly, making it hard for the consumer to receive the varied viewpoints it needs.

With President Obama, the White House has become a very aggressive publisher. The posts to the White House blog are numerous and often quite detailed, and they include pictures. The President himself broadcasts his weekly address on YouTube. Are the blog posts written by "journalists"? Probably not, since they aren't objective. But as long as you understand the posts are clearly not objective, there's no reason you can't consume them.

Many other companies are publishing their own content. This trend will continue. And it brings interesting consequences. When I was in high school in Connecticut, I wrote a report on caffeine for a science course. I called up Coca-Cola public affairs in Atlanta, and they sent me troves of information arguing that caffeine is not addictive. Their arguments were persuasive, but something tells me they cherry-picked their data. Good reporters can be very persuasive, too, if they want to be. For that reason, a good reporter writing for one company is unsettling to me.

There are a lot of good writers on the market. Today, there are many newly available ones in Denver. Smart marketers at companies will hire them and will start publishing their own content directly to consumers. I only hope that readers are smart enough to understand that those former journalists aren't journalists any more.


Chuck Tanowitz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chuck Tanowitz said...

So nice to get a shout out from Socks!

In any case, I'm not sure the question is whether this is good or bad, but simply the fact that it's reality and how to make the most of it.

What we actually are losing is not the content, but the filter. Your filter of choice, both in college and today, is The New York Times. For many that filter is now Google News and the content it collects.

But more importantly, that filter is ourselves and how we interpret what we read. You knew that information from Coke about caffeine would be slanted, you are an educated person. In fact, even if it weren't you would still discount it a certain amount. It's natural.

So we, as individuals, must be educated consumers of information, not just passive vessel into which information is poured.

Lindsay said...

City Weekly will disappear in March, too.