Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Future of Journalism, and Other Bagatelles ...

by Sean Chercover

On March 13, technology writer and NYU professor Clay Shirky posted an amazing think piece titled Newspapers and Thinking The Unthinkable, which set the blogosphere buzzing - and the buzzing hasn't stopped.

Many of Shirky's points are not new, but I have never seen the entire issue addressed so cogently in one piece. It's a long post, over 2,700 words, and it would be unfair of me to try and do a Cliff Notes version here, but I urge you - if you have any interest in the future of journalism - to read his post.

The response has been huge. Not only the 700+ comments on Shirky's blog, but all around the blogosphere. Newspapers too, both here and in the UK, have chimed in, and the response has been passionate, both pro and con.

Interestingly, many of those who've commented do not seem to have read his post. At the Tucson Citizen, Billie Stanton writes, "Tech-happy gurus Clay Shirky and Dave Winer already are dancing on a nonexistent grave, giddy that hordes of Internetters will take our place." I see no grave-dancing in Shirky's piece - in fact I see a great deal of concern. Dan Tynan at Computerworld gets it, and is likewise concerned for the survival of "professional journalism", appropriately skeptical that "citizen journalists" (i.e. amateurs) on the Internet can or will do the job.

Talking to a room full of journalism students in New York, ABC newsman Charlie Gibson seemed to blame the newspaper crisis on young people who selfishly insist on getting their news for free on the Internet. When asked for his thoughts on Clay Shirky's piece, he said Shirky is "full of crap", which I fear says more about Gibson than Shirky.

While there's nothing to be giddy about here, this revolution is happening and we need to be talking about it. Shaking your finger at young people for not subscribing to print newspapers is not going to ensure the survival of journalism.

Anyway, if you're a news junkie/journalism geek like I am, read the piece and let me know your thoughts.

In other earth-shaking news, I have both Michigan State and Villanova in the March Madness pool, so I am a happy boy.

And finally, do NOT play the Afraid Game at Joe Konrath's Jack Kilborn website. Or do. But don't blame me. Blame Joe. He is a sick man.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Shawn, that it was a great ananysis of how the crisis arrived, but it doesn't offer any suggestions for how to fix it!

Daniel P. Smith said...

Interesting stuff for sure--and telling as well, considering the Sun Times filed for bankruptcy today.

One idea stood out to me: "Society doesn't need newspapers. What we need is journalism." We cannot forget how important that craft is to a city, a state, a nation. No matter how many Twitters we have, no matter how many bloggers and citizen journalists fill the Internet's infinite space, journalism has long provided us a social grounding. In Chicago, in particular, we've benefitted from a number of journalists trying to "outdig" the others.

I for one will be sad to see the print newspapers go, as they eventually will. I just hope journalism doesn't evaporate alongside it.

Sean Chercover said...

Daniel - I agree with you. We need journalism - professional journalism - to survive. Without the "fourth estate" democracy itself is in peril.

And print newspapers, despite their flaws and recent decline, are the bedrock of journalism in our society. Without them... what? As Anonymous said, Shirky does not offer suggestions about how to fix it - in fact, he posits that the status quo is unfixable and he has no idea what will replace it.

Scares the hell out of me.

There was a piece in Harpers recently, talking about the (book) publishing industry. Some suggested that we'd be better off if the multinational (and publicly traded) media corporations divested themselves of publishing houses, and they went back to being privately-owned. There is some merit to this argument, and it might be applied to newspapers as well. A 5-10% profit isn't enough for Wall Street (it used to be, but that's another story), but it should be enough for some billionaire who is willing to see a decent (but not spectacular) return. Basically, investing monetary capital (that makes a modest but reasonable profit) in exchange for huge cultural capital.

So maybe we go back to the Hearst days. On the other hand, Hearst was corrupt as the day is long, and the newspapers of the day were not unimpeachable.

Ugh. It's a bad situation.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Some of the best information programs on public TV are funded by foundations. As individuals we can (must?) support NPR, CPB, and publications we admire for their accuracy and integrity.

Maybe we could also turn off "news shows" that offer equal parts plugs for music groups, recipes, entertainer interviews, U-Tube downloads and soap opera trivia.

jnantz said...

I can speak for a lot of people in the Raleigh, NC area. There are two groups that range from uninterested in the oncoming demise of the News & Observer, or gleefully ready to piss on its grave when it dies.

One group hates that the local team gets villified in the paper, while their bitter rival (that conveniently has a journalism school, though the paper's editing proves the school must be a joke) gets away with murder and is still praised like God's chosen.

The second group seems to hate most broadcasting these days, because they feel it mirrors the unabashed political bias the local paper shows in what is printed as 'objective news reporting' and what is not.

Now, I certainly don't think internet keyboard jockeys will replace professional journalists, but when the general opinion is that you have nothing but it's-impossible-to-remain-objective-and-unbiased hacks on the staff to begin with, why pay for it. And I'm not talking about 'the youth' here, I'm talking about families and singles in their 40s and beyond.

Me personally, I don't think you can get away from bias, ever. i just don't buy the paper or read the online stuff, because the 'journalism' and the editing were so horrible for so long that I refuse to help them stay afloat until they can find someone qualified to do anything right at that rag--and probably the journalism school feeding it, too.