Dulce et Decorum est pro journalism mori

I don’t know if journalism is dead, dying or simply evolving, but you can’t turn around these days without seeing a newspaper shuttering its doors. The Rocky Mountain News has called it a day, with it’sfinal issue having rolled off the press today. (You can feel free to blame whomever you’d like for this foreclosure, but if the ad at the bottom of this story to “subscribe to the Rocky Mountain News” is any indication of their ad and marketing department’s level of sales acumen, it’s a small wonder the paper lasted this long.) In San Francisco, the Chronicle is headed down a similar path and in Seattle, the clock is still ticking on Post-Intelligencerwhere staffers were told in January that the paper needed to be sold in 60 days or likely be shut down. The Albuquerque Tribune and the Cincinnati Post have already closed up shop and while hundreds of other newspaper continue to publish, they are doing so with staffs that have beenhacked and slashed nearly to death.

For years, newspapers were told they needed to change their ways of doing things. They were told to spend more money on developing web content. They were told to put all the stories on line so that they could expand their reach. They were told to learn new skills such as video production, audio editing and interactive graphic construction so that they’d be the “go-to” place on the web for news. Some did, while others didn’t. I’m not sure either ended up coming out of this well. If you look carefully at some of the images from Seattle or Denver during the closure announcements, you’ll see journalists capturing video or blogging the event. The ability to Twitter didn’t save them from watching their newsroom get 86ed.

In education, our job is to prepare students for the future and get them ready to enter the workforce. As someone who has to teach students who will enter this field of landmines, broken promises and crumbling job prospects, I sometimes find myself wondering if I’m doing them a disservice by convincing them that journalism is a good career. Part of me wants to say, “You say you want to be a cops reporter? You can stand the sight of blood, right? Good. Why don’t you be a nurse instead? There’s always a huge need in that field.” I had a former student email me last night after he saw the news about the Rocky. This kid has wanted to be a journalist since he was about 12 but this latest blow was almost too much for him: “Honestly, anymore I’m running out of reasons to want to enter this industry. I hate that.”

I hate it, too, because when I was in college, I moved into journalism after realizing that writing was one of my few marketable skills and that an English degree wouldn’t get me anywhere. My parents didn’t like it much (“You can make more as a starting grade school teacher,” my mom noted) but they were happy that I picked something that had careers attached to it, unlike their friend’s son who majored in cartography and spent six years after college managing a Toys ‘R’ Us. Now, you’d be better off as a cartographer.

In his column on the crisis, Walter Isaacson makes a good point about how we got here: why pay for something that’s free? It’s not the internet’s fault that people like to get news this way. It’s the newspaper chains’ fault for giving away the store and then being surprised when the hordes showed up and picked them clean. For a while it worked because the ad revenue was strong. However, common sense should tell you that you don’t put all your eggs in one basket, especially when the livelihood of hundreds of people will depend on it.

We’re not a communist or socialist state in this country. People are happy to participate in our capitalist system when they want something they feel is worthy of purchase. The kids I teach pay for ring tones they’ll use for two months and then never hear again. They pay for Fantasy Football Draft Kits so they can win an imaginary league that gives them nothing but bragging rights over seven other people. They pay for text messages, mp3s and phone minutes without thinking about them. They also drop change at the food kiosk and if it’s less than a quarter, they tend to not bother to pick it up. Is it really that hard to imagine they’d cough up a nickel or two to read the paper?

Maybe it is now that they’re used to it, but if iTunes managed to emerge from the Napster culture, perhaps anything is possible in time.

The question is: How much time do we have left?

2 thoughts on “Dulce et Decorum est pro journalism mori

  1. Well, as you’ve well documented in the past what has killed the newspaper/journalism model isn’t that people aren’t willing to pay for news–they are–but that newspaper owners expect a huge rate of return, a highly inflated rate of return, for their money investment. Plus, of course, all these news corporations are highly diversified and have plowed the money earned from the news and from other ventures into money losing propositions like hedge funds, real estate, etc… Now they want to fold up shop–but its not because the newspapers weren’t making money, they were. But they weren’t making as much money for zero outlay once the advertising model was busted. The thing is I *never* bought anything advertised in a newspaper. I bought the damn thing for the news and I probably would have happilly paid more for more news. As you say what is a dollar a day, or even two dollars a day, for good information? Its not searchable, which makes it less effective for advertisers like craigs list and the online versions are good for calendering and figuring out what you want to do or see locally. But the actual journalism is priceless. Too bad that was the first thing to go.
    I’d also like to point out that from a liberal perspective, on the whole, newspapers decided to imitate talk radio with their narrowcast appeal to the angry white male idiot. Boston is lucky enough to have two separate newspaper cultures–the “liberal/anti catholic/ upper class” globe and the “illiberal, imaginarily working class and pro catholic” Boston Herald. But even the globe, especially under the massive deliberate euthanasia of the NY Times corp, started insisting on polluting its pages with faux populist white male grievances, the comedy stylings of Mallard Filmore, Jeff Jacoby (MF without pictures but with very big text), Mona Charen and the execrable Joan Vennocchi). I would more happilly have paid for a rockin’ leftist rag in the morning and a hard right paper in the evening and done my own comparison shopping than to have been subjected to the obvious tripe-for-balance that the globe tried to give me. When do my consumer needs, politically speaking, get respected? I’m an unapologetic democrat and liberal and so is the entire rest of the state and yet we couldn’t get our paper to back us up?

  2. I started college in my 30’s to chase my dream of being a journalist; that was after working a series of jobs that all made more than any starting or most median journalism positions paid, but I figured doing something you loved was worth the tradeoff. In ’94 both CNN and the NYT dismissed 1/3 of their international staff and the NJ Star-Ledger bought out most of their experienced staff and hired recent graduates from the local colleges. I was foreseeing ambulance chasing as the likely acme of my writing career unless I could come up with the flow to go to Columbia, which was unlikely. At that time, I noticed that the people doing to the layout (Pagemaker 3; cut and paste) seemed to have better prospects, so I made the switch.
    The fall of Journalism began before the Internet wrecked the existing business model. When CNN started to sell its exclusive footage to other networks, it kicked off the era of corporate management chasing end of the quarter bonuses. The idea of offering a unique view of the world that could stand as a brand withered. And management began selling off everything but the presses. I’m sure that if they could of they would of sold those too and rented them back on lease to improve that year’s numbers.
    It’s just another of the same, crappy beer, crappy food, crappy newspapers overrunning the world. I spent a day going from mall to mall hunting for a decent coffee maker (looking for a Braun, but I was flexible), nothing but crap wherever I looked. Every store had the same 10 or 11 models that all got bad reviews. They had double digital timers, internal bean grinders and automatically decalcified, but not one of them got the water hot enough to make good coffee. That’s the problem with the world today, no one wants to be bothered with boiling the water, but they’ll pay millions to the guy who can get you not to notice that the coffee sucks.

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