Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Fourth Estate Is Burning:: If Journalism Failed, Would You Miss It?

Over at Open Salon, King Kaufman of has a great blog critiquing the newspaper industry for arguing via whining. He snarkily goes through an editorial posted by Benjamin J. Marrison, editor of the Columbus Dispatch. Marrison's argument that high-quality journalism isn't free evokes my memories of that Jerry Springer guest from the 1990s who quipped, "pimpin' ain't easy."

What irks me is that journalism has always been a business. Here in Berkeley, there's a street named after George Hearst, a US Senator and father of his only child, William Randolph. Father and son both were nefarious characters, with the latter creating a publishing empire that capitalized on sensationalism and were loose with the facts, i.e., yellow journalism, named after Yellow Kid in the Hogan's Alley comic strip. In 1930s California, my grandfather would deride the Hearst {various papers nationwide} and McClatachy {the "Bees" in the Central Valley, Sacramento, Fresno, & Modesto} empires for their use of epithets to whip up emotions and sell papers. Not all papers resorted to such tactics, but the press lives or dies by circulation, not by serving a public good. Of course, such cheap tactics would never occur today, right? Well...

Stephen Glass showed that integrity isn't always the hallmark of the fourth estate. Maureen Dowd "inadvertently" cribbed material, as did a SF Chronicle writer, who in 2005 lifted wholesale sections from a 2003 New Yorker article on Golden Gate Bridge suicides, "Jumpers."

Now, the newspapers want to claim that their existence should somehow transcend their ailing ad-supported business model. The journalistic function that generates news content requires capital and someone needs to pay for it. According to Marrison and those like him, this nonsense of getting content for free is indeed nonsense. All of a sudden, newspapers newspapers should be above market forces?

Marrison makes this plea, while taking a swipe at Web 2.0::
"Go back and look at the history of newspapers in towns big and small, and newspapers were always the voices pushing for better schools, more-accountable government and important civic projects. A good newspaper has always been a constructive nag for progress, and that cannot be replaced by any number of tweets or Facebook postings."
Getting closer to the heart of the matter, Ian Shapira of WaPo cited his experience of having an article of his raided by the Gawker empire::
"I started thinking about all the labor that went into producing my 1,500-word article. The story wasn't Pulitzer material; it was just a reported look at one person capitalizing on angst in the workplace. With all the pontificating about the future of newspapers both in the media and in Capitol Hill hearings, I began wondering if most readers know exactly what is required to assemble a feature story for a publication such as The Post. Journalism at a major newspaper is different from what's usually required in the wild and riffy world of the Internet. And that wild world is killing real reporting -- the kind of work practiced not just by newspapers but by nonprofits, some blogs and other news outlets."
Many journalists want to see expansion of copyright laws to prevent pilfering and piracy, but haven't we learned anything from the music industry and about property rights in the age of digitized content?

Do people want journalism? Not just citizen journalism, but professional journalism? I think they do, to a certain extent, but there needs to be a business model that can provide it and capture revenues in light of Web 2.0. The battle cry may be to save journalism, not newspapers, but how might that be configured? Sure, it might resemble this::

Maybe not teams covering local news on the Internet {or TV, radio, print, etc.}, but perhaps teams of journalists that have a sharp focus and a particular stance that can deliver a tight demographic. Will this drift towards more infotainment? If you really think about it, when hasn't journalism been infotainment?

So, maybe this is more like it::

I see a combination of aggregation and original content from professional journalists on websites. I see salaries for most journalists going down and the popular making out OK.

Quoting Linda Ellerbee who was on NBC's short-lived News Overnight back when I watched news in early 1980s, "and so it goes."

Twitterversion:: #OpenSalon art. discsses nwspapers whining in #Web2_0. Do we really care about #journalism? Is future more #infotainment? @Prof_K

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