Thursday, May 07, 2009

Don't Buy The Hype

This is my 15th year in journalism, and I haven't spent 15 years doing anything consistently, other than eating, breathing, and making music where possible.
Since 1995 or thereabouts, it was clear that the Web was going to change journalism, and it has, but the evolution from print/audio/video to Web remains incomplete.
Which is why I like noting the changes.

So today, three things grabbed my attention: First, Walter Pincus' superb article on the Columbia Journalism Review site, which essentially summarizes all of my views on journalism in the electronic age, and dives deeper, with more historical context. It's a must read, and am very pleased that Metafilter picked it up.

Second, this news over at Techdirt relating to newspapers crawling to Congress for bailout privileges.

And third, this post at Gawker.com on David Simon's testimony on the subject before Congress, and how he has it all wrong.

Pincus has it right. First, the problem for newspapers is debt, much as it is for other sectors of the country. Consolidation has messed things up. Over-leveraged consolidations has messed things up considerably. Second, Google is not the enemy. Third, journalism has lost its way, for a variety of reasons. Downsized newsrooms lack institutional memory, because freelancers are temps by another name, and spreading too few journalists too thin leads to bad coverage.

Techdirt backs up the financial issue, and a review of say, McClatchy (one former employer of mine which strapped itself to buy Knight-Ridder) versus Lee Enterprises (another former employer of mine) demonstrates clearly how Wall Street looks at stocks that are carrying too much debt-load.

Gawker in both the article and the comments upbraids Mr. Simon for a) not being a journalist, really, because he went off to write The Wire, and b) being a techno-Luddite -- both of which are, fundamentally, less-than-savvy arguments.

Newspapers and related, let's call them analog, media will not be saved by bailouts, nor by turning them all into non-profits. Analog media are going through a change period, wherein consolidation is not king, overwhelming debt is not a business model, and Web-based advertising for local and regional coverage is undervalued. On the Web, vertical models are rewarded because they can appeal to global interest groups. Horizontal (geographically-based models) are undervalued because the Web audience is global, and geography (at least for now) less important. This will ultimately, I believe, not stand, because geography remains important for everything that involves atoms, which are still harder to ship, see, and touch than digital items. The Web is maturing in this direction, but not swiftly enough to make up for the loss of classified advertising.

Not every merchant can afford to run a Fedex/catalogue/shipping-based business. Local businesses remain important to local people. Ditto with regional. As transportation becomes pricier, local and regional media will see an upswing in their importance. Ad values will rise accordingly. We're just not there yet, and this is an awkward economic transition for overly-leveraged businesses with loans to payoff.

It's the winter of journalism's discontent. How we manage this transition, and what recrudescence we are able to pull off with respect to journalism's core values will be important.
If you're a journalist like I am, this period of soul-searching and concentration on our core values will be important in the near-term.

Think of it as a mix between cognitive and shock therapy.
But we will get through this.

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