Like all of you, I’ve been following the decline of traditional journalism, and the increasingly frantic efforts of the industry to save itself in the face of the greatest nemesis of all: the Internet. Just this evening, I read excellent discussions on all this by the ever-stimulating Jason Pontin and Clay Shirky.
Just today I noticed that the New York Times is threatening to close down the Boston Globe (didn’t realize the former owned the latter) if the Globe’s unions don’t make serious contract concessions. I have no position on this dispute, but, after seeing longtime Seattle and Denver papers bite the dust, it’s clear to me that the days of every major city having its own dedicated daily newspaper are coming to a close. Why is this unthinkable? Does every major city have its own major league baseball team? Its own world-class research university? Its own internationally renowned symphony orchestra? Its own locally owned chain of department stores?
In the newspaper business, what’s coming is almost certainly a new order where we have national daily papers with city-specific local news sections. Just as Macy’s grew into a nationwide department store chain in large part by acquiring shaky local store-chains, it’s not inconceivable that the New York Times might become a truly national newspaper, inserting, say, a substantial daily Boston section for distribution in New England, a Detroit section for southern Michigan, a Dallas-Fort Worth section for north Texas, and so on. This is not unprecedented: indeed, the Washington Post has an excellent array of local news sections for communities throughout the District of Columbia, Maryland, and northern Virginia. Like many people, I often turn primarily to my region’s section (Fairfax County) and only get to the “A” section (national and international) later, or not at all, on any given day.
Another, almost inevitable feature of the coming order is that some of us will continue to pay for the convenience of having a daily hardcopy of a subset of the news that most interests us dropped off at our residence first thing in the morning--or at various intervals. There are plenty of reasons why we may want this to continue, such as having it to read over breakfast. But there are also many reasons why we will insist on not being delivered sections that we never read and don’t want (e.g., I’ve long since lost interest in sports, and routinely toss it unread; others don’t care for business; many people couldn’t care less about international; and op/ed pages are almost never looked at in most households). Many of us would gladly scale back to a weekly hardcopy paper that only publishes a summary of the news and features we care about--and only comes, say, on Sunday, when we actually have spare time to read it, and only comes bundled with coupons, comics, special glossy magazines, and other cool things.
But most of us will prefer to access most of our news most of the time online, and only online. Many people will only desire a hardcopy now and then, and only of particular stories. In those cases, that hardcopy will issue from their own printer, not from huge printing presses staffed by contentious union members.
Newsgathering will still be done by large institutions, descendants of today’s newspapers and magazines, but will become more of an aggregation of loosely shifting groups of “reporters,” sometimes known as bloggers. Opinions and analyses will come from this same huge global pool of knowledgeable individuals, many of whom will make little or no money directly from their published viewpoints. Many, if not most, of these “journalists” will multitask that work alongside paying “day jobs,” doing so to further some personal passion or supplement some other business model. For example, IT industry analysts have long contributed articles to trade papers in order to strengthen their “branding” as analyst/consultants, while making only a pittance from their “journalistic” activities.
I see that as an important model of future journalism. For years, I’ve had trouble explaining to people how my graduate degree, M.A. in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin, prepared me for my ultimate career as an analyst. I’ve never actually had a paying job as a journalist, though I’ve been a freelance IT writer for many years. More and more, though, it feels like I’ve never really left the field I trained for.
Instead, my field has returned to me.