The Biz: Lost In A Digital World? What's A "Print Journalist" To Do?

August 15, 2008

 

By BUD WARD

"Print reporter."
For years – make that decades – it was a term I applied to myself with honor.
I figured I'd take it to the grave with me, there being no finer epitaph.

Now, dem's fightin' words. Insulting, disparaging, or, at the very least, anachronistic.

It's with morbid anxiety approaching embarrassment that I each spring await the next installment of the Project for Excellence in Journalism's (PEJ) "State of the News Media." It just feels too much like rushing to the front doorstep in the morning in guarded anticipation of finding the obituary of a best friend.

Things were no different this spring, with the opening sentence concluding that things with American news media are "more troubled than a year ago."

The "even" in that phrase was implied. No need to make it explicit.

But the medicine got even harder to swallow with the report's finding that the outlook for the mainstream media's progeny, technology-driven changes in today's journalism "business," may not yet be as rosy as earlier hoped:

"A clear case for democratization is harder to make," the report finds. "Research shows blogs and public affairs web sites attract a smaller audience than expected and are produced by people with even more elite backgrounds than journalists."

Even than journalists? I found myself gasping. I could have done without that qualifier altogether, either explicit or assumed. I doubt many of you feel elite.

For those SEJ members who haven't yet read the "State of …" report (http:// www.stateofthenewsmedia.com/2008/ ), clearly you should and must. It's not just where you work that's at issue; it's who you are and what you do.

Rays of hope and great opportunity stemming from society's full-bore lunge toward the digital delivery of information are developing. Set aside for a moment those recent headlines about "the end of reading" and "the end of writing." Good journalism DNA won't perish merely because distribution means change.

You'll find, for instance, data suggesting that the real problem isn't so much where the public is turning for its information, but rather how they should be paying for it: "The emerging reality," as the PEJ authors say, is that "advertising isn't migrating online with the consumer.

"The crisis in journalism, in other words, may not strictly be loss of audience. It may, more fundamentally, be the decoupling of news and advertising."

The challenge posed for media managers? "They must reinvent their profession and their business model at the same time they are cutting back on their reporting and resources." ("And that's the good news?" you ask.)

Oh my. So what's the poor environmental reporter to do about it, being, let's say, no media bigwig tycoon?

Lots in fact.

In the first place, saving journalism, of course, is not on the shovel solely of reporters. It's certainly not solely the task of environmental reporters either. Reporters, editors, publishers, photographers, investors, academics, the public – all have important roles to play.

What is on the shovel of environmental reporters is maintaining the quality of coverage of the environmental and natural resources issues so critical to the health and economic well being of our population…and so highly valued by that population, whether they sometimes realize it or not.

We're long past the time of endless debating the "friend or foe" riddle when it comes to providing news and information to the public. Make no mistake here: It's fine, and important, for that debate to go on, both in academic and in newsroom settings. What we can no longer allow is for that debate to impede progress toward maintaining those principles and practices that distinguish environmental journalism, let's say, from environmental "writing" or environmental "communications."

Viva la difference.

So if you were to set out today to save your sliver of the journalism pie, what might you do first? We turn, of course, to a blog for some insights. What else?

Media commentator and blogger Howard Owens, of Rochester, N.Y., summarizes the rules changes resulting from the move to digital media:

• Users, not editors and reporters, are in control, choosing what, when, and why they consume media;

• Users could care less about reporters' deadlines – "They want to know what we know when we know it. They want their news now."

• They want to participate, not simply read, watch, or listen to someone else. They want to supplement and complement stories, spouting off as they see fit.

In his blog on journalism and newspaper (http://www.howardowens.com/), Owens prescribes "12 things journalists can do to save journalism. (http://www. howardowens.com/2007/twelve-thingsjournalists- can-do-to-save-journalism/ ) .

Among Owens's suggestions:

1.) Becoming a blogger — recommendation #1, by which Owens means being an avid blog reader and follower even if you don't also create a blog yourself ("never a bad idea").

2.) Become a producer. Use your digital recorder, video camera, camera phone, etc., to the max. Post your work. On YouTube, on Flickr, on PBase, on Twitter…and more.

3.) Comment on blogs you read. "Become known as somebody who converses on the Internet."

4.) Set up an account for your own web site. Learn HTML and also some development language such as Cold Fusion, JavaScript, PHP. Own your own domain.

5.) Become "web literate." Know the jargon and understand what applications are used for what purposes.

6.) Use RSS and an RSS feeder.

7.) "Become immersed in the digital lifestyle."

8.) Become an avid digital content consumer.

9.) Learn. Learn. Learn.

10.) Be an agent for change in your workplace. Excite your newsroom colleagues about the potentials of the new digital age, rather than simply bemoaning the challenges.

Back for a moment to my "print reporter" opening.

I'm over it now. I'm beginning, alas, to "get it." I now see that there will be no finer epitaph than just "reporter." Forget the qualifier, it's history.

"Reporter." That's a tombstone inscription I'd proudly take to the grave. But not just yet.

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Predicting the future of
network news and newspaper

Most newspapers will                                 National                          Local                       Internet 
print on paper for...
                                          %                                     %                                % 

  Less than 10 years                                          17                                     20                               17
  10-20                                                                48                                     42                                44
  More than 20 years                                         32                                    34                                37
  Don't know                                                         3                                       4                                  2
                                                                            100                                  100                             100

                                  

******************************

Networks will continue nightly broadcasts for…

Less than 10 years                                             42                                     29                                  39                        10-20 years                                                        30                                     38                                  36                     More than 20 years                                            23                                    30                                   21                     Don't know                                                            5                                       3                                     3                                                                                                        100                                   100                                   99

*From the Project for Excellence in Journalism's State of theNews Media report released March 17,2008 by the PEW Research Center. The survey of journalists is based on interviews with 585 national and local reporters, producers, editors and executives across the country. In most cases, the responses of national and local journalists are reported separately. The internet component of the sample was drawn from both online-only news organizations as well as from national and local news outlets with a significant Web presence. The report addresses current issues facing journalism and updates trends from earlier surveys conducted in 1995, 1999 and 2004.

Bud Ward is an independent journalism educator and founder/former editor of Environment Writer. He now is editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media. 

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2008

BUD WARD