Tuesday, November 08, 2005

When print fades

This is not a good week for news about print news.
Newspaper circulation continues to fall -- dropping another 2.6%, according to the latest figures.
MediaLife magazine is predicting that one of the three major newsweeklies will soon fail.
A giant of the daily newspaper industry -- Knight-Ridder -- is facing pressure from shareholders who want to exit the business.
And, of course, the culprit cited again and again in these tales of woe is the Internet.
I should be more sympathetic. Dozens of people I care about deeply work in print. But as I've written before, I'm having a hard time being nice anymore. I hear too much whining these days. Sure, the Internet was a confusing place a few years ago. I remember in the early 90s when all of this was new and I was a bureau chief at Knight Ridder. When I talked about online back then, everyone was confused. Hell, I was confused, and I was the one trying to convince my bosses to move some of our products to the Internet.
But this is 2005. And how the hell can anyone still be confused?
If you're a reporter or editor who bemoans the loss of the past and resents the future, here's what you need to know:
-- your publication can't survive in print alone, and nor can you.
-- your publication is becoming a multimedia operation, and you best become a multimedia operator.
-- you can not transplant much of what you believe is good about your work in print (story structure, writing style, story length) to an online environment. Having worked in print does not make you an expert in online.
-- the people you work with and for are growing less patient with you, your lack of new media skills, your glamorized vision of print, your lack of enthusiasm for new products and new storytelling techniques, your stubborn personality and your delusional belief in the value of your outdated skills.
For more on journalism's problems and how to fix them, check out this post on a blog by Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News.

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  1. Hi Paul,

    It would seem that, while the skills of a pure print journalist may not be immediately adaptable to the online world, those skills would transfer with a little willingness to learn new technology and storytelling techniques.

    And speaking of learning, what learning institutions are taking the lead in teaching these skills? That could be an interesting subject for discussion, I would think...


  2. Hi Matt,
    You're right. The skills of a print journalist will transfer IF that person is willing to learn and adapt. The problem is that so many print journalists are unwilling to consider change. (As a rule of thumb, newspaper veterans have an easier time learning to write for the Web. Magazine folks have an easier time learning to present information visually. Both groups have great difficulty learning to create multimedia packages with audio and/or print. Both groups have difficulty adapting to Web culture, and are often freaked out about feedback functions, offsite links, etc.)
    As for schools, I know that lots of folks are trying to create places where students can learn the journalism skills they will need. Certainly Jay Rosen has been a good influence on NYU. And the University of Kansas, always one of the best j-schools in the country, has the advantage of being in Lawrence, KS, home of the best converged newsroom in the country. There are talented people at Northwest Missouri State’s program in New Media (I'm on the advisory board there), and there's great stuff being done at South Carolina's Newsplex. I've been less impressed with how Columbia University and my alma mater, the University of Missouri, -- usually considered the two best j-schools in the country -- have adapted to the new world.

  3. The reason I asked about education is that I think some journalists may get freaked out just because they don't have the technical/presentation skills they need.

    I went to the University of North Carolina and tried to do a master's degree with a focus on online journalism. They have a multimedia sequence and a print journalism sequence for undergrads, but, at least when I was there, I didn't see as much convergence between the two as I would have liked.

    I think the school prepared me well for print journalism, but I'm still not an expert on telling a good story online. I'd like to learn, but I'm going to have to figure out a lot of it on my own.

    With the learning curve many print people face (many of them much older than me) I can see why some would be resistant to change, though I think it's to their own detriment.

  4. Hi Matt,
    I wish more journalists would get freaked out because they don't have the skills to work online. But what I see -- almost every day -- are journalists who resist learning the new skills. On a good day, I'm sympathetic. Everyone is pressed for time. Life is hard. And it gets more difficult to learn new things as we get older.
    But it's 2005! And I still work with people who are responsible for online products who don't know how to put a link in copy! They want to link. Or they have been told to link. But they don't know how. (Folks that don't want to link because they are afraid readers won't come back are another story.)
    Now seriously, how can someone not have picked up that skill by now? Jeez! It's really not much more complicated than learning to operate the CAPS LOCK key. It's less a journalism skill than it is a typing skill.
    Sure...I'm willing to accept that learning to edit video files and upload them to a Web site, or learning to shoot photos and edit them in Photoshop, may be beyond what many print reporters can learn to do without formal training.
    But a link? A LINK!
    I wish it was a training problem. I wish it was about age, or how busy people are. But this is something much deeper and much worse.
    This is about people who simply cannot do what they need to do if they and their companies are to survive.
    As for universities...they have a disadvantage in that many of the people teaching left the working world years ago. So they are teaching what they know -- a world that no longer exists. I think that's changing. I'm more likely to run into teachers who are interested in the changes in media than I am in working journalists who are interested. Most of the j-schools will catch up pretty quickly. And I think we'll see the end of "track" programs where folks learn to do just print, just TV, etc.

  5. Wow, I didn't realize it was that bad. Anyone, not just a journalist, who uses a computer should be able to throw a link in something. I'm seriously, truly amazed you have worked with people who are responsible for online products who don't know how to put a link in copy.

    "I wish it was a training problem. I wish it was about age, or how busy people are. But this is something much deeper and much worse." What do you mean by this? If it's not training or age (or stupidity) what is it?

  6. Hi Matt,
    It's about resistance and anger and personality issues.
    There's a group of people in journalism that is strangely angry about the changes in our profession. I see them at every company I work with. At some publications, they are a tiny minority. At others, they are close to the majority.
    They hate the very idea of bloggers, they hate the very idea of repurposing content, and they really hate any idea that may lead to more work. They believe they are writers (most of them believe they are great writers), and they resist doing anything other than writing.
    They are, by some flaw in their nature, not particularly inquisitive. (And that, of course, is a remarkable flaw for a reporter to have.) It's not unusual for them to have never read a blog of any kind for any reason.
    They tend to be very, very resentful toward young staff. They like the old style career track where you got promoted based on tenure. Most of them expected to have been the boss by now and are furious that they have not. (Although I know a few that have become the bosses of some smaller publications. And you should see the sort of sullen, unambitious types they wind up hiring. It's as if they go looking for people that can't make them look bad.)
    The bottom line is that these people can't be reached. They have had years to adjust to the changes in media, and they haven't. I tell their publishers to start removing their responsibilities.

  7. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for the response and further explanation. I’m very surprised that you meet so many people like this. I can understand lack of time or training or resources (I don’t agree, but I can understand.) But just being a hater. That’s weird.
    There still might be a place for these “great writers.” But they better be as good as they think they are because the only place left for them will be pubs like the Atlantic or New Yorker.

  8. Hi Matt,
    If they were anywhere near as good as they think they are, it might be a different story.
    Years ago I had the chance to visit the Chicago Tribune newsroom as the company switched to computers from typerwriters. Everyone made a point of noting that columnist Mike Royko was refusing to make the change. And no one was surprised that the newspaper wasn't pushing Royko on the issue. He was a legend, and perhaps the most important person at the paper.
    I tell that story time and time again when I meet with journalists. And I end the story by urging them to start each day by looking in the mirror and saying "you're not Mike Royko."
    The biggest flaw that these I-won't-change-and-you-can't-make-me reporters have is that they are delusional. They are not great writers. They are not worth putting up with. And they do not have much of a future.

  9. That is a stunning indictment, but it's also quite a call to action. As the Web editor of a trade publication, I see this attitude all over the newsroom, and I wonder how long publications can coast on their strong brands and the fading memories of the glory days of print.

  10. Hi Anonymous,
    I expect that such folks won't last very long. More and more often I find publishers and others asking me how they should "handle" such folks.
    That's a sure sign that the people in charge are losing patience.
    On a more positive note, the opportunites for someone like you -- armed with Web skills -- are limitless.


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