Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Stumbling Giant That is Big Journalism

Brittany Griffin Smith


Gannet, the largest employer of journalists in the United States, laid off 700 employees Tuesday — 50 people lost their jobs in my home state at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., and half of that number were people working in the newsroom.
Seven hundred people who contributed to the production of news every day no longer have a job; many may have no income, period. Given the difficulty of rebounding in professional news, many of them may feel they have to enter another industry and give up their talent, their experience, and their passion.
Seven. Hundred. That's more people than were in my graduating class at journalism school. I imagine my entire class lined up in a row, everyone smiling and excited about their futures in civic journalism — and then a giant commercial printing press comes alive and severs everyone at the neck.
In my days in journalism (which was not long ago) I read essays that screamed defiantly that the death of newspapers wasn't near. I would still agree — they aren't going to die, but I think that newspapers as we knew them will not exist in ten years. Perhaps they will reincarnate as a news product formatted for e-readers, where each reader would pay by the download. Or, perhaps they will exist as a news feed app for a smartphone, where each reader has to pay for the application while news companies gee a fee through a contract with wireless providers.
What I fear most is what will happen to the investigative journalism that requires so much money, time, experience and human resources to produce if the print news industry doesn't capitalize on another medium now.  One way or another, if Big Journalism wants to exist in 2020, it will have to find profitable digital models and sprint to them.
But I know all too well that implementing a digital model for a small company is incredibly expensive and time consuming — it takes resources (money) to design, time (money) to advertise and market, and training (money) for employees to learn how to re-make news for a solely digital audience. It may mean that the print product becomes obsolete faster than any of us thought it would in order to cut costs for a news "remodeling."
Really, the problem we're facing as an industry is that of a particular medium in its death throes — and that medium is one we've grown accustomed to delivering needed content. So perhaps the solution won't be Big Journalism's re-discovery of itself.  Hopefully, the devotees to civic journalism will find a new arena in the Internet, which has empowered the little guy with cheap, easy publishing. They'll start blogging about what's happening in their respective communities; they'll start web sites that offer searchable databases of hyperlocal information; they'll tweet from town hall.
And if they do, we should all be grateful — figuring out how to make money online isn't easy, and those who do swim through legal quicksand to get there. Luckily pro bono attorneys, such as the members of the Online Media Legal Network, recognize this and are there to help, and journalism foundations continue finding grant money to support journalism entrepreneurship.
In the end, I think Molly Ivins said it best. "I don't so much mind that newspapers are dying — it's watching them commit suicide that pisses me off." 

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