I feel like I’m watching Journalism fall apart; watching with interest, horror, and dismay … but just watching, like watching a fire from far away, powerless.
Like you do, I read about the newspapers folding, falling like trees in a rotting forest. Even the New York Times is in trouble. Many of the newspapers I grew up with are either dead or dying.
News flash: this isn’t new. It’s been going on since I can remember. It was already a big deal in the 1960s. (News at 11!)
We blame it on different things: blogs, 24-hour news networks, mainstream network television news, declining education, apathy, the Web, Fox News, Huffington Post, the new president, the old president, whatever.
I got a grad degree (MA) in Journalism, with honors in fact, in the early 1970s. That was so long ago we actually called it Journalism, not communications.
Back then newspapers were already dying because television network news was killing them. People liked their news in 30-second bite-size pieces. Professors wrung their hands about the loss of analysis and in-depth reporting.
And we all worried a lot, back then, about the impact of television violence in general. And sensationalism. Like that would turn the news business into show business. It’s a good thing that didn’t happen, right? (Show of hands, please).
Not that it was ever just academic for me. Before I reached my 30s, grew up and sold out (I became an entrepreneur, got the MBA), I spent eight years as a journalist. I was a foreign correspondent, based in Latin America. I worked for UPI, freelanced for Business Week, Financial Times, etc. Even after business school I wrote columns in several magazines, although mostly computer magazines.
It’s also a bit of the present for me as well, because of my new job blogging and writing. You can see that here on the right column: I’m on the Huffington Post, USNews.com, plus several business blogs.
So where does that leave us? With this:
Accident of history: journalism and business
We tend to forget that journalism grew up to fill pages between ads. It wasn’t about the the sanctimonious needs of society, or the fourth estate, or fundamentals of democracy.
They needed readers to sell ads. And in the old days, before Fox News or Huffington Post, when freedom of the press was limited to those who owned presses, the best way to get and keep readers was to do real news; to pay Journalists to investigate and report.
In the heyday of great journalism, bias was bad business. So the owners paid the reporters and, with many very well known exceptions, tried not to meddle. Good journalism was also good for business.
And we got professional news reporting because that was good business. They paid somebody to attend town hall meetings, and somebody else to travel the globe covering wars and revolutions, because that kept the readers happy and, because of that, the advertisers happy.
Journalism wasn’t about the public good. It was about making money.
Fast forward to the Internet, the Web, and the collapse of the printing press and big owners as the oligarchy of the “media.” Suddenly the media is splintered up into hundreds of millions of websites, in infinite variety of degrees of professionalism or lack of it. And even on the television, far less free, it’s six hundred channels instead of three, so we have the Fox News people talking to their tribe, and the Jon Stewart-Bill Maher people talking to their tribe, and CNN talking to whomever has 24 hours a day to listen, and NBC and CBS and ABC news trying vainly to compete with Joan Rivers and Entertainment Tonight. All bets are off.
And there’s this other trend mixed in: Even before the Web, while few people noticed, newspapers spent the last generation or two cutting costs by cutting news staff and using AP and UPI, and lately, Reuters.
So what happens next? Who’s going to pay whom to sit through those boring town council meetings, or risk their lives in wars and revolutions, or report politics and democracy fairly?
I don’t know. But, in the time-honored tradition of the back side of journalism, I’m going to tell you anyhow. Later. Not now. News at 11.