The demise of newspapers means better journalism

We who contemplate the importance of journalism look at the future with trepidation.

What happens to journalism, we ask, when newspapers continue on their inevitable decline? The question assumes that journalism itself will be diminished.

I am coming to a different conclusion:

Journalism will improve once newspapers die or decline to a minor medium.

Note that I said news-PAPER, not news organization. I have worked for newspapers in five cities (technically six because Bristol, Virginia, and Bristol, Tennessee, are two different cities). I loved the work and made my living at it for a while. I have many friends and former students who are newspaper people. They are facing difficult and uncertain times right now, and I wish them stability and good fortune.

But the medium they work so hard to produce — the paper — is holding back journalism from doing the best job that it can for society. The sooner the paper is gone, the better.

I have been thinking a lot about a piece that Steve Outing wrote for Editor and Publisher a couple of weeks ago. In it he envisioned the all-digital newsroom, and I teased out of that his list of qualifications that people who got jobs in that newsroom would have. Those qualifications are just the ones we need for journalism to thrive in this new technological age.

In addition, I was privileged to be in Nashville last week and hear Janet Coats describe how the Tampa Tribune (via TBO.com) is shifting its focus and operation from print to digital. (A short video of some of what she had to say is here on Jack Lail’s Random Mumblings.) Her talk was fascinating — a blend of practical and inspirational words that this beleaguered profession needs.

So, I began to think ahead to the day when won’t be chained to the printing press. And my conclusion was that journalism will be better. Here’s why:

  • More reporting. I don’t necessarily buy the argument that there will be fewer journalists in the new age of digital journalism. The numbers will drop if the current news organization managers (editors and publishers) are in charge. Fortunately, they won’t be. Instead, we’re likely to have managers who recognize that good reporting — and lots of it — is an asset to the organization, not a cost to be cut.
  • More reporters. Students in my experience are wildly excited about this new age of journalism. I am honored to be the faculty adviser to the Tennessee Journalist , the student operated news web site of the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee. More than 35 people regularly show up at our weekly staff meeting (only the editors are required to come) and the numbers are growing. The number of our majors has grown from 350 to 450 in just one year.
  • More, different and better ways of telling a story. Newspapers and the people who run them have stifled the development of digital journalism. Slavery to print — as well as simple laziness and stump stupidity — have sucked the energy out of efforts to creatively use this new medium.
  • Recognition that journalism occurs outside the traditional news organization. Digital newsrooms will form in places that never thought of themselves as news organizations. All web sites that attract an audience are news web sites. Visitors demand new information. That why people return to a site. Journalism would do well to embrace this concept.
  • More respect for the audience. The accusations of arrogance leveled against traditional journalism are unfortunately correct. The web — with its interactivity and with the ability of the audience to leave in an instant — does not tolerate the arrogance of the journalistic priesthood.
  • Better writing. As Jakob Neilsen, usability guru, says, readers are “selfish, lazy and ruthless.” They will not put up with the flabby, self-indulgent prose we produce.
  • Better reporting. With the audience involved in the process, we will have more sources and more points of view. We won’t be gatekeepers. On our best days, we’ll be conversation starters and guides. But we won’t be in control. And that is a good thing.

Despite the current financial woes of news organizations and the generally hard economic times, the future of journalism looks bright and exciting.

And it will improve when we are done with print. I say, speed the day.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.
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