Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Journalism's death and resurrection

The New York Times reported Tuesday morning that fewer mid-career journalists are applying for prestigious sabbatical fellowships. The reason: They’re afraid that they might not have jobs waiting for them when their sabbaticals end.

Case in point, in an adjacent Times story: The San Francisco Chronicle’s management is slashing away at the newsroom. In mid-May bean counters announced they were cutting about a quarter of the newsroom staff — 80 union and 20 management jobs.

So what’s going on? A short answer: falling advertising revenues and readership.

And Craig’s List. Classified ads were once the bread and butter of the newspaper business. No more. The real buying-and-selling action is on-line, and it’s free. (Confession: I just bought a motor scooter on Craig’s List and have sold a half dozen old typewriters there.)

So, with dwindling revenues to pay for the news, where are we going to go for it in the years (months and weeks ahead), and who is going to pay for it and will it be reliable?

In a sense each of us will end up editing (selecting) our own news from the gaggle of news and information (and rumor and hearsay) on the Web.

Perhaps we need some “Good House Keeping” seal of journalistic approval. Someone is bound to try it. But let’s face it, the Press has always been a grab back at best. And dead wrong at worst.

Consider how Mainstream media caved to public pressure and patriotism (some might call it jingoism) and gave George Bush a free ride after 9-11. If ever a vigilant Press was needed, it was then. Instead we got flag-waving, chest pounding and drum beating.

So the news never comes with guarantees. “Reader beware” then, now and forever. Never mind which medium — print, TV, radio or the Web.

Back to those fellowships going begging from pink-slip phobia. The Times quotes Boyce Rensberger, head of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at M.I.T, saying: “I feel a little queasy encouraging young people into journalism. It’s such a precarious business right now.”

I think Rensberger means “Old Media” journalism is a “precarious business right now.” Actually, it is moribund. As for “New Media” journalism, it's mysterious. No one has come up with a business plan that produces both profits and excellence.

Maybe this new media gives us the opportunity to finally break the business-model mold. How about not-for-profit news that answers not to advertisers or stockholders, but only to the public — a vigilant, demanding and, yes, outspoken public.

Significantly, that’s exactly the kind of public that the interactive, burgeoning Web is attracting and making possible.


Try “revolutionary.”

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