All in Journalism

Debate about the future of newspapers won't die for some time yet I think . . . at least among journalists, news media watchers, some bloggers and Clay Shirky.

Roy Greenslade on Greenslade Blog wrote this week on newspapers and magazines charging for their online content. Greenslade's title alone raises the key question: "Paid content is all the rage with US publishers - but where's the proof that anyone will pay?"

I chuckled over the comment from Steven Brill, founder of Journalism Online, in the piece that JO "has helped shift the debate over charging for online news from 'if' to 'when and how'" because beleaguered publishers have moved past the "abstract debate" to agree that paid content is the way ahead." (JO's goal is to help them get there.)

Now there's a shock right? Publishers think the solution to declining print revenues is to charge people for accessing onlne content.

Megan McArdlein The Atlantic online framed the debate marvellously this way "The problem besetting newspapers is not that there are hordes of bloggers giving it away for free . . . Even if every newspaper and magazine in the country entered into a binding cartel agreement not to put more than a smidgen of free content on their websites, newspapers would still be losing money, and closing by the dozens.  It's the economics, stupid . . . We're witnessing the death of a business model."

So how exactly is pushing people to pay for online content recognizing, as people like Shirky and McArdle (and dozens of others) have been rightly trying to point out, that the paid online content model which has been tried many times before will not revive the fortunes of "old" media.

Some bickering broke out this week between Michael Arrington at TechCrunch and the folks at Twitter about some documents leaked to Mr. Arrington and then published in a column/post. I haven't been following the chatter about it, but there is a good summary at Social Media Today.

What caught my eye from Amy Mengel's report was this comment:

"But, let’s all remember that bloggers, like Arrington, aren’t journalists. They don’t operate under a professional code of ethics. they don’t report to an editor or publisher who tells them what to write about or what they can or can’t reveal. Many of them are ethical, many of them are former journalists, many of them would have chosen not to publish the documents."

Separate from the facts or otherwise of the particular events (now heading to the courts apparently), the question in my mind is this: When does a blogger who writes for a group-edited blog become de facto a journalist and perhaps subject to the same standards of ethical conduct to which journalists are expected to adhere (to the extent that they do in reality anyway)?

Wikipedia describes Mr. Arrington -- a lawyer -- as a "founder/co-editor" of TechCrunch. Many think of TechCrunch as an online news source. So, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck . . . ?

A hat tip to Meghan Warby for pointing this out to me . . . A small independent daily online magazine called Tyee based in British Columbia may have the new financial model for journalism we have been looking for. Tyee is dedicated to tough investigative reporting that "swims against the current" and its editor, David Beers, is asking readers to help finance political reporting during the current B.C. provincial election campaign because of the high costs of such coverage.

But this isn't just the standard 'send us some money and we'll figure out what to do with it' donation approach. Beers wants funders to tell the publication what issue they want it to cover, and that's how it will direct the funds. The publication is committed to directing the money to reporting on the issue that the donor specifies.

So, if you are concerned about the policies, programs or track record of the candidates on, for example, gang violence in Vancouver or environmental issues, you can tell Tyee when you send in your cheque and it will use it to finance the reporting of the journalists covering that beat for the magazine. The impact? With an extra $5,000, Tyee "could pay for about 30 extra reporter days . . . an extra reporter every day of the election campaign."

Let's talk about this.

An extensive analysis in Toronto's The Globe and Mail newspaper by Sinclair Stewart and Grant Robertson repeats a popular question: "(I)f print is a dinosaur, what will take up its traditional roles -- informing the public, animating civic culture and holding government accountable?" Jon Slattery picks it up in the U.K.'s The Guardian in a piece with the earthy title 'Where the hell do we go now?' And Canadian blogger and former journalist Mark Evans chimes in with his worry about maintaining the quality of journalism in the face of dissection of the newsroom . . . . without, however, taking a stand on the future of news journalism and without drawing a picture of an alternative news cosmos.

The background to the soul-searching is the precipitous disappearance of major newspapers in print form (The Seattle Intelligencer most recently and The San Francisco Chronicle likely next). At the core of the discussion, other than the loss of jobs and the "decline" of quality (The quotation marks are purposeful since quality has been in retreat in broadcast and print journalism from before social media became a threat.) is the question of whether social discourse, investigative inquiry and democracy will suffer without an energetic and well-financed fourth estate playing the role of critical watchdog.

The model is changing. That much is self-evident. But there is an embryonic new model within the decline (which nearly always happens in transition periods) and it is based on an unprecedented ability to gather, share and act collectively. Clay Shirky in 'Here Comes Everybody' calls it a new communications "ecology":

"The change isn't a shift from one kind of news institution to another, but rather in the definition of news: from news as an institutional prerogative to news as part of a communications ecosystem, occupied by a mix of formal organizations, informal collectives, and individuals."

Some of the critical pieces of the prototype are already in place.

The ability of people using social networks to form and act together in groups means that problems like corruption and malfeasance among legislators, clergy and citizens can be discovered and fought with even greater speed than when we depended on investigative journalism to root it out. Shirky again . . . "social tools don't create collective action - they merely remove the obstacles to it." Without the obstacles to discovery and action, the social criminals and demagogues won't be able to hide for long.

With the ability of anyone to publish, for the time being we have lost the beauty of fine writing. But not the capacity to find and report significant events. In exchange, we've got speed in reporting news, depth, breadth and personality in what is understood as "news", and often now quirky and energetic prose. The result may be hyper-local community reportage (and publications), but it can also become national and international news if warranted or needed. The disappearance of some print and broadcast outlets doesn't mean that news is not being revealed, or that criticism isn't being coalesced into opposition, only that the agent has changed.

As for print newspapers providing a sense of community and hence their disappearance leading to a decline in a sense of place, this is silly. Where we get a sense of community is simply shifting to social networks built around communities and communities of interest. I can learn as much (and find out more immediately) about Toronto from torontoist.com as from the Toronto Star or the Toronto Sun.

Newspapers as we know them won't all disappear. We need journalistic models of quality, thoroughness and objectivity to learn from and against which to measure citizen journalism. And they're wonderful to sit with on a Sunday morning while enjoying a cappuccino. Nevertheless, their influence will surely continue to decline. However, democracy is safe in the hands of all of us.