The battle isn’t against technology but for relevance

This post has already been written once by Steve Yelvington, but after our recent Web 2.0 and journalism discussion, I thought the subject was worth revisiting.

In writing this, I’m not trivialising the economic anxiety that newspaper journalists are experiencing right now. I remember Dan Gillmor telling attendees at a Global Voices meeting in London in 2005 that, while some journalists were defensive about blogs and ‘citizen journalism’, people needed to understand that some of this grew out of the economic uncertainties and job insecurity journalists were facing. (Dan, I hope that’s a fair parahprase.) But I think it’s important to understand the nature of the problem.

Journalism and new media professor Mark Deuze left two lengthy comments on our Web 2.0 and journalism post painting a very grim picture of the journalism job market and challenging some of our optimism about digital journalism. In some ways, I’m sure that we’re coming from similar positions with a different emphasis, but I wanted to respond to some of the points he made because I think they’re important.

‘A long slide toward irrelevancy’

I think Mark conflated several issues. Suw and I outlined the journalistic opportunities that Web 2.0 provides, while he focused on economic pressures on journalists and recent journalism grads looking for work. As we said in our previous comment, newspaper journalists in developed countries (it needs to be said that newspaper readership is increasing in developing countries) should not blame the internet alone for what has been an ongoing trend in circulation declines.

The decline began in the 1970s, as Steve Yelvington pointed out, and this is part of a more pressing issue that journalists are ignoring, but which Merrill Brown pointed out in his 2005 study, Abandoning the News:

In short, the future of the U.S. news industry is seriously threatened by the seemingly irrevocable move by young people away from traditional sources of news.

Through Internet portal sites, handheld devices, blogs and instant messaging, we are accessing and processing information in ways that challenge the historic function of the news business and raise fundamental questions about the future of the news field.

Merrill found that young people aren’t engaging with the news when they have children and buy a house as they have in the past, despite the old adage that ‘youngsters’ would ‘grow into it’. They get more news from the Daily Show than from the nightly news or the daily paper.

Steve called it “… a long, slow slide toward irrelevancy through the loss of readership driven by generational change. … Even if the Internet had never happened, newspapers — especially big-city papers — have long been headed for a dangerous inflection point at which their market penetration would not be sufficient to sustain a mass-media business model.”

As Steve wrote in another post:

The core problem faced by newspapers is a loss of readers across the board. The General Social Survey has documented a decline in newspaper readership that’s pretty much a straight line going back to around 1970. It’s a problem of content relevancy in an increasingly rich media mix, and not specific to the emergence of the World Wide Web.

Employment trends

To quote Mark again: “Then you state: ‘Certainly, saying that journalism students will never get a full time or permanent job is an exaggeration.’ No, it is not an exaggeration, I’m afraid.” But he is both exaggerating and selectively quoting statistics to try and support his point of view.

I looked at some of the studies that Mark quoted, such as the Annual Surveys of Journalism and Mass Communication Graduate, which contradicts his presentation of a straight line decline (at least in the US) of journalism head count since 1992. As the surveys point out, the job market for graduates was the most favourable in 2000 before dropping off over the last seven years. But this was the summary of the most recent report, 2006, which discusses the job market in 2005:

  • Only 3.1% of the journalism and mass communication graduates in 2006 had no job interviews as they entered the market.
  • The percentage of 2006 journalism and mass communication bachelor’s degree recipients with at least one job offer on graduation was 76.2, comparable to the figure of a year earlier.
  • On October 31, 2006, 63.7% of the journalism and mass communication bachelor’s degree recipients from the past spring held a full-time job, and 11.9% had a part-time job. These figures are statistically comparable with the figures from a year earlier.

Now, I’m sure that the pay is horrible and the hours are punishing, but entry level journalism pay and hours have always been brutal. My first job at a newspaper in Kansas paid $2000 a year less than a first year teacher in the town where I worked. I most certainly worked between 41 and 50 hours, which the study said a quarter of grads did. (Having said that, during presidential election years working the BBC, there were times when I worked between 60 and 70 hours.) I was told at the time by more senior journalists in the industry that cub reporters always got paid peanuts. This is not a justification. I wish it wasn’t so, then and now. It’s difficult to attract talented, smart people when the pay and conditions can be so appalling.

I would say to journalism students that they need look to the future and not the past. There are many stories of new print grads actually being more conservative and less digitally savvy than newsroom veterans. I’ve said it before. Print journalism students need new heroes. Leveraging my digital skills for higher than average pay was one of the few strategies that seems to have worked in my career to earn a living wage.

Technology is not depopulating journalism

Mark said: “So yes, companies investing in technology play catch-up, but this at the same time depopulates the field of journalism.”

This a specious argument that basically draws a direct relationship between technology outlays by newspapers and job cuts. It is not as if newspapers are spending on work-saving technology just so that they can sack journalists. This is an argument from an industrial context, where assembly line robots have replaced human beings, but there isn’t that sort of one-to-one relationship between technology and work force in news organisations. Some organisations are outsourcing reporting, but the depopulation of newspaper newsrooms is more directly related to circulation and ad revenue declines. See the post by Steve Yelvington that I’ve linked to above for a number of reasons why ad spend has decreased, including loss of local department store advertising to be replaced by lower ad rate blow-ins, not to mention the impact that Craigslist has had on classified ad revenues in some markets.

Also, new roles and jobs are being created because of computers and the internet, such as ‘news technologist‘ roles and database-driven reporting and presentation. CAR (computer-assisted reporting) has grown essential in investigative journalism, and now, news organisations are finding innovative ways to present data and information directly to their readers. These ‘techni-torial’ jobs will increase as we need technically savvy journalists to report, produce and present news in ways that digitally savvy audiences want.

And as we said in our previous post, user-generated content is being used to supplement, not replace, the work of traditional journalists. Enlightened news organisations are using user-generated content in many forms to add to their reporting and, in local UGC plays, reconnect with their communities.

Digital Divide: The Wills and the Won’ts

As for Mark’s comments about the digital divide, without explaining what he means by the ‘digital divide’, it’s an almost meaningless term. It used to describe socio-economic disparities in access to the internet and other digital technology. But does Mark mean regular access to the internet? Does he mean use of a mobile phone? A recent Harris poll showed that 80% of Americans were finding some way to get online.

This study also found that the online population is beginning to mirror the general population, e.g. 13% of the online population was Hispanic, which is the same percentages of Hispanics in the general US population, so this is not necessarily differential rates of access based on income or race. Access to technology is increasingly more affordable. WalMart introduced a $200 Linux-based computer two weeks ago that has sold out of its initial production run of about 10,000.

If Mark is talking about access to internet in the US or Europe and comparing it internet access rates in the developing world, those figures aren’t relevant to this argument. But I’m not sure what he means or which study that he’s quoting. I tend to agree with digital education expert Ewan McIntosh, who said recently at a conference here in the UK, the digital divide isn’t so much about the haves versus the have-nots but the wills versus the won’ts.

People are turning to the internet for news

As for the assertion that people aren’t getting their news online. What’s the source for that? What formats do they find confusing? I’m genuinely curious, not simply challenging Mark. I know that some Guardian readers are confused by what a blog is, but that could just as easily be attributed to the journalists’ general unawareness and misuse of the term – often in the process of rubbishing blogs while ironically showing how ignorant they are of the subject.

In Europe, 62% of the online population is turning to online media versus traditional media. Granted, this is a sample of a sample, but it’s still showing a trend towards digital – especially if you consider digital mobile and not just via fixed internet access.

The New York Times said it recently when reviewing circulation figures: “More Readers Trading Newspapers for Web Sites.” Duncan Reily at TechCrunch put it this way:

The problem with newspapers isn’t the web alone, its excessive choice in a declining market. Newsprint has a future, but not in a cut throat marketplace that provides more choice than the market can consume.

New, hybrid models of journalism

Beyond that, I’d like to challenge the view that there is a binary opposition of print versus online. Look to MyMissourian and Bluffton Today to see what a hybrid online-to-print model can achieve. Clyde Bentley, news veteran and professor at the University of Missouri, said that print serves the masses but online services ‘the actives’. With MyMissourian, he’s not making people choose between print and online, but serving both constituencies.

And more from Steve Yelvington. In Bluffton, parent company Morris wasn’t just trying to undercut a paid competitor with a free-sheet: Their goal was to increase the social capital in their community. The result of this is that they don’t miss stories because their readers tip them off. The website and the paper add to community cohesion.

But running through Mark’s entire argument is a focus on headcount, jobs and pay without talking about the economic pressure on newspapers. Newspapers aren’t making the same money that they used to, particularly in the US, now that the monopolies that single titles had over specific geographic areas have been eroded. Something’s gotta give. Yes, it does mean job cuts, lower pay rises and some loss of benefits, but this isn’t simply about maintaining double digit profits or returning value to stockholders over maintaining staff numbers and benefits either. This is about the fundamental erosion of the business models that many newspapers are based on.

Journalists can be part of the solution

Mark also says: “I am pro-Web 2.0, excited about participatory media culture, and agree that journalism as a whole can benefit from all that this has to offer. But you can only expect reporters and editors to do so if they are supported in meaningful ways, if they are included in managerial strategies,”

I may not have surveyed hundreds of journalists as Mark has. I can only speak from my own experience, but many, if not most, journalists I know are resistant to change. They don’t want to be involved in managerial strategies and view change with scepticism, often bred from professionally cultivated cynicism.

I agree with Mark about support, and I try to offer as much support to my fellow journalists as possible, helping them to take advantage of the journalistic possibilities provided by these new technologies. However, I pick my battles. I don’t have time to convert the obstructionist sceptics in the industry. They are still spouting the same lines they did when I started working online 10 years ago, and I don’t see that changing or me changing them. Fortunately, I have colleagues who are curious and want to move forward.

Mark said, “if [reporters and editors] are empowered to innovate from the bottom-up – rather than being told to either adapt to the brand new 3-million dollar Content Management System or get out.”

You know, again, this is a nice line, but it doesn’t sync with working reality at The Guardian, the BBC – to name two news organisations that I have worked for – or other news organisations that I know of. Yes, we’re building a new CMS at the Guardian, but for a lot of shops, they are using open-source tools. Morris Digital uses Drupal. Reuters, the New York Times and CNN use WordPress, which is both free and open source, not a $3m content management system. WordPress and many of these open-source CMSes are far simpler than most newspaper CMSes I’ve used. And the job cuts simply aren’t decided by whether the journalist will get up to speed with a new CMS.

As a matter of fact, the cost of innovation is decreasing, especially for those news organisations smart enough to use any number of open source solutions available. That’s the real opportunity, but a missed opportunity for many outlets. They can reduce the cost of innovation and therefore experment more with less risk. Of course, innovation doesn’t mean focusing on the business at the cost of journalistic quality, but that’s a post for another day.

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