You can’t go anywhere online these days with being affronted by yet another hand-wringing essay, speech, or diatribe about how screwed we will all be when “journalism” disappears (today’s is from Leonard Downie of the Washington Post).
Of course, these tales of woe aren’t really about “journalism,” at all. They’re about newspapers and change.
“Journalism” is alive and well, as evidenced by the still-robust health of companies like Bloomberg and Reuters, the survival of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other great news organisations, the hyper-growth of online news and commentary sites, and the rise of social media. And change is inevitable.
It bears noting that, almost without exception, these hand-wringers are written by people who run or own newspapers. Thus, in the interest of fairness, they should probably be accompanied by a disclaimer that goes something like this:
And, yes, if we don’t save newspapers, my fortune, ego, and life’s work will go down the tubes, my shareholders will get killed, and many of my employees will get sacked–and like hell I’m going to let that happen without a fight.
The Internet is doing to the news business the same thing it has done to dozens of other industries: disrupting it. Specifically, it is taking an old, inefficient system and making it much faster and more efficient. It is also eliminating enormous overcapacity in the news business (yes, overcapacity–society doesn’t need hundreds of White House reporters). As always, this disruption is painful, but it’s not necessarily bad. In fact, as far as a lot of people are concerned, it’s better.
How do we know this?
Because folks who have embraced the changing ways of exchanging news and information are not writing essays about how the whole world is falling apart. In fact, most of them prefer this new world to the old.
For every horror story about how awful and un-accountable this new world is going to be, moreover, there are dozens of examples of uncovered sleaze, unfairness, and hypocrisy that never would have been reported in the old mainstream media world.
- Would we really have gotten a better sense of the Iran protests from a single NYT bureau instead of thousands of Twitter and Facebook images?
- Would CBS’s fake National Guard documents have been outed so rapidly?
- Were we really better off when we had to wait for PR people at companies to package layoffs or problems instead of reporting employee and customer chatter as it occurs?
- Is it really better to have a handful of reporters and editors tell us what they think is important instead of letting anyone who wants to weigh in weigh in? (Can anyone seriously believe this? Thousands of expert readers constitute a much better fact-checking department than the best news organisation in the world.)
Will some things be lost in the transition? Of course. Some things are always lost in transitions.
Should we continue to have non-profits like NPR that conduct journalism with contributions and public funds? Of course. And if these contributions increase, great.
Should we keep encouraging entrepreneurs to experiment with new business models for news? Of course. (And although this isn’t welcome news to those who own newspapers, some of them are actually coming along quite nicely.)
But can we please at least wait a few minutes to see how this new world is going to turn out before moaning that everything is going to the dogs?