The Future of News

Anyone paying attention during the last decade is familiar with the decline of American journalism. Today, what would have seemed a ludicrous proposition just ten or fifteen years ago seems like a distinct possibility: America’s major newspapers may disappear. I don’t just mean the end of print news—which will almost certainly happen—I mean the collapse of news operations altogether.  A precipitous drop in print circulations, combined with the inability to sufficiently monetize the add revenue needed for large newsgathering operations, is making the current model of print and digital media financially unsustainable—no matter how many layoffs and furloughs occur.

newspapers

Several years ago, while I was working on a project about homelessness in San Francisco, I had some frank conversations with a few employees from the San Francisco Chronicle who doubted the paper could stay afloat for even another ten years. At this point, only the deep pockets of the Hearst Corporation keep the San Francisco Chronicle afloat; the paper loses nearly a million dollars a week! Sometime in the near future the possibility exists that perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in America may not have a major newspaper.

A 2009 Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism report entitled “The State of the News Media” is a perfect summary of the sad state of national journalism at the end of the century’s first decade. Pew found that twenty percent of journalism jobs disappeared between 2001 and 2009. By the beginning of 2010, that number had shot up to twenty five percent. Things can and will get worse for the newspaper industry.

Despite all the hand wringing about the future of journalism, very few books on the subject attempt to find a realistic solution to the industry’s current quandary. One of the few books that goes beyond detailing the moribund state of the news is The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will begin the World Again. Written by radio personality Robert McChesney and journalist John Nichols, the book attempts to chart a new course for American journalism—one rooted in its distant past. The authors see the historical relationship between the early press and the federal government as a possible signpost for the future of journalism: public subsidization of the news. McChesney and Nichols call attention to the long and often problematical history between corporatism and journalism, stating that the “profit motive” can no longer fuel journalism—perhaps it shouldn’t have in the first place. Regardless of one’s view of the book, the current economic paradigm driving newspapers is about to run out of gas.

Budget cuts and retrenchment have especially grim consequences for already journalistically underserved Rust Belt cities. Currently inadequate coverage of pressing urban issues could soon change to nonexistent coverage.  The Plain Dealer has already resorted to furloughs and pay cuts in order to keep printing seven days a week. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette lost twenty million dollars in 2006. Additionally, the size and scope of newspapers have shrunk, and local news sections are smaller with less (if any) investigative stories. Clearly, we can no longer rely on the traditional media to cover and investigate the most pertinent issues in our urban centers. So what can be done?

Next week, a new non-profit news organization, The Bay Citizen will come online. Covering the San Francisco Bay Area, The Citizen will focus on six “civic beats” in what could be a groundbreaking effort to fill the rapidly growing news hole in the bay area. This new venture is being funded by a variety sources and is being billed as a “combination news organization and community resource.” Featuring a role call of experienced journalists who cut their teeth at traditional newspapers, The Bay Citizen might chart a new path for communities left adrift by understaffed and solely profit oriented news organizations.

I believe the questions that Rust Belt citizens, bloggers, entrepreneurs, and community activists should be asking themselves are simple: How will our communities be covered in the future? Will the seemingly last resort option of community journalism be the answer? Can non-profit news work in the Rust Belt? Perhaps a regional meeting of the minds, something akin to what has been happening in the blogging and tech worlds regionally, is called for. If the voices and concerns of our citizens are to be heard, and if we want the economic and developmental agendas of our regions to be front and center in Washington, we must face the reality of the declining state of journalism.

This post was contributed by Sean Posey, a Youngstown-based photographer and graduate student.

10 Comments

Filed under Headline, The Big Urban Photography Project, The Media

10 responses to “The Future of News

  1. Newspapers are hopeless. The Plain Dealer is doing another round of buyouts. They’ve had one every year for the last four almost.

  2. Also, I read the Plain Dealer every day.

  3. It’s amazing how slow people are reacting to the collapse of the fourth estate. Once we lose any investigative oversight over our decision makers and politicians, we lose a large part of our democracy. We also face the complete marginalization of under served urban communities. Many of the things that grassroots and community groups are doing to revitalize rust belt cities will fail with out any kind of an adequate press to cover them. This goes doubly for revitalization efforts that are not immediately connected to business interests.

  4. Thanks for bringing up the suggestions of McChesney & Nichol’s book. This is a serious issue, because it is obvious that there will be a huge gap between the collapse of newspapers altogether and when a new sustainable public model is developed and implemented. Really scary for issues involving urban public affairs issues, gentrification, development, educations, immigration, etc. We have seen what the death of two newspaper towns have done to Cincinnati, Seattle, and Denver….but we are now on the verge of having major cities without a major daily.

  5. I think news as a nonprofit enterprise is a good model. Look at what think tanks such as Brookings are doing.The useful information they produce finds a readership directly through blogs. There is no need for newspapers to mediate. The same goes for local issues. You can watch the city council meetings online and read the commentary from other local bloggers. Again, there is no need for the newspaper.

    However, good investigative reporting is something that requires expertise and resources. I imagine nonprofits could pick up this slack. As for the glut of journalists, I see a future of consulting and education. Given the ubiquity of social media tools, children should be trained how to use them. Journalism and media literacy should be part of every school district’s curriculum. As for consulting, many institutions and organizations would benefit from the expertise of journalists concerning the management of social media management. Journalists will understand better than anyone how the information is being consumed.

    As for a regional meeting of the minds, sounds like a good task for the Regional Learning Network. Let’s try to imagine what the future looks like for TechBelt news.

  6. Jim,

    It will be interesting to see what becomes of some of these new nonprofit news groups. I’d love to see something like the Bay Citizen emerge in the Great Lakes region. Though perhaps it would be harder to attract financing, which appears to be less of a problem on the coasts.

  7. Circ-Pro

    Although most of the material in this article is true, they forget to
    mention that Television and Radio are doing just as bad. The smaller
    market Daily newspapers are very stable, and circulation is up year over year. They have the advantage of a local lock on ad revenue and editorial content that is hyper-local and meets the needs of their readers. Everyone seems to focus on the large Dailies (New York Times) being the most mentioned. As for the papers going under, they should not have bought so much so fast. There will be a shift in our model with print and online editions working together, but print and journalism will always exist. Democracy demands it. Newspapers will not collapse, this rumor has been circulating for the past 20 years I’ll have you know. “More people read a daily newspaper every day in U.S. than watch the super bowl”(NAA facts and figures).

    “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”. (Thomas Jefferson)

  8. Circ-Pro,

    I deliberately left out television and radio in order to simplify things.

    As more and more journalists are let go and have to leave the industry, fewer and fewer stories will be covered. Newspapers may survive, but their scope will be reduced dramatically. My local newspaper is a smaller market daily paper and it still survives. However, the quality of and size of the publication has decreased. We no longer even have a local news section. It’s been smashed in with the national news in the front section.

    People may still read the paper, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that papers-which are rapidly shifting to web delivery-cannot survive on the much reduced advertising revenue from their web sites. Their old economic models no longer work.

    We shouldn’t romanticize newspapers either; very often they’ve failed in their roles as watch dogs. Still, the prospect of hobbled and underfunded news operations, desperately trying to cover news with skeleton crew staffs, is far from appealing. We need a new model.

  9. Special K

    Good post Sean. I think there will be a lot of people watching The Bay Citizen and hoping it is successful.

    Also, for purposes of full disclosure, I should mention RustWire.com was mentioned in the book, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will begin the World Again.

  10. Finden

    The McChesney and Nichols book is the kick in the head we all need to wake up and do something. Thanks for getting the word out.

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