It’s more timely now with the news of The Ledger’s job cuts and religion editor Cary McMullen’s column last Saturday lamenting the demise of religion reporting and the specific layoff of well-known and respected Orlando Sentinel religion reporter Mark Pinsky. But honestly, it’s hard to find a week that doesn’t accentuate the decline of institutional print journalism.
I want to focus on a few weeks ago, when a young intern with the Tampa Tribune named Jessica DaSilva set off an online kerfuffle. She posted on her blog an account of Executive Editor Janet Coats’ staff meeting detailing a newsroom reorganization that included a dozen or so layoffs. All the casualties were reporters or line level copyeditors, if I understand it correctly. At the time, I had just left for my new corporate writing job in Tampa along with a few other Tribune refugees. (My new employer, who I will not mention here by name, makes a funny sort of journalism culture war cameo in Jessica’s post.) A number of other longtime reporters and editors had just taken a voluntary buyout. The atmosphere for that gathering must have been morgue-like.
Enter Jessica, who I don’t think I ever met before I left. She seems enthusiastic and smart, and her post was gripping. She defended Janet and her newsroom re-org and her unapologetic emphasis on online content over print. It was the old reform or die speech I myself have given self-importantly over the years to rolling eyes or shrugs or a mirror. But it was nice to see a young reporter write with passion about journalism. Even before the traditional newspaper model passed the event horizon of its black hole, far too many professional reporters approached their jobs with far too little excitement and far too much contempt for the public and readers they claimed to serve.
That being said, Jessica’s Janet hagiography was a little much. And I say that as someone who has been generally pro-Janet. Money passage:
Janet believes in the news industry. She believes in holding government, media and the public accountable. And she knows there is not another job that makes such a huge difference and wields such power. News organizations offer society so much, and that is why she cannot take another job – because journalism is her calling, and she knows there is nothing else she could ever imagine herself doing.
“It’s worth fighting for,” Janet said.
Out of all her quotable moments, those were the words that stuck with me. It was that powerful statement that conveyed the hope, faith and prayers of all journalists worldwide. That maybe this industry can’t be demolished because of its importance and that maybe our love and passion for it could be enough to keep it running.
Well, it’s going to take more than love and passion. That love and passion must move us to find solutions to keep our industry, our jobs and our identities alive and well. Still, it’s going to take passionate people like Janet Coats to figure it out.
The gauzy lighting on the woman who had just dropped the executioner’s axe on 11 or 12 human beings with families and bills made Jessica something of a target. The post got passed around various journoblogs and sparked hundreds of comments. Some praised Jessica, but most debated whether she was a simpering suckup or just a naïve teenybopper. Good times. Don’t ask what they said about Janet.
Wayne Garcia with Creative Loafing picked up on the…whatever this was and wrote an engaging, elegiac story about the state of newspapers in the Bay Area. Here’s the link.
Which finally brings me to my point: This entire episode consisted almost completely of reporters and editors talking/yelling to/at each other. And I think, with apologies to everyone involved, the discussion could hardly have been less relevant to the overarching problem facing institutional journalism, which is this:
Mass audiences don’t pay to read content. They never have, at least not since the rise of free television.
Advertisers, who have funded the major newspapers, have never cared about journalism. They paid for the press – the means to reach a mass audience. With the rise of the web and Google, advertisers can now reach almost infinitely larger audiences with measurable, local precision. The marriage of journalism and advertising, which I think never existed, is undergoing an ugly, irreversible divorce.
In writing about the departure of the Sentinel’s Pinsky, a best-selling author in his own right, McMullen says: With a resume like that, you would assume that this was a guy any news organization would want to hang on to. But these days, newspapers can’t afford prestige, it seems.
That’s exactly correct.
There is no way for Janet Coats, or anyone else, to redesign or repackage a way out of this economic and logistical reality and generate enough cash flow to pay for the buildings print news organizations own, the people they pay and insure, and the bonuses the executives reward themselves with. Journalists and institutional news executives, if they want to preserve the public service element of their business, need to stop talking to each other and talk frankly to their local readers and civic establishments.
In the Tribune’s case, executives should make it clear to readers, as well as the Chamber of Commerce, USF, local foundations and government, the Tampa Bay partnership and anyone else who has a stake in Bay area information, that the Tribune and the service it provides will cease to exist soon without a radical new community arrangement.
If no new financial arrangement with the community emerges, I predict that within five years, the quasi non-profit St. Pete Times will absorb what’s left of the for-profit Trib and create a single institutional news organization for the bay – call it the Tampa Bay Times-Tribune. It’ll put out a print tab daily or semi-daily and maybe a big traditional Sunday paper, and the rest will focus on online reporting. Who knows how long that will last?
With no organization in a position to absorb it in Polk County, I expect The Ledger will cease to produce a print product within that same time horizon. It needs to have all the same conversations the Trib needs to. Indeed, every news organization needs to ask its community if the community wants it to continue to exist.
I expect nationwide you will begin to see cities lose their daily print newspapers, or at there will be least a wave of bankruptcies that allow them restructure as something radically smaller and different. But it’s not just print. Under the current models, serious local and state online reporting doesn’t pay for itself either. It’s not newspapers that face a very real death very soon – it’s institutional journalism, the centralized daily coverage of city hall and crime and whose daughter is singing at Carnegie Hall and whose Little League team is undefeated.
If news executives can’t find someone to pay for these stories, they will be left to blogs and aggregations of hobbyists like Lakeland Local; or haphazard freelancing; or to a throwaway employee of Google. Or nothing but word of mouth and TV. And soon.
In some ways, if you put aside the very real personal trauma for the very real people losing their jobs and careers, it’s possible to see some upside to the de-professionalization of news. I think virtually everyone would agree that the mainstream newspaper and television news industry have become calcified, dull, and at times, actively harmful to the supposed mission of informing people. In print, we’ve labored under these semi-religious tenets concerning neutrality and objectivity that the readers are now telling us with their money and feet they can’t care less about.
There’s nothing wrong with objectivity, of course, except that it is often false. And I think many of our readers, of all ideological, political and cultural stripes are largely convinced, correctly, that we collectively and individually harbor any number of biases. Our best readers are leaving us – or at least engaging more intensely – with outlets that they perceive as more honest, accessible to them, and fun to read (while we chase the fickle readers with sex offenders and cheerleader beatdowns and other porn). At the same time, the powerful governments, businesses and organizations for whom we supposedly act as watchdogs have figured out how to use these conventions against us to obscure truth and limit our influence.
Anyway, post apocalypse, if the journalism gods decided to bestow upon me a little bit of startup money, here’s how I would set about creating a new model for a community journalism institution.
First, there would be no print product until it could pay for itself without depending on advertising. That means some rich guy or organzation would have to subsidize, like bus service.
Second, it would think of itself less as an organization than as a network of entrepreneurial reporters and photographers. What little there would be of management would, with the help of the public, enforce a new set of funding mechanisms and reporting norms that recognize the people who create content are the most important element of journalism. And it would recognize that the future of journalism lies not in mass audience, but bundles of intense audiences, who are willing to pay in one way or another for quality content.
Here are a few possible tenets.
1) Allow the people who produce stories, photos and other content to be paid directly, on a voluntary basis, by readers or viewers. The producers could be paid like partners at a law firm, with a percentage earmarked for operating the organization and the rest divvied up to producers. Or, if enough advertising and subscription revenue could be sustained, the reporters could keep all the money, like tips in a restaurant.
This model could establish something that I think has never really existed, a direct financial link between the quality of the individual journalist and the market he or she serves. The catch will be ensuring that pay is disclosed publicly and immediately, so that the industry avoids the corruption of payola. Campaign contribution disclosure could be a useful model for this.
2) This network of reporters would work under an ethical system that prizes transparency, intellectual honesty, and audience engagement over pious objectivity, opaque news judgments, and the fear of being called biased.
I think that we should stop arrogantly insisting that we reporters, who are also human beings, can be perfectly objective about anything. Instead, let’s make our subjectivity as transparent and readable as possible and give people who see biases the chance to point them out and debate them with us.
These are the types of questions reporters would need to answer about their pieces:
Is it good? Well-written, sourced, compelling, capable of engaging readers. Can/will the reporter defend it against critics based on his/her reporting? What format or combination of formats that best tells the story? Should a reporter write in the first person or third person?
Are conclusions reached by reporters based on real, verifiable reporting and sources? Are those conclusions intellectually honest? Do they include information contrary to that conclusion if such information exists and account for the conflict? Most importantly, conclusions must be subject to revision if new information and reporting calls for it.
In this world, reporters would be expected to provide relevant personal information: voter registration, general area where they live (not specific address), what their spouses/parents/children do for a living.
No one knows if that model, or any other, can save what we have known as the institutional news organization. It may be that we’ll all be amateurs soon.
But that’s certain to happen if those reporters and editors who still have paychecks don’t stop arguing among themselves about content and organization and start leveling with their communities about what they’re about to lose.