Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Avert your eyes: The “broken model” of print media

It is a well documented fact that print media is struggling. Every day a magazine or local paper lays off more people, or goes the whole hog and goes entirely bust. As a prospective journalist myself this should be incredibly disconcerting. Indeed, it has led a few bloggers to question why anyone would study Journalism (see http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/04/08/who-the-hell-is-enrolling-in-journalism-school-right-now/).
But those who predict the end of journalism couldn’t be more wrong. Yes there are unemployed journalists out there, but that has as much to do with the recession as it does the apparent death of journalism itself. The truth is that online journalism is still vibrant and growing, and if the industry learns its lessons quickly (indeed pre-empting and making the changes) there is no reason for the jobless to resign themselves to a life on the dole.
The face of journalism is changing, and we have to stop focussing on the death of tradition and look to the future. Yes there is an argument that blogs are stepping on the toes of “traditional” articles but this just exposes the industries apparent self importance and arrogance. Firstly it should be seen as a test for Journalists; a chance to show why they get employed for what they do. Does the wealth of unsigned bands in the UK ruin the market for the larger bands? No, in many cases it simply serves to show why some bands have made it to where they are (if only that were true for all mainstream music!) Secondly, and more importantly, with great change comes great opportunity and journalists need to see the open door, not rue the one that just closed. There is an inconceivable amount of content that needs to be written on the web, and custom publishing is one such industry growing like an amoeba, crying out for decent writers, bloggers and designers. So it is in this sense that I have to disagree with Alan Rusbridger (editor of the Guardian) on the consequences of print medias decline...
“Bad things are going to happen where newspapers are going to die. There are going to be fewer journalists and the really pricey business of quality journalism is going to require subsidy from somewhere. It’s a broken model.”
Yes it is broken, but that doesn’t mean that the quality journalists will be forced to wait tables for the rest of their lives. Such a statement assumes that journalists and readers want the traditions and old order to be maintained. This is not the case, nor would it be possible to maintain if it was. The changes happening in the media world have snowballed from the conception of the internet, it cannot be reversed, it can only be barrelled onwards. We have reached a place of greater accessibility and immersion, and a place that cost wise (and environmentally) makes things a lot simpler. In as clichéd way as possible: You can’t halt progress.
Journalists should be making the most of Twitter, feeds, the blogosphere, getting involved in custom publications and utilising the hundreds of technological advancements that are CREATING journalistic opportunity, not destroying it. Writers already have and will continue to find these new outlets, and if they don’t they probably weren’t “quality” journalists in the first place. Alan Rusbridger seems acutely aware of this in his appraisal of Twitter, though he falls short of suggesting it is part of journalisms saviour:
“You harness this brilliant pool of knowledge out there. It’s a fantastic marketing tool. It’s a fantastic journalistic tool.”
Rusbridger correctly identifies that the profession will need a new form of subsidy, and this seems to be the real question: not where journalism work is going to come from, but where will profit be found. The financial side of journalism is the broken part, that Rusbridger implies that this question means “bad things” for journalism is flawed fin de siècle doomsaying. If he looked around him he would see some writers, despite the tough times, flourishing and creating.
A case in point is Red Stripe beer, who are never seen in newspaper ads, TV ads or indeed sponsorship deals. For years they have been running the Red Stripe Music Awards, sending out journalists to gigs to find the best in UK unsigned talent. Their site therefore contains news, editorial, reviews and forums for musicians, all branded with the company’s product. Brand financed journalism is growing, and is of surprising quality (see Relentless too).
In Clay Shirky’s fantastic “newspapers and thinking the unthinkable” he alludes to the creation of printing press and the chaos that followed, lasting for decades after. Revolutions are confusing times, even if the order before and after seems to be natural. Don’t get caught watching the death of the paper, instead watch the rise of something altogether more exciting, interactive, intuitive, accessible and as viable a business model as all that came before it.
We just don’t know how yet.

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