The Future of Journalism

Posted by James Pressley

Julian Oliver has put his finger smack on the pulse. The paradox is what economists call a supply-and-demand imbalance: Surging demand for 24/7 news has become inversely proportional to the supply of quality journalism.

Mr. Oliver and Eric Karstens of the European Journalism Centre have put forward sound ideas for how the European Union can help. As an American newsman who has worked in Europe for 22 years, I would add two modest recommendations:

Stop wasting time by blaming the decline of serious journalism on Google. Focus instead on the loss of seasoned reporters and editors in the trade.

The Burson-Marsteller media survey cited in Mr. Oliver’s blog identifies “the hiring of cheaper, less experienced journalists” as the single biggest threat to high-quality journalism today. A full 40 percent of respondents saw this as the No. 1 danger, compared with 17 percent who viewed digital media as the greatest menace.

Serious news gathering, editing and storytelling resemble fresh air: They are public goods. Though society as a whole benefits from them, few wish to foot the bill.

This conundrum is akin to what ecologist Garrett Hardin called the Tragedy of the Commons, in which herders graze their cattle on village ground. One herder discovers he can turn a tidy profit by buying an extra animal. But when others copy him, the beasts soon strip the lush pasture to bare earth.

As search engines and news aggregators chew up content without paying a penny, newspaper men and women are tempted to blame the decimation of their business on the Internet in general and Google in particular. But any reporter or editor who took up the craft in the 1980s, as I did, knows that the decline predated the World Wide Web and Google.

U.S. newspaper circulation has slumped 30 percent over the past two decades, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest report on “The State of the News Media.” Daily circulation dropped to 43.4 million in 2010 from 62.3 million in 1990, when I first landed in Brussels to work for the Wall Street Journal.

Back then, the main threat to newspapers came from television. Already in the 1980s, the danger was prompting papers to experiment with permutations of electronic delivery. The most intriguing, to me, was a gadget that Roger Fidler of the Knight-Ridder chain dreamed up: a “tablet newspaper,” which I first heard about as an editor at the Detroit Free Press in 1988. An iPad avant la lettre, Fidler’s tablet downloaded your newspaper while you slumbered. A partial solution for print was already at hand.

At the time, newspaper editors despaired over what the decline of print meant for democracy. Well, print today is thriving thanks to the Internet. News consumption is rising, reflecting increased traffic to newspaper websites from smart phones and tablet computers, says the Pew report.

The question is who’s going to pay for quality content as advertising dollars, euros and pounds migrate to multifarious new platforms. U.S. newspaper ad revenues have plunged by about 50 percent since 2006, the Pew study shows.

Not surprisingly, some publications are cutting costs by taking a giant leap into the digital dark, as Newsweek and the Christian Science Monitor have done.

Others pin their hopes on getting search engines to pay for their content, as can be seen from the Google snippet war in France. French news providers want to charge Google a fee for displaying their headlines and snippets on Google News. Google’s response: If you start taxing us, we’ll just exclude French news sites from our search results.

Both sides in the flap have a point. When Google News highlights a headline and a lead, it’s clearly using content that the news provider paid for. Yet it’s also giving the providers free advertising and channeling traffic to their sites. Though I think Google could do more to support quality journalism, I’m inclined to agree with an analogy put forward by Google’s Brazilian public policy manager, Marcel Leonardi: It smacks of taxing a cabbie for driving a tourist to a restaurant, as the BBC has quoted Mr. Leonardi as saying.

Print journalists themselves are torn over whether the Internet is a blessing or a curse. Journalists participating in the Burson-Marsteller survey praised the new media for giving them quick, easy access to information yet worried that they contributed to a loss of professionalism.

As Joseph Schumpeter’s “gale of creative destruction” continues to rip through newsrooms, what can be done? We might do well to remember the sage advice of baseball great Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

One road follows the Anglo-Saxon paradigm: A news organization should live or die by winning readers in the marketplace. This isn’t necessarily a question of dumbing down content. Bloomberg News and other specialized news organizations content have created financially viable models for our age. Some information, as Stewart Brand said, “wants to be expensive.”

But information also “wants to be free,” he said. It’s a public good, which explains why European governments subsidize newspapers. At a time when European newspapers are firing their more experienced (read “more costly”) staffers, perhaps government ministers should look more closely at how those subsidies are spent.

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