Friday, June 20, 2014

Journalism's Future? I'm Not Discouraged

Citizen journalists could play a significant role in the future.
"I’m wary of this brave new world of digital publishers and readers. As recently as the 1980s and ’90s, writers like me could reasonably aspire to a career and a living wage. I was dispatched to costly and difficult places like Iraq, to work for months on a single story. Later, as a full-time book author, I received advances large enough to fund years of research.

"How many young writers can realistically dream of that now? Online journalism pays little or nothing and demands round-the-clock feeds. Very few writers or outlets can chase long investigative stories. I also question whether there’s an audience large enough to sustain long-form digital nonfiction, in a world where we’re drowning in bite-size content that’s mostly free and easy to consume."

--Tony Horowitz on his new e-book, Boom (from a piece in the NYTimes today)

Last night my facebook friend Ernie Bentley asked if I agreed with my pal Michael Abraham's online assessment that journalism is dead. I said, "He's wrong. Journalism is alive and thriving. There's a lot of faux journalism out there, but there is some good stuff in some new formats and it will grow. Don't confuse dying publications with dying journalism. They're just a delivery system. More are being developed."

Apparently Tony Horowitz, a successful journalist and author of several books (including the new one mentioned above, which is an e-book), is not as certain as I about journalism's future. 

Frankly, there's a good chance I'm wrong, but I don't think so. I do agree with Horowitz that e-books have a way to go before they catch on and before sales make writers more comfortable. I have two e-books out there as we speak--you can see them on the sides of this page--and their sales have not exactly set Amazon afire (which might not be a bad idea, considering how Amazon is treating my writing friends). But that reference is not about journalism; it's about e-books.

I talk to college journalism classes frequently and my message consistently is that they should not confuse journalism with journals. A newspaper is not journalism. It is a delivery system, like a French fry for catsup. Same with magazines, radio, TV, the net. They all deliver news. Journalists gather it and write it, regardless of the form.

Cable TV and television in general have hurt the image of news, though they have not yet destroyed it. The purchase of major--and some minor--outlets by large conglomerates (see Roanoke Times/Berkshire Hathaway; Jeff Bezos/Washington Post; Rupert Murdoch/whatever he wants; etc.) have done little to bolster the view of journalism as the savior of our Republic. 

Once upon a time, when I was a young journalist, papers were owned by local families or, at worst, pretty good journalistic institutions. Even TV stations were often owned by the papers in their town and had some decent journalism going on. That's more the exception than the rule now.

So where would solid journalism come from in the future (especially with Bezos fiddling around the edges of the NYTimes)? The net. Independent reporters in groups selling "content" to individuals or larger organizations. They're already there and they're winning Pulitzer Prizes. Not many of them are local, but a few are and their numbers are growing. The "citizen journalists" papers like our local daily depend upon so heavily because they work free or cheap are getting better as their ranks grow. Some of these CJs are pretty good: Valerie Garner in Roanoke is a good example. But Val's not making a living at it.

Maybe she will in the future. I certainly hope so because it is these people, a combination of citizens and real journalists, who stand between us and the oligarcy we so fear and dread--and which is on every congressional corner these days.



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