Journalism’s Next 100 Years

I got a call
from the University of Missouri Journalism School, my alma mater,
reminding me of the 100th anniversary celebration this year. Founded in
1908, Missouri was the world’s first journalism school and is still
regarded as one of the best.

Yet while overall it was a great first hundred years for American journalism, it’s the next 100 I worry about. Or in the prescient phrase
uttered by ABC News anchorman Charles Gibson at Pennsylvania’s recent
Democratic presidential debate, “the crowd is turning” on how
professionals report the news.

History
is the art of hindsight, so writing about an event before the ink dries
and the digital bits settle is at best unfair. Nevertheless, you don’t
need Galileo’s vision to see that the Pennsylvania debate marked
another in series of dark turning points for the news business.

The financial pain we’ve known for while – as this year’s State of the News Media
study revealed, advertising revenue is still going down, as are pre-tax
earnings, profit margins and stock values. Even online newspaper
advertising, while up 20 percent in 2007, is growing slower than online
advertising as a whole, and is 10 percent lower than last year.

Newspaper owners answered with widespread staff layoffs, leading to
less local reporting and therefore fewer readers which – you guessed it
– resulted in less revenue. It’s also meant narrower reporting, with
issues like Iraq and the presidential elections representing the
majority of coverage. And it’s meant an unhealthy attraction to
transient stories that are the equivalent of chewing gum, the media
smacking its lips long after the gum has lost its taste.

All this came to a head in Pennsylvania. What should have been a
debate about the future of the country became a Fox-style reality show
about flag lapel pins. And the people responded, with boos in the
audience and thousands of comments on ABC’s web site. The media itself
became the story – a story prompted by ordinary people now with
extraordinary access to the once powerful press.

Last year’s YouTube debates will be remembered for authentic
questions about real-life issues from a mosaic of American culture. The
ABC debate will be remembered as the day modern journalism died in a
cacophony of tabloid-style interrogations, punctuated by the nervous
laughter of a once proud newsman, gasping to stay afloat in a sea of
discontent.

ABC should have known better. It should have known that news in the
next 100 years will be more “service” that product, something that
people will look to for intellectual guidance. News is a conversation,
or as the BBC’s Richard Sambrook has said, a partnership – and in this
sense, ABC failed its partners miserably.

Consider this: When asked about his debate performance, ABC News’
George Stephanopoulos said, “The questions we asked…are being debated
around the political world every day.” A commenter on ABC’s web site
said, “"Some of us actually live in the real world and care much more
about real issues like food and gas prices.”

This is where we need to start the next 100 years of American journalism – in the real world. The crowd is turning, indeed.

                           

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