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April 3, 2009

Newspapers die - long live journalists

It's not too late, Julie. My American friend, who shares my name and profession, is a co-op at a large American newspaper with economic difficulties. From her desk at the business section Julie can see the other sections closing down, newspapers in other cities folding and commentators predicting New York Time's bankruptcy by May 2009. Experienced colleagues pat the young journalism major's head: You're entering a dying business. You're young. It's not too late to choose another career.

Meanwhile, back in Norway, we're discussing newspaper death, increased press subsidies and an economic stimulus plan specifically for the media. The financial crisis is making a difficult situation worse, but newspaper economics would be going through a tough period even without that added obstacle. Readers stop subscribing and read online instead. And if we believe figures cited by John Olav Egeland in Dagbladet1, you need ten online readers to achieve the same ad revenue as one paper subscriber.

And still I've chosen to study journalism at Oslo University College. I happen to think journalism isn't dead. Paper producers and printing press companies face an unstable future, but the world will always need good journalists.

I repeat: good journalists. What it takes to be a good journalist, that's what's changing. And I'm starting to wonder if today's journalism students are learning what it takes to be tomorrow's good journalists.

Good journalists understand their own industry. For the newspaper industry, the Internet is a disruptive innovation. The term is from Harvard professor Clayton Christensen. A disruptive innovation makes an existing technology irrelevant. In the blogosphere, editors, economists and media experts from around the world are discussing how to build a sustainable business model for online media.

Young journalists need to be a part of this discussion. Blogosphere and disruptive should be in our vocabulary. We need to be able to discuss press subsidies, RSS subscriptions and micro-payments. There are plenty of other debates too. Online publications with their constant deadlines and updates make debating journalists' new working conditions necessary. The possibility of editing texts after publication blurs the line between journalist and editor. Web layout is an entirely different science compared to paper layout. These debates are not part of the journalism student's curriculum. So we need to teach ourselves about the media economics of tomorrow.

Good journalists think ahead. Christensen uses journalistic language, a sports-based metaphor, to make this point: Don't run to where the ball is, run to where it will be. In “Rett på sak!”2, a text book for first-year journalism students, Veslemøy Kjendsli writes that text on the web should not be long enough to require hitting the “page down” button. In layout class, the lecturer sighs and complains that the internet doesn't have room for good photography. Per H. Baugstø's book “En avis er ment å skulle leses”3 starts by stating that paper newspapers will always exist, because paper is the most comfortable reading and storage format. There seems to be a consensus that online journalism is shallow news with another newspaper as its only source, while paper is for features and opinions.

Today's curriculum writers and lecturers of journalism succeeded under the old system. There's nothing wrong with that. But students who study how to be critical of sources and how to spot weak arguments have no excuse for accepting too much at face value. Many of these authority figures base their views on faulty principles. They assume that screen quality and computer capacity and speed – not to mention people's media habits – will remain unchanged from now on. To use Christensen's words: They don't think the ball is moving any more, so they've stopped running.

Good journalists see challenges as opportunities. My classmates wonder why I want to be an online journalist. Internet publications are so stressful. I disagree. Nothing stresses me more than knowing that the paper edition is printed and that it's too late to make changes. As journalists we should adjust to the internet, not just because the disruptive technology makes it necessary, but because online journalism has more potential than paper journalism.

On the internet the way the text looks will vary by screen size, operating system and browser. The reader can also choose to access the publication via RSS, e-mail or traditional online newspaper, and this will also change the layout. We could say that we're losing control over layout. We could also say that each reader is being given more layout options. Does the reader want just the short summary, or every published story on the subject? Is the text the most important part of the travel feature, or will the reader also download the panorama photograph with links and zoom tools? When we no longer have to worry about the length of columns or the number of pages, that's a good thing.

Good journalists are always writing. If Julie, my fellow students and I give up writing because of changes in techology and economics, well, then the pessimists are right: It's not to late to choose another career. As long as we write well, and we write no matter what, it's not too late to be a journalist.

English translation of Aviser dør - Lenge leve journalister. The Norwegian version was originally published in Journalen, and was the reason for all of this.

1Dagbladet, literally The Daily Magazine, is one of the major daily tabloids in Norway.

2“Straight to the Point!”

3“A Newspaper is Meant to be Read”

Posted by Julie at April 3, 2009 8:42 PM

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Brilliantly written. In fact, all in all, one of the best articles on journalism I think I have ever come across.

Having just come out of J (grad) school myself, I identify with a lot of what you're saying. There are teachers of the 60's, 70's, 80's, and even of the 90's era in journalism, but almost no one of this transitional time. What's more, if you have a professor who DOES grasp the medium of this day and age, then he/she is apt to know about as much as you do about the modern media landscape.

Hence all this to-ing and fro-ing over whether to make online content free or subscription based by Murdoch, Sultzberger et al. In many cases, even the proprietors of the publications have no idea.

But web journalism is a lot of fun, and I think, a hell of a lot more useful than print journalism - which basically only works for magazines these days.

An industry is a bit like a stock market: when it appears wrecked, get in and commit, and you'll rise right to the top. I don't see how journalism is any different. Some of the ones who are getting in now will be megastars in 20 years.

Posted by: Daniel M. Harrison at April 5, 2009 7:28 AM