North Wind And Sun

Going, going, gone – are newspapers on their way out?

Posted in Internet, journalism, newspapers by Ricardo Bilton on 11-May-2009

It’s rarely a good sign for your industry when the U.S. government starts holding hearings questioning your future.

But that’s just the position the newspaper industry finds itself in right now. For a variety of reasons, some products of self-induced gunshots, some not, the newspaper industry  now finds itself  struggling for its survival.

But Frank Rich’s recent column raises an interesting point, one that is, while sobering, vital in the discussion over where newspapers and journalism are going.

In the Internet era, many sectors of American media have been re-enacting their at first complacent and finally panicked behavior of 60 years ago. Few in the entertainment business saw the digital cancer spreading through their old business models until well after file-sharing, via Napster, had started decimating the music industry. It’s not only journalism that is now struggling to plot a path to survival. But, with all due respect to show business, it’s only journalism that’s essential to a functioning democracy. And it’s not just because — as we keep being tediously reminded — Thomas Jefferson said so.

His point is essentially this: While the future of the newspaper industry is in doubt, that of journalism, the raw product that newspapers commodify, is noticeably less so.

I draw corollaries to the record industry, which finds itself in a similar position. Robbed of their power and influence by the forces of the internet, the gatekeepers at the record industry are, like the newspapermen, scrambling to find a business model that works in this new and rapidly-changing climate. The record industry’s raw product, however – music – remains as strong as ever. In fact, it’s easily arguable that the music industry has been strengthened by the Internet. Pull media is the future, a reality that the newspaper and record industry folk are only beginning to come to terms with.

The simple truth here is that the Internet has become a force that vastly overpowers what established industries want to use it for. Information has a tendency to go where it wants, and with people sharing it, there is little any of us can do to contain it.

But that reality casts into further doubt the ability for any of the newspapers to survive. Just because information has the inclination to be free, doesn’t mean it should be. Giving away content indefinitely inevitably means suicide – that is,  unless advertising picks up the slack. But in today’s economy,  advertisers aren’t doing as much business as they used to – hence why so many newspapers are in the red right now.

Some see the future of newspapers – or at least their online portions – within the realm of a paid service, where users pay for access to one or a number of sites. The inevitable question, of course, is whether customers would be willing to pay for what they at one point got for free.

I’ll be honest and say that, yes, I’d pay ten dollars a month for access to The New York Times. But  how many people would agree with me? That’s the billion-dollar question.

Tagged with:

The reporter, the blogger, and The Student stuck between – some musings

Posted in journalism by Ricardo Bilton on 23-November-2008

Thanksgiving break has given me a few precious days to do a bit of recreational reading, and the first book I turned to was Rosenberg & Feldman’s No Time To Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle. Fairly straightforward title, and the authors make no hesitations about making their points known.

In any case, I’m roughly at the halfway point of the book, just finishing the chapter titled Blog On!, and I wanted to make a few comments, more so for my own benefit than anything, on some interesting intersections that the chapter draws with my experiences writing for The Amherst Student.

A bit of background. The Student is Amherst College’s independent student-run newspaper. It circulates weekly, being delivered in stacks to Amherst students each Wednesday morning. Currently, the publication draws a fairly lukewarm reception from students, who largely see it is superfluous and lacking in substance.

The Student shares the Amherst College publication sphere with a few other entities, most notably, The Indicator, described as the “Amherst College’s journal of political and social thought.” Compared to The Student, The Indicator draws a more enthused reaction from students on both the reading and writing sides of things. One of the main issues that The Student‘s editors have to deal with on a weekly basis is the rather paltry staff of writers. The Indicator rarely has such issues and is usually able to procure enough willing writers to write pieces for their biweekly issues.

Which raises the unavoidable question of “why.” Why do so many more students seem drawn to write for The Indicator as opposed to The Student? This is a question that The Student staff has been trying to answer for a while now, in the hopes that an answer would inspire tactics to reverse the trend of waning writer support.

I can’t say that I’ve come to the conclusion myself, but I believe I’ve made some headway, due in part to the points made in the Blog On! chapter of No Time to Think.

A part of it, I think, has to do with the new and awesome sexiness of blogging, a sexiness that has somehow not managed to wane since the blog’s inception. There are over a hundred million blogs online right now, each with writers expressing opinions, hurling facts, and creating discussion. The fact of the matter is that people like expressing their opinions. Where The Amherst Student and The Indicator differ is that while The Student exists to cover news, the Indicator exists to present opinions, to columnize.

Thus, The Student/Indicator relation is a microcosm of the increased revulsion we are seeing towards traditional news media. People have turned from  straightforward news coverage to news with a twist, that is, news with opinion and glitz sprinkled liberally.

Case in point: A few Amherst students last year launched the Amherst Public, a blog network dedicated to giving Amherst students a central place to go in order to read the opinions of their classmates. The initial fervor of the site’s paid bloggers, as well as that of the regular ones, has since died down, giving way to a homepage that has not been updated in over a month and a seemingly nonexistent userbase.

Of course, the Amherst Public situation might be a result of a campus stretched too thin, or perhaps a campus apathetic, or something.  In any case, what I see when I look at the state of the Amherst College publication sphere is a relative lack of interest in traditional news writing. And, while we could make a case that there isn’t much news happening on a campus of 1,600 students, there is a notable lack of writer involvement even for a campus of its size.

Maybe the field of journalism has just lost its repute. Maybe College Students just don’t want to be journalists anymore; maybe Amherst College students are just inordinately busy. And, while I can’t say for sure what the causes of the situation are, the effects could not be clearer: The Student has certainly lost its place as a hub of information gathering. The next step would be figuring out how to reverse the situation.

Tagged with: ,