Online Journalism’s Glass Is Half Full

Back when I had (some) hair, during my year in journalism school, I had a running argument with my favorite professor, Dick Schwarzlose, over the future of this industry.

Dick was convinced that technology would cut the number of journalism jobs. Publishers would simply repurpose material for various media, he said, and big media mergers would cut the need for staff further. There would be fewer reporters chasing sources.

I took the opposite view. Technology would create vast new outlets for talent, I said, and more reporters would break free of the big publishers’ chains.

So far, I’m ahead. But the other side is still heard. In particular, Kathleen Quinn of ZD’s Australia operation has weighed in, charging that the last five years are an aberration, and we’re all about to lose our jobs.

Quinn’s argument is that quality journalism was forced onto TV sets by regulation, that much of it disappeared in the deregulated 1980s, and that there’s no economic model for such “quality” online publications as Slate and Salon.

Fortunately for journalists, Quinn has her history wrong, and her crystal ball is cracked. The last 50 years have seen steady growth for journalism employment. We’ve seen the rise of network television, specialty magazines, the newsletter industry, and cable all this before the web was spun. The audience has fractured into a thousand pieces, and each piece is a valid market demanding the best work journalists can deliver.

It’s true that mass market, spoken-on-high journalism has been losing ratings steadily. Fewer people than ever watch Dan Rather. It’s because they have so many alternatives. If you want to get your news only from conservatives or big-C Christians, you can. If you want to get your news only from Bill Gates or Jack Welch, you can.

More to the point of the web, if you care only about your favorite soccer team, or hang gliding, or bizarre conspiracy theories, it’s all out there. You can spend all day with it, every day, and all you need to do is know where to look.

Now, it is true that neither Slate nor Salon has a valid business model, but that’s a different problem. They’ve based their search for an audience on print publications that are deliberately removed from market success. They can’t paint a picture of their readers, they have only a faint idea of their readers’ lifestyles, and they don’t know what products their readers want. They just hope advertisers will figure it out for them.

Journalism, as a business, is a fairly simple thing. You define your audience based on an industry, an interest, or a lifestyle. You bring those people the products and services they need. You earn your money by organizing and advocating that marketplace. Good writing brings them in the door it’s the cherry on the sundae.

Journalism isn’t a profession, nor is it a priesthood. It’s a trade and a business. Those of us who practice the trade are too busy to be involved in the business, and those who run the businesses can’t be bound by the rules of the trade. As a result, mistakes (like Ms. Quinn’s) are made. Many of us, too many for my taste, insist the glass is half empty when in fact it’s half full.

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