I’m sitting in the boardroom with the top editorial staff of the Seattle Times. I was asked to “scare them” silly about the future of news.
“It is a different world,” Frank Blethen, the newspaper’s publisher, has just declared. And he says he’s ready to embrace it.
Even as the Times has been slow to embrace digital technology, despite its vaunted geographic location, I like their community-minded, independent approach to survival during this bloody media revolution (see the other Seattle’s newspaper vicious riposte today to Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer declaration of the death of print media).
Journalism, as a traditional business model, is nearly dead. It can’t compete with “free” or the expectation of “free.” It can’t compete with people who now believe they can communicate with each other en masse without the need for institutional intermediaries.
Revenues will continue to decline, jobs will continue to disappear. But journalism as an institution will not die, it will just require a different mindset for those who insist on practicing it.
That means innovative storytelling techniques, and a constant drive to “sell the message” (in order to both reach an audience, and to pay for the reporting itself). The walls between marketing and journalism will fall — indeed they already are in how journalism is being taught at Medill (which has both marketing and journalism programs that are increasingly being intertwined).
Journalists need to be content entrepreneurs. Just like everyone else with a message, they have to push their way through to reach an audience. It’s no longer guaranteed that just because they have a large institution behind them that people will pay attention. And it’s no longer guaranteed that they’ll have a decent income to pay for their craft.
Given this new reality, I finally read my former colleague Martin Fletcher’s memoirs “Breaking News.”
I’d been avoiding it because I heard that I was in the book as well. Martin was lucky to have lived through the “rock star” era of network news in the 70’s and 80’s.
Of course, he firmly believes in the journalist’s “gatekeeper” role, shining a light on dark places to illuminate us all. I prefer to think that technology allows us all to hold the candle, even in places such as Myanmar, where international journalists are far and few between. It’s great to have a few Martin Fletchers covering the news in such a trustworthy credible way. I think it’s even better to have millions of people with cellphone cameras, e-mail, blogs and social networks keeping a constant eye in the places where that small fraternity of reporters can’t possibly cover at all times. Even if they’re not trained journalists.
The big question (primarily for journalists): can the two co-exist?
(Incidentally, Martin did make mention of me in his book. Sadly, one anecdote, about our liberation of Kosovo, is patently untrue, but Martin has always insisted on telling it that way, despite my protestations. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” he would sometimes tell me with a smile!)