Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fear and loathing in journalism

Bitterness, anger, hope: Passion marks fork in road

Few debate that print journalism is at a crossroads: One
path is along the traditional road of newspapers, the other
lies with new media technology, the Internet. And change,
particularly radical change, is painful.
(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
I started writing this in response to a thread on a LinkedIn discussion board in which Dan, a young journalist who has embraced his role in new media, was taking some heat over his views in defense of his employer and in defense of new media in general. When I realized I had written 1,400 words, I stopped, posted my response here, and left @Dan a link.

@Dan, these are probably the toughest times for journalists since the early 1980s, and you are on the “other side” of the aisle from many traditional journalists.

That does not make you wrong – your passion is admirable, as is your ability to embrace this new media that some fear, some scorn, some hate. But we are in the midst of this incredible sea change that challenges the way we have done journalism for a long, long time. Change, however, is uncomfortable, is painful, and some of us have paid a high price for an industry that fumbled on multiple fronts in the shift to a new technology.

In a sense, you represent that change. That you embrace it actually makes you more of a magnet for the anger and perhaps even despair many in the industry feel these days. But change still happens, and I for one applaud your eagerness to embrace what some only now are seeing as inevitable.

New media has a huge potential for journalism – yet these new technologies also have untested dynamics that open the door to many of the problems alluded to in this thread. Consider this, however: Flight revolutionized the way we travel, yet there was this long uncomfortable period leading up to that revolution where aviation pioneers tested the technology – some lost, some died, others emerged as trailblazers.

I try to take the long view: The pendulum swings both ways, and right now, it is swinging wide and high as the new technology that has been unleashed evolves and is tested. At some point, I think, concern about quality will re-emerge as an economic value to the companies that have dumped so many of us out of simple desperation to keep afloat.

In truth, I doubt traditional newspapers will survive long in suburban markets; while I believe they will last longer in rural areas, I question their longevity there as the Internet continues to evolve, particularly along the lines of mobile technology that puts information at our beck and call whether we are driving down a highway or are climbing a mountain. (Yeah, I know you need a signal. That in time will be as ubiquitous as smartphones are today.)
 
In the meantime, news organizations are struggling to find a business model that works online. Huffington Post has done that. The verdict is still out on AOL’s Patch.com, but let me tell you what I see, as a longtime print journalist who moved to the Web nearly four years ago, who is awed by its potential – and concerned about its weaknesses.

I have been working part-time as a reporter for a hyper-local, start-up news website (BocaJump.com) in my hometown since the start of the year. They can afford me for 15 hours or so a week, but I enjoy being a reporter again and, in particular, I’ve enjoyed returning to work with my former managing editor. He was laid off a year or so before I got the ax.

Since late May, I also have been working as a part-time copy editor for Patch.com. I welcomed that work as well. I’d prefer to have more hours, but the wage is fair. No, it is not what I was earning before Sun-Times Media laid me off in December, but in the past seven months, it’s the closest wage I’ve seen for the type of quality I offer. Over the past seven months, I’ve interviewed for positions that were offering 40 percent or more less than what I had been earning at Sun-Times Media.

While it is true that I’ve not yet seen any investigative pieces emerge from the Patch sites I work with, what I do see each day is a group of people trying to put out quality journalism in the communities they serve. Some purists might turn up their noses at it, because that type of journalism is not their cup of tea – sometimes a little too light and fluffy, not enough “real news.” But that is the charm of and a reflection of life in smaller towns. It is news about those communities and the people living in them, and what I’ve been reading is quality community journalism. I think I know a little bit about what that is, because community journalism has been my vocation for the past 27 years.

I am proud to be working with this baker’s dozen of Patch editors in the northwest Chicago suburbs, and it is obvious to me they are making every effort to serve their communities while adhering to the standards professional journalists demand. Yet they grasp this new technology with enthusiasm and respect. Their efforts each day are absolutely a delight to see.

What they’re earning frankly is none of my damned business. But I personally know some who went to work for Patch in the period leading up to my layoff, and I do know making the switch increased their pay significantly.

Will Patch’s business model succeed? Good question, but it is one to which I do not have an answer. I know there are skeptics, because I have read some of their analyses.

But AOL, through Patch, is attempting to rebuild community journalism in areas that largely have been or are being abandoned by traditional media. There’s a niche there, and a desire for that kind of service, so I think there is hope the model will work, although perhaps some tweaks will be in order along the way.

Perhaps one day I, too, will have full-time employment with Patch. In the meantime, I continue to test the waters for whatever options I see around me. My family needs me working full-time again, and right now I remain underemployed.

It is entirely possible I will find work outside of news; that thought saddens me greatly, because if I go that route, it is likely I will not return. I would not lightly abandon my vocation, but I have a family to support, and I am not certain I ever will regain enough trust for the business side of this industry to consider putting them at risk like this, or to take the personal chance of ever being hurt this badly, ever again.

So @Dan, don’t be daunted by those representing traditional journalism, and listen to what they have to say, because their doubts and anger at new media are not unwarranted. They fear change, yes, but only because they fear how it might hurt them, or how it might be eroding the standards they have striven for and adhered to throughout their professional lives.

I have seen that fear blind some journalists to the potential of new media. But I also have witnessed a few incredible epiphanies among some of these traditional journalists in the last two years. That has been an incredibly hopeful thing to see, because these are folks who carry with them the desire for the same high standards we as professionals have come to expect.

Still, more journalists ought to be really pissed off that the traditional news media waffled so badly adapting to the Internet.

One last word of advice: Businesses are heartless, soulless entities that value only the bottom line, and when that bottom line nears, your value to them – whether it’s the quality of your work, your loyalty or your enthusiasm – has no place on an Excel spreadsheet. Don’t naively trust that a company will be fair to you or honor your hard work and loyalty. Keep your eyes open and be aware of what’s happening around you, and if you don’t like what you see, move on. But if you do this, do so wisely – a mad panic headlong out of one situation could land you in a worse one. And don't burn bridges – you might have to come back on that path.

I apologize for going so long – when I started reading the latest entries in this thread, I anticipated writing only a couple of paragraphs. But I am passionate about my craft, and I love the passion our work inspires among us: the right concern for preserving traditional journalistic values related to accuracy, truth, fairness; the satisfaction of a job well-done in serving our readers; the adrenaline rush we derive in reacting and performing well under the pressure of breaking news.

I also am, in many ways, still a traditional journalist who loves the printed word and who, as I’ve told many friends over the years, can talk the ears off a mule. For a writer, that’s a deadly combination, particularly in a day when print space is at a premium and attention spans are, well, much shorter than a mule's ears.

I’ll log off now, hoping only that I’ve lent some perspective in which you might find value, and to wish you the very best.