When the federal government buoyed GM and Chrysler, in newsrooms across the country, reporters and editors thought to themselves, “What about us?”
Furloughed and tired of lay offs, journalists are in a winter of great discontent and hopeless incredulity, especially at floundering newspapers, where large, publicly traded companies reign and profit margins dictate.
It’s not uncommon these days to find journalists commiserating together, talking about job prospects, the latest round of lay-offs, news of papers dying and great writers and photographers turning to some other profession. For those lucky enough to have a job in the industry, there is a hushed sense of providence. Then we talk about the future, and we discuss “monetizing the web” and “the reemergence of a societal love for journalism.” We know there is a destination for journalism; we just don’t know the path.
We even joke about a bailout.
President Obama, without firmly committing, hinted in September that he might think about some sort of bailout to media conglomerates. “If you’re getting your newspaper over the Internet, that’s not free and there’s got to be a way to find a business model that supports that,” he told the Toledo Blade.
It’s true—the push to get readers online has all but killed newspapers (as well as profit margins and the downfall of the classifieds section in lieu of Craigslist). We are crafters of our own dystopia.
However, Congress and the Obama administration would be wrong to bail out this industry. As a former newspaper reporter and editor and a current print journalist, you might think it odd that I would oppose something that could save my industry. But I’m a firm believer that this trade has to save itself.
In the 1980s, many newspapers blossomed and bloated in an economy that supported print advertising in the pre-Internet world. Many papers filled themselves with crap—features that did not engage or entertain or educate or give context to the news of this crazy world. Companies learned they could spread their journalists thin and make their stories even thinner. They could suck a newsroom and newspaper dry and profits would still grow.
Not all but many newspapers have not progressed. They have not innovated. They have not evolved. And readers have noticed.
If nothing else, this economy and the current struggles of the newspaper industry will allow them (force them) to trim the fat and begin to figure out what readers want and need—not just cutting expenses but looking at ways to increase readership. Instead of letting MBAs run our media companies and allowing the bottom line to dictate our headlines, we must inspire the nostalgie de la journalisme and create smart, engaging publications that reflect and motivate our readership and our communities. We must allow journalists to do their jobs: reporting and writing and bringing truth, context and distraction to their readers, as opposed to updating the website every hour.
The Internet is not going to kill print, but it’s going to separate the men from the mice. Some will adapt, creating unique, entertaining content for their pages, making the publication valuable. The mice will continue along the current path and will die out (if they have not already).
And let’s not even ponder the ethical implications of bailing out the so-called watchdogs of the American government and global corporations—the Fifth Estate.
Let’s instead dream of a different time, a once and future land filled with Pulitzer wishes come true. And we as journalists, media companies (even this small and humble one) and media consumers must not just dream and talk but begin to find our way to that paradise without the help of a governmental bailout.