Thursday, September 2, 2010

Journalism is about people, not technology

Following is an excerpt from Journalism Next, a 2010 paperback that students of Journalism should read to put in perspective the great opportunities ahead for the field. (To order go to )

By Mark Briggs

To survive and thrive in the digital age, I argue, journalists need to adopt a new way of thinking and approaching their craft. Learning the skills and technology is the easy part. Recognizing you are part of a new information ecosystem is the steeper hill to climb.

My first book, “Journalism 2.0: How to Survive and Thrive in the Digital Age,” was published in 2007 and written for working journalists with a simple message: “you can do this” and the “future is now.”

In the United States, that “future is now” message came true. Too true in some ways. Many working journalists in 2006, when I started writing the book, could still embace the illusion that it would be 5 or 10 years before real disruption come to their industry. That grace period evaporated quickly in the U.S. as more than 15,000 journalists lost their jobs in 2008.

The pace of disruption for mainstream media – daily newspapers, local TV stations and magazines – is in full force today. As a result, the evolution of the business model is (finally) receiving the focus it deserves, meaning we have already begun to glimpse what the next incarnation of sustainable journalism looks like.

Newspapers are dying. Why should I study journalism?

We are at the end of a golden period for publishers, where organizations grew large and consolidated, pushing profit margins up and supporting publicly traded companies. Mainstream news organizations, the commercial enterprises that have supported journalism in the U.S., haven’t always been like this. Prior to 1970, journalism was practiced by many more organizations of differing sizes.

But the people who run news companies today only experienced the best of times during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, so any historical basis for claims of a stable industry seem shortsighted when using a longer lens to view the history of newspapers.

More than 100 years ago, the newspaper industry was dealing with technological change on a comparable scale to today. In the 1890s, telephone service revolutionized reporting, while “one linotype operator could do the work of five men,” according to the Encyclopedia of American Journalism, dramatically increasing the speed of printing.

This led to an explosion of newspapers – and newspaper readers – that I see as emblematic of what we’re seeing today with online journalism startups.

Look at the landscape of the Progressive Era, according to the Encyclopedia of American Journalism:
- The number of English-language daily newspapers grew from 850 in 1880 to 1,967 in 1900 to 2,200 in 1910. An additional 400 of other types … were also published that year.
- Daily circulation totals grew from 3.1 million in 1880 to 15.1 million in 1900 to 22.1 million in 1910.
- Chicago and Boston each had eight newspapers in 1900. New York had nine.
- Newspapers began charging (one cent) per issue in 1833 and it wasn’t until the 1880s when advertising slowly began to replace sales and subscriptions as the chief source of newspaper revenue so that by 1914, 66 percent of newspapers revenue came from advertising.
- By 1911, some newspaper critics began to fear the influence of advertising on journalism, “One proposed solution, which had little success, was to create an ‘adless’ newspaper supported by subscribers. Another was to create a non-partisan, adless newspaper funded by city government.

If journalism and the business that supports journalism can evolve that quickly once, who can argue that it won’t happen again? The technology that allowed the number of newspapers to grow 123% in 20 years is similar to what we’ve seen this decade with the Internet and publishing platforms like Wordpress.

In January 2009, the Los Angeles Times announced it was making enough money from online advertising to cover its entire (albeit drastically reduced) editorial workforce. Five years from now we will look back on this development as the beginning of the new era, when news organizations made the switch from print to online ad dollars for financial support.

“Evolution is already happening – at thousands of small and large media sites on the web,” John Battelle wrote in his SearchBlog on Jan. 8, 2009. “In short, I am convinced that journalism will not die if and when major print based journalism outlets die.”

What are the new jobs in journalism?

File this under the “GM problem:” journalists might understand that big, monopolistic news organizations didn’t always produce the best journalism, but they provided the best jobs. Like General Motors, a big company is really good at employing lots of people with solid benefits, enabling families to pay for mortgages and new cars. But a big company can be downright dreadful at innovation, evolution, hustle and experimentation.

And these are the qualities that win the day, especially in times of serious disruption.

Looking forward, the state of news, media and journalism will probably look a lot more like it did at the turn of the 20th century, when far more news organizations were competing for audience. Each was tiny compared to the behemoths of the 1990s and 2000s, but there were many more of them. So instead of a daily newspaper with 50 journalists, a mid-size city in the future might have 10 digital news operations with about five journalists each.

“The probable elimination of a raft of second-tier newspapers during this economic downturn,” wrote Edward Roussel, digital editor for the Telegraph Media Group, in the Winter 2008 issue of the Nieman Reports, “will provide a fertile environment for a new generation of digital media businesses to flourish.”

Shoveling traditional journalism online – that which has always been found in newspapers or television broadcasts – has not worked for news companies. As Jack Shafer wrote at, newspapers tried to invent the Web by copying and pasting their journalism, values and temperament online, with the same control they enjoyed in their local distribution monopolies.

“Despite being early arrivals, despite having spent millions on manpower and hardware, despite all the animations, links, videos, databases, and other software tricks found on their sites, every newspaper Web site is instantly identifiable as a newspaper Web site,” Shafer wrote. “By succeeding, they failed to invent the Web.”

This new reality will allow a new form of journalism to emerge with new job titles, new roles and new responsibilities. Jeff Jarvis, a thought leader in online media and author of What Would Google Do?, wrote about this future at his blog, By separating a single job description – journalist – from a single industry – newspapers – with a single business model – print advertising, the practice of journalism will diversify and emerge as many job descriptions with many business models.

“The key to survival is reinventing what we do,” Jarvis wrote.

Reasons to study journalism

So now it’s your turn. Your opportunity may come from a traditional news company, start-up news blog or a new enterprise you launch yourself. “Journalism will survive its institutions,” says entrepreneurial journalist David Cohn. But only if a new generation of journalists with an entrepreneurial spirit hit the ground running.

So here’s why it’s a good time to study journalism:

1. Journalism has a bright future
Experimental news operations are popping up all over the Web as this decade draws to a close. Some have become sustainable businesses in a very short time. Others are still searching for viability while finding new ways to cover issues and communities.

In short, the demand for journalism from its audience hasn’t diminished. But the models are starting to look very different.

A more narrow focus is required. Think of it as “bottom-up” journalism instead of “top-down.” Technology, political and hyperlocal news sites have been the first to find success by starting small and concentrating on a very specific topic. This, of course, goes against the more general audience publications that ruled the day when a printing and distribution monopolies ruled the day.

Now that anyone can be a publisher with a few clicks, trying to be everything to everyone is a recipe for failure.

For a glimpse into the future of journalism, check out these independent trailblazers – Politico, TechCrunch, Voice of San Diego, West Seattle Blog, MinnPost, Pegasus News, The Patch – and many others yet to be created.

“These sites have received little attention in the mainstream media, which has focused on its own demise,” wrote journalist-turned-entrepreneur Om Malik, who started his own successful news service called GigaOm. “That’s too bad, since they may be the best hope for the kind of journalism we used to count on from local newspapers.”

Unleashed from corporate-run organizations sweating out the quarterly profit margin, the journalists powering these new sites have infused them with a level of energy, commitment and passion that can only be found in a startup company. It’s easy to see how these sites will pave the way for the true digital transformation of mainstream news companies, by finding successful new methods to inform and connect a community online.

Or, in some cases, they will replace them.

2. The future is in your hands
Journalism needs you. It needs someone who can bring a fresh approach without the baggage that burdened earlier generations.

As the institutions that perform journalism struggled economically through the past decade, it became increasingly apparent that the people in charge did not have what it takes to oversee a digital transformation that would secure a viable future. Harsh words, I know. But their inability to put the readers first and use new technology to do better journalism – instead of copying the existing model and pasting it online – created a world where every newspaper Web site is immediately identifiable. Most are disjointed repositories of what a news organization has always produced, with some new twists thrown in for good measure, instead of rich, vibrant information sources their communities want and need.

“Newspaper executives chose to sacrifice the interests of their readers and their advertisers by their stubborn refusal to embrace the Web for what it could be,” Dave Morgan wrote in a column titled “My Last Column on the Newspaper Industry.” “As compared to what they wanted it to be (a way to sell and deliver “locked-down” content products in “walled gardens”) which neatly fit in their “trees to trucks” vertical monopoly mentalities. That was their death knell.”

That’s where you come in. Whether you end up working for a newspaper, magazine, TV station or Internet start-up, you will have the opportunity – make that responsibility – to do things differently. My first job in journalism (part-time sports clerk) was mostly answering phones and doing grunt work. No one asked me about my ideas. Your first job is likely to be much different.
In fact, I predict that you won’t get a first job without your ideas, in addition to your skills and experience.

Emily Kostic, a journalism student at Rowan University, captured the opportunity in a blog post titled “Why I’m Not Giving Up: Reasons I’m Still a Journalism Major” in January 2009:
“We all know journalism is undergoing some monumental changes as it embraces the online world more and more. However, the future of journalism and where it’s going is largely going to be left up to us — college journalism students. Think of how major that responsibility is. Think of how inspiring that is. It’s up to us to help make journalism web savvy in way that our elders can’t even imagine.”

3. Journalism will be better than it was before
Transformation and evolution are messy, emotional processes. When they produce advancement for society and business, they are seen as healthy and worthwhile, but not necessarily to those on the front lines.

Because this transformation started 15 years ago for news companies and the Web, you benefit by having missed the early mess. Newspapers, finally, have learned that their vision for a digital future that can be controlled like their analog past is not viable.

But the game isn’t over, for mainstream news companies or independent journalism startups. It’s just getting started and, since you inherently “get” the Internet because you grew up with it, you have the opportunity to shape the future of journalism online like no generation before. Interactive, transparent, collaborative journalism works. Digital technologies, some that have yet to be invented, will aid you, but they can’t replace a thoughtful, skilled professional with an entrepreneurial spirit. You will be ready to try, and fail, and try again.

Thankfully, you will find a more experimental culture at news organizations today (and tomorrow). In “Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate,” author Michael Schrage illustrates how technology allows companies to rapidly and inexpensively test products, services, and business models before unleashing them. This is the new model for news, and one that you will lead.

Rather than confining yourself to the road traveled before you, the opportunity to chart your own course is not only available — it’s mandatory.


As Battelle, the journalist-turned online expert wrote, “I don’t think we’re all that far from the right answer. I can tell you this, however: It won’t look much like the old answer.”

So that’s the new deal: you probably won’t get to travel a well-marked, established career path like your parents did. But you will have a say in how the fourth estate evolves and how citizens are informed and engaged in the decades to come.

Sounds like a pretty good deal to me. So let’s get started.

About the author: Mark Briggs is CEO of Serra Media, a Seattle-based digital innovation company, and principal of Journalism 2.0, a strategic consultancy formed as a spinoff from his book of the same name. He served as assistant managing editor for interactive news at The News Tribune in Tacoma from 2004–2008 and new media director at The Daily Herald in Everett, Washington, from 2000–2004.