Change, Sure; Extinction, No

Tom Foremski wrote last weekend about the inevitable demise of newspapers:
“If you are in the path of a disruptive technology you are toast. Disruptive technologies disrupt.”

OK, but toast can be made into croutons. What we have to do is separate the content from the delivery mode. The ink on paper from the journalism. Yes, the media environment is like the auto industry (and that is surely not an original claim.) When there was only Ford and GM, the manufacturers could afford to be haughty and less industrious, their myopia blinding them to the future and to the onslaught of foreign, especially Japanese, competition.

It is time for reinvention, adaptation, constructive and creative response to the disruptive change. And it may be the next generation who does it well and polishes to a sheen what we are scrambling to understand and reinvent right now.   

At the Medill School of Journalism graduation recently, Washington Post’s Katharine Weymouth spoke about the vibrant, yet reshaped future of journalism. She quoted Warren Buffett as saying that for too many years newspaper companies were the one “toll booth over a bridge.”  Now there are many, many bridges and no more toll booths.

Katharine Weymouth speech

I believe– yes, I could be wrong– that viewing media companies through the frame of their platforms is missing the point. What you want from the New Yorker is not the physical magazine product that does smudge when wet. You want the New Yorker stories, the author’s slant, the eloquent phrasing.

What you want from a newspaper is no longer the foldable version of the scores to yesterday’s game or even the results of a city council vote. You want the good journalism. You want content other sources can’t provide.

Citizen journalists, bloggers, cable news, heck, anybody with a camera phone can provide updates, opinion and visuals on the latest breaking news. But journalists can provide the context, the in-depth enterprise reporting, the investigations, the analysis, the long form narrative. The exquisite writing that makes you sigh.

I say let people get their daily news and nuggets from a gabillion different news and information sites and sources. No kidding –you don’t need to buy a daily newspaper for that. But have the journalists dig for the big stories, uncovering with dexterity the kinds of stories that just anybody’s cousin with a video recorder is not able to get.  Have teams of hard-working reporters trying to find the deeper truth, not just the news of what happened today. Offer themes of coverage: one week offer the latest on education or crime. Or the trend of governor scandals.

It makes much more sense for a traditional media company with the experienced journalist power to offer an Anna Quindlan or Tom Friedman commentary or an expose by a team of investigative reporters on just about any subject, than to deliver a short news brief about what happened yesterday. We don’t need that from a news company anymore. By the time the paper is printed, it is old news. Unless, unless, unless, it is enterprising and original reporting you can’t get anywhere else. Great interviews, profiles, narratives. Gutsy work.

With superlative content, it does not matter if that arrives on your doorstep, in your mailbox, on your laptop, your TV screen, your radio, your phone or anywhere.

Whether or not any of that information is delivered digitally or even through brain waves does not matter. Because that may be next. The journalism matters. It does not matter that the information is now offered in the form of ink on paper or words on a screen. It’s the content, silly.

Good, reliable, accurate journalism will not die. It will arrive in a new form. It is arriving now in forms unimaginable 20 years ago.  But it will not be disrupted into extinction.

Tom is right. You can’t stop the disruptive change ovcercoming global media any more than you can stop a tidal wave. But you can swim with the force of the wave instead of against it. You can land on the beach and start again.

There. Have I mixed enough metaphors? Should I go back to croutons?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Change, Sure; Extinction, No

  1. Jason Lopez

    I agree. Part of the dynamic in the discussion is a sense of animosity that a number of bloggers have toward the media, especially from former print journalists – I’m thinking of Jeff Jarvis who has transformed himself into a “Sean Hannity” putting down traditional media and trying to prove the superiority of all things Internet. This dynamic has done no one any good. But set aside the delivery systems for a moment and focus on human beings. Some people tell better stories than other people. Some people are more accurate in their retelling of stories. Some people are more thorough. And some are trained to do these things well and treat them as a life-long developing craft. The Internet does not magically bestow these capabilities. Neither do newspapers or any other media. There is plenty of reason to believe that professional news people will create new brands that do not depend on physical distribution.

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