I usually watch "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" on Sunday mornings. This week I missed most of the show because we were busy with company. I tuned in just a few minutes from the end and am not even sure who the guests were. They were giving 2009 predictions and/or complaining about this or that - I'm not entirely sure what the setup was.
However, one of them seemed to be quite bitter about free content on the Internet. He insisted that this had to change or there would be dire consequences; those consequences are surely the demise of "quality" news as newspapers and news magazines crumble away to oblivion.
It's a common argument. It's pure bunk.
Not that newspapers and news magazines are not going to die. Of course they are, and most richly deserve their fate. Given that, it's obvious that people like that "This Week" guest will lose their jobs and should be reading Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream to learn more about what they'll soon be experiencing. That many of them also deserve that fate is perhaps a bit cruel, but it contains a lot of truth just the same.
There's a new world on the horizon. Traditional print media won't be part of it, but that doesn't mean the death of quality. It doesn't mean that journalism ceases to exist; it merely changes form. In the new format, you have to earn your readers every day - you can't sit on your laurels collecting a big salary because you once wrote a great series of articles about a war that ended decades ago. Your experience and knowledge should help you compete in this new market, but you will have to compete. Daily.
How will it be paid for? With advertising, of course. Some of the better journalists may be able to command a subscription fee also, but I think that will be rare. Too expensive, they'll retort - can't be done! Really? Network TV managed to survive with that model - and with the advent of digital broadcasting, may even rise again. But they are right to think that they'll make less money from the ads. When you aren't the only game, you don't get to charge as much. They'll simply have to adjust to economic reality. Teachers don't usually get paid well either, but most still do their job. Journalists will do the same.
Professional journalism doesn't have to go away just because the delivery method changes. Fat salaries probably will go away, both for the worker bees and the owners. Power dissipates also, and that probably upsets the media owners more than it upsets the journalists.
Maybe that bitter person on "This Week" was a publisher rather than a journalist? Maybe.. but all of them need to realize that their carping about the end of journalism is nonsense. That is precisely parallel to 19th century Mississippi steamboat owners and crews lamenting the end of transportation. Transportation didn't end: it just changed form and became cheaper. Good journalism doesn't exist because a concentration of power allowed it to extract a high premium; it exists because people want to read it and other people want to produce it. Unfortunately for the established elite, the new media lowers the barriers of entry for other writers - they can publish just as easily as the old school folks. The old school will have to compete and although they may insist that quality will suffer, I think the competition will keep the quality just as high as ever - maybe higher. Yes, high salaries and high profits for owners are already becoming a thing of the past and that will surely continue.
So, let's remind all the bitter journalists and newspaper owners of steamboat captains and crews were surely bitter also, but goods still travel up and down this country. Almost every one of us (other than those already plying their trade on the Internet) will need to adjust our expectations and our planning to meet the changes happening around us. Power and influence will be much harder to obtain, much harder to hold on to if attained, and will simply not carry the value they once had. The print journalists may see that future sooner than most, but we have not seen the last of societal changes from the sea change the Internet has brought. I don't have a crystal ball, so I can't predict without great chance of error, but I can see that freedom of information combined with near zero cost distribution is going to continue to change us. None of us can rest on our laurels.
You have a choice. You can keep your head in the sand and be bitter when you are finally yanked up to reality or you can look around now and try to plan your survival path. You might not plan correctly; you may end up as one of the walking wounded described in the "Bait and Switch" I mentioned above. Isn't it better to plan than to just let events wash you away?
By the way, if you have not yet read The World is Flat, you should. You may find it boring (I did), but it is worth reading.
The Internet isn't done with us yet. Not by a long shot.
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More Articles by Anthony Lawrence © 2009-11-07 Anthony Lawrence