Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Future of Journalism

Are newspapers about to go the way of the Pony Express, replaced by the faster, wider, longer reach of the Internet? Is blogging the future of journalism? I’ve been thinking about this a lot since retiring from a newspaper career and exploring the Internet in search of new possibilities for publishing my writing.

Modern American newspapers have lots of drawbacks. Few of them publish poetry, for instance, despite a lively history of enticing readers with poems by famous, local or justly whimsical poets. Decades ago, several of my poems were in major newspapers. These days, the Internet is a more realistic way of reaching poetry readers, although it doesn’t have the same heft as having a poem in the Chicago Sun-Times or New York Times.

Many newspapers are dropping or greatly reducing in-depth investigative or explanatory reporting. The latest trend at daily newspapers is to skip covering public meetings, given the downsizing of reporting staffs. The emphasis is on airplane and traffic accidents captured in dramatic photos and features about people doing something heartbreaking—such as losing their job—that busy readers hopefully will slow down enough to glance at, and get hooked by an adjacent advertisement.

“We need eye candy to hook readers’ eyes on the page,” an editor at a newspaper where I worked said at a staff meeting some years ago. This is nothing new. Newspaper editors since the days of “yellow journalism” have tried every gimmick they could think of to attract and retain readers—from raucous comics to outrageous political cartoons, juicy gossip columns to pinup photos of sexy gals. Yet 21st century Americans continue migrating to the Internet, which offers more of all of these attractions.

The question is whether blogs can provide the wide variety of news that newspapers traditionally delivered amid, and as a major part of, their eye candy. The Huffington Post and several other online news and commentary web sites are betting they can, with the idea of attracting sufficient advertising to pay staff. Online ad income so far is a backyard woodlot compared to the shrinking forest of newspaper ads.

The problem I foresee is that small, start-up blogs run by one person or a handful of people can’t sustain themselves. It takes a lot of effort to report news and write timely commentary. I helped a friend some years ago run an online magazine. The writers and editors volunteered their time, covering whatever personally interested them. Managing volunteers is quite different from issuing assignments to paid employees. After awhile, the web-magazine publisher got tired of trying to push volunteers to squeeze more time from their day jobs to compete week after week with print and online operations with paid staffs. He decided to go back to being a freelance journalist, writing for whatever publication he could sell on a story.

Yet, the idea that anybody with grit and gumption can start up a news and commentary operation is the history of American journalism. The future, I feel, is a fascinating work in progress.

(This article was also posted on

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