Churbuck on the Future of Journalism

David Churbuck has another epic post today entitled “Dark days for the press – my advice to a middle-aged reporter” For those of you that hold newspaper journalism as close to your hearts as I, it’s a sad truth.

When I started in college with The Cynic – the student newspaper of the University of Vermont, then moved through The Boulder County Business Journal, and The Worcester Telegram, I would never have considered a world in which the value of print journalism could become so devalued. But the truth was, that even in that day, I could see that financial success would be hard to achieve working as a paid employee of a newspaper.  Hunter S. Thompson told me in 1982 that the newspapers were doomed (but honestly, to Hunter, *everyone* was doomed…) and that the great writers won’t be found on staff anywhere.  They’re the hired guns, the freelancers, and I’d guess now he’d add, the bloggers.

The newspapers, while not slow to adopt the internet, were slow to give it any value, or to really understand it.  Places like the Telegram.com actually did some interesting things in the early days.  Liz Trimble provided a great site, one of the better early newspaper sites, but it was eventually castrated when they went to a subscription only model, then became one of the NYT Papers initial Publicus sites. 

Churbuck’s list for journalists considering the future is bleak, but to my mind, right on the money:

1. First, game is over for print based products. Get over it. If your present publication is beset with cost reductions and you know the ax is coming, don’t think you can find another newsroom. You won’t.

2. Get with David Carr and hundred of other reporters and launch a blog. Screw your boss. Just launch one. Do it under a pen name, but start blogging.

3. Get ready to talk to the readers. The old ivory tower days of letting the readers in through the tiny aperture of the letters to the editor are long gone. If you can’t slug it out with the readers in a flame war then get out of the business. The guy who wrote last week that he doesn’t want to talk to the readers? Fine — but the big talent going forward isn’t your ability to get a source to talk, but how you talk to your audience. If you can’t defend yourself, then get ready for a royal flaming.

4. Think about a career change. Don’t look to your publication’s online group. If you aren’t there now, or haven’t been there over the last ten years, I can assure you they don’t want you. The old Digital Native/Digital Immigrant meme is real. You may be an old dog, don’t expect the puppies to have the patience to teach you how to be a new one. If you don’t intuitively understand the ecosystem of blogistan, the importance of YouTube and its effect on the broadcast model, if the true significance of Tivo baffles you … then don’t think you can transfer your old who-what-where-when school of reporting to the new world. It’s more complex than that.

I look around at newsrooms and see lots of open seats, then read the layoff notices that appear like clockwork on Romenesko. There’s only so much “doing more with less” that can be done until it simply becomes a matter of just plain “doing less with less.”

The NYT is using WordPressMU on mysql, a huge leap forward for open source. And the blogs seem to actually make sense, as though they finally get it. But where from here…and can a blog actually provide dollars that make up for the anemic print performance?

Yes, journalists must move to blogs, but the problem is, most of us then end up giving away for free that which we used to get paid for, continuing the devaluation of journalism.

For the system vendors, it’s consolidation time.  Take a look at the websites of the bigger vendors and you’ll see what’s going on – things are happening today, and more is coming.  That’s all I’ll say about that right now.

Ben Compaine has another interesting post on the Rebuilding Media blog at Corante. He sites a long list of data points that present clear evidence of the trend.

• Time Warner’s Time Inc unit announced that it was cutting 150 positions, half from editorial at Time, People, Fortune, etc. This on the heals of a reduction of 600, mostly business side, last year.
• The digital version of Sports Illustrated accounted for 13 percent of profits in 2006 and is projected to rise to 18 percent this year.

Read the rest of the list at Corante – but his summation is definitely quote worthy:

These data points confirm what we intuitively know is happening. But the data adds an undeniable veritas to the generalizations. Time Inc is not waiting until its profit disappears and its publications are in trouble before it takes action. Meanwhile, the editors on the digital side can gather greater respect within their organizations and among their peers—and more importantly, greater clout—as they can show that they have an audience and growing revenue and even profit.

Yes, without doubt, online editors can capitalize.  While *we* all know that our traffic statistics aren’t anywhere near ABC level reliability, it doesn’t mean the publishers do.  Perhaps such cynicism on my part is uncalled for, but we’ve got to find a way to base our strategy on the thing that really matters at the C-level – and that comes down to the Benjamins.  Don’t chase readers, chase financial impact, because that’s the thing they’re really going to judge you on at the end of the day.  And I suspect that’s going to trickle down into all areas – from the newsroom, to ad sales, to the system vendor space.  Show us the cash!

2 Replies to “Churbuck on the Future of Journalism”

  1. Nice article, thank you. It is the argument between opinion and reportage. Opinion is ten-to-the-dozen but people are becoming more discrening readers and want to read opinions that they agree with. Or better still totally unbiased reportage that gives the ‘consumer’ the ability to make their own opinions. Unreported journalism is the way forward, telling people things that do not reach mainstream media because of the glut on opinion and self-referencing media. Hunter S Thompson did say to always speak the truth, however ugly. I think that is true.

  2. You’re right on the money. In the old days, any hint of “I” or opinion had no place in journalism – it was the stuff of the columnists. Blogging is more like each of us having our own columns. A subtle difference that’s probably missed by the younger generations. When we think back, the “reporters” we remember for the most part are the columnists, the Roykos, Hiassens and Buchwalds. For the most part, the Woodwards and Bernstiens of the world have toiled in anonimity.

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