Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011

The Future of Journalism: Good for You, Scary for Us

Journalists are confused and scared. We work long hours for relatively unimpressive paychecks — the youngest of us scramble for unpaid internships, most of which don't even lead to full-time jobs — and we are working in an industry that's changing so fast that we have to hold panel discussions to figure out what the heck is going on. Print publications are bleeding subscribers, traditional nightly news programs can't figure out how to stay relevant, and even the brightest, most adaptable journalists have not yet learned how to get people to pay for their work. Basically, we're like the music industry, except none of us can sing.

On Wednesday, TIME's managing editor, Rick Stengel, hosted a Chicago Ideas Week panel about the future of news. With him were journalists from all media platforms. We had a nonfiction author (Joe McGinniss, author of the landmark 1969 book The Selling of the President and, most recently, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, for which he infamously rented a house next to hers in Alaska), a broadcast journalist (Ayman Mohyeldin, an NBC News foreign correspondent), a technology titan (Kara Swisher, co-host of Dow Jones' D: All Things Digital), a newspaperman (James Warren, former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, now a New York Times columnist), and an online publisher (Evan Ratliff, co-founder and editor of The Atavist).

I was in the audience. I'm a journalist, of course; I write for TIME's magazine and website. I have never known the thriving, "good old days" of print journalism that the older TIME editors sometimes talk about. (Apparently, we used to have a drink cart?) Listening to today's talk was fascinating but also slightly painful. It was a little bit like going to the dentist when you know you're about to get lectured on how infrequently you floss.

I think Stengel said it most succinctly when he observed that "there is more information available to more people than ever before. We just haven't figured out how to charge for it yet." That is a huge problem; you can't run a business that doesn't make money. Media companies have struggled with this issue for nearly two decades — why haven't we figured it out yet? The longer we wait, the more resources we'll lose. "In newsrooms across the country, there are a third fewer jobs than there were a decade ago," said Warren. "They're just flat-out gone. The Tribune Company even went into bankruptcy." At times, Warren came across as shell-shocked: "I did not see the Internet coming," he said.

But maybe those jobs are gone because we don't need them anymore. "When I was at the [Washington] Post," said Swisher, "we had a lot of reporters who just weren't doing very much. They were very expensive to keep around. So now they're gone. We're just doing more with less."

The trick is not to think of the Internet as an adversary that needs to be tackled. Technology is a tool; it's designed to make our jobs easier and our finished products better. Mohyeldin told a great story about using Twitter to get in touch with Syrian citizens, since journalists aren't allowed inside the country. "It helps me report when I wouldn't otherwise be able to," he said. "When I'm done, I can use it to send my story out all over the place."

"We're forgetting that there's a difference between information and knowledge," he said. "If a bomb goes off in Afghanistan, people can read about it instantly on Twitter but they won't be able to know what it means. Where did it come from? Who did it? What's happening over there? That is what journalism can do."

What traditional media outlets can't do anymore, said Mohyeldin, is cover breaking news. As an example, he offered the coverage of Steve Jobs' death. The news broke on a Wednesday evening, after the nightly news programs had ended. Like most people, I found out because someone I was with looked at his phone. The information spread across social-media platforms within minutes; people even changed their Facebook profile photos to an image of a sad-faced computer. And yet, Mohyeldin pointed out, the next evening, every nightly news program led with the story even though it was a day old. "They talked about his 2005 Stanford address as if they had discovered it, when really it had been reposted all over Facebook," he said. "Tell me what's smart about the business model in which Brian Williams tells me what happened when I already know it."

TIME got a lot of attention within media circles for "stopping the presses" to put out a special Jobs issue in just a few hours. No matter how quickly we worked that night, we knew that the issue wouldn't be seen for another two days. (TIME always hits newsstands on Fridays.) Maybe that sounds like a hindrance, but I don't think it is. Our goal wasn't to tell you that he died, our goal was to tell you about his life — about how he changed our world and what might happen now that he's gone. Knowing one fact doesn't necessarily stop readers from wanting to learn more.

That, I hope, is the future of news. Information will come out faster, more people will make their voices heard, but amid all the clamor and catchy headlines there will still be a place for thoroughly reported, well-written articles that take you a while to read.

But we have probably lost the drink cart for good.