Almost every week it seems there is a new report about another newspaper falling on hard times.
In February, The Rocky Mountain News closed.
In December, the Detroit Free Press announced that it would only deliver to residents three days a week.
Last month, the Dispatch in Columbus announced 45 layoffs. Yesterday, the Ann Arbor News announced that it was closing and launching a new, strictly online venture. Just last week, Time Magazine‘s online site ran a version of an endangered species list for 10 large metropolitan papers. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s inclusion on the list drew fire from the paper’s publisher, who questioned the sources and the methods behind the predictions, and Terrence Egger’s criticisms of the list mirror those often leveled against online journalism at large-reliability of information, credibility of sources, and lack of accountability.
Yet no one can deny a massive media reshuffling. And few will deny that this crisis is sparked by the growth of internet and mobile news sources. In response, most newspapers are trying to hold onto readers and advertisers through their websites. It is now commonplace that the future of news is interlinked with the internet.
Internet journalism, as many have argued, is largely driven by a kind of niche market-users seek out the content and stories for which they find relevance. Media analysts like Jeff Jarvis say readers want to create their own meanings, find and share their own news, and offer their opinions on it all. For Jarvis, news readers want to be their own “hunters and gatherers.”
While this is exciting for journalists, because, in theory, this revolution could free reporters from the drudgery of covering the day-to-day mundane news and allow them to focus on more enterprise and investigative news, it also poses some interesting — and troubling — questions for the future of news consumption, and for journalism educators.
Many of our students are extremely concerned with their vocational possibilities and view their college educations primarily as a means to land a job after they graduate. Can we, in good conscience, continue turning out majors and attracting new ones knowing what we know about the uncertain future of the industry?
We are certain of a few facts:
* Society’s need for information will not diminish.
* Democracy is dependent upon a free and fully functioning press.
* The important skills that journalists possess will always be in demand.
While these points seem certain, the practicalities remain muddy. Where will journalists work? What will they carry with them when they do interviews? How will they deliver the information? Who will pay for it all?
If the advertising model that long supported newspapers is now broken, it is clear that a new method of support for news dissemination must be found.
We believe that non-profits and universities can play a huge role in preserving the fundamental function of journalism as “watchdog,” safeguarding the interests of the public. Indeed the not-for-profit model is already assuming a vital role in the democratic marketplace, as evidenced by organizations like Propublica and numerous news blog sites.
At Youngstown State University, we are developing a project that surfaces some exciting but uncomfortable questions relating to the niche and internet markets: a wire service of enterprise and investigative news from our region.
By organizing a network of student journalists and faculty and professional editors, we envision an outlet for in-depth coverage of important stories too often overlooked or willfully sacrificed by resource-strapped local media. These student-generated stories would be made available to any interested media.
Inevitably, many of the stories will deal with working-class issues, although the editorial focus of the project is primarily geographic. We envision students thinking and reporting about issues of economic re-development and the changing nature of work, because these issues are so much a part of our region.
We see this as a way to help newspapers that are faced with diminished resources in both their print and online platforms to continue to give important content to readers. As newspapers respond to the current crises of the industry by increasingly defining their niches as local, event-based coverage, their constricted resources often leave them ill-equipped to generate significant issues based and investigative reporting.
While we understand that the future of media mandates that students become niche savvy, we wrestle with how to best balance this reality with our mission to educate within a liberal arts curriculum. We worry that a focus on the niche and on the platform could result in the development of a kind of geographic narcissism and an even more troubling critical myopia. We are also uncomfortable with playing a possible role in the continued downsizing of newsroom staff, an issue currently being aired on Jarvis’s blog in connection with a post on CUNY’s NYCity News Service proposal.
One school of thought argues that the best preparation for a career as a journalist is a solid liberal arts education with some emphasis on skills development. Without a strong basic education, a journalist cannot perform the analysis and prioritizing that are necessary for serious journalism. But many journalism programs across the country are flooding their curriculum with multimedia training, sometimes at the expense of the traditional liberal arts education. In these models, the focus is often concentrated on storytelling across multiple platforms, and curricula often weight the medium more heavily than the message.
In the true spirit of the collaborative model that is overtaking online journalism, we are interested in thoughts and feedback about our project and the issues it raises.
Our interest in feedback is fueled by our own discomfort with how to best prepare the next generation of journalists. Journalism has long held an uncomfortable position in higher education. Is it a profession? Is it an academic discipline? These questions, which first surfaced decades ago, continue to haunt us as we move journalism in a new direction defined, in large measure, by technology.
Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff