The end is nigh – again
Journalism’s worst enemies? Journalists themselves
If it’s September, it must be time for some more earnest hand-wringing about the state of the journalism trade. All students of this game will know the form. You get a piece or a series of pieces which explore the theme that we’re all doomed and, woosh, we’re off. I noted the trend back in April and, a few months later, we’re back in the saddle again.
This time, it’s a post by Christina Patterson which has set off the woe-are-we reactions. Patterson is a former staffer at The Independent turned reluctant freelancer when her career as a journalist at the newspaper came to an end. Like all who’ve known good times in the business or in any business, she bemoans what has happened and especially what seems to have replaced the norm (“you might decide that “content” is something you can get from a college leaver, for 18, or 19, or 20 grand” is her take on aggregation subsistence farmers). The newspaper business she entered a few years ago is no longer in existence and she pines for it because it really was a great time. And no-one likes change or disruption.
The piece got a lot of attention from journalists because Patterson sums up what so many people inside the tent feel about what’s going on. Newspaper staffers in particular were much taken with her views because they finally realise the end of their way of life is probably nigh. As Patterson says, “we journalists always knew we’d lose our jobs. We knew it in the way smokers know that sucking a little stick of tobacco gives you cancer.” Most tried to ignore the inevitable in the same way as you used to ignore homework or assignments in the hope that they’d go away.
But those tasks never went away. The end really is nigh and even the most optimistic newspaper fan knows it. The papers you (don’t) read won’t be around for much longer. No wonder so many staffers used Patterson’s piece as a means to contemplate a life after journalism. By the sound of my Twitter timeline, there are a lot of would-be media lecturers out there.
The thing is, though, that the end is not nigh. One end is certainly nigh, the end of the printed daily newspaper, but there will still be a media business. It will be different, more challenging, less flaithulach (except if you’re weirdly perceived as a media superstar like Pat Kenny), full of doubts and uncertainities, but it will exist. The problem for the staffers is that it’s probably not a place which can accomodate them in the style to which they’ve become accustomed: a comfortable world of full-time jobs, contracts, leave and pensions. That nirvana? Over. Hence the tutting, sighing and resume polishing. We freelancers may once have yearned to reach that promised land of the full-time gig at a paper, but many of us now realise that we’re probably better off where we are for what’s to come. At least, we’ve learned to be realistic.
For media organisations who want to survive, the pivoting should already have begun and this doesn’t mean compiling a blame report for the industry’s woes. Patterson is not the only one to deride the aggregators who’ve cropped up in recent years and have moved from merely squatting in the bathroom to eating the newspaper’s lunch. It’s easy to blame it all on Buzzfeed or The Journal, but that’s simplistic and wrong-headed.
For a start, no matter how many times it’s pointed out that “real” newspapers are investing in quality journalism and research (though doing this to produce this is probably not a good example of same), readers are still flocking to what the aggregators have to offer. Look at Buzzfeed’s recent results – a lot of clicks and a lot of advertising revenue because there’s gold in them there lists of 13 things you should never do on public transport. That’s what a sizable constituency of readers want right now. Those publicatons have responded to these needs and have reaped the rewards.
Newspapers probably need to fight fire with fire. A friend of mine recently wondered why the Times or Independent haven’t set up their own aggregation business to take the likes of the Journal or Broadsheet on at their own game. Hire those college leavers that Patterson mentions or eager kids (the best journalists I know never went to college) and set them to work on a seperate no-holds-barred product to create a new, seperate business model within the silo. You might say that you’re cannibalising your own business, but when that business is heading for red ink with every quarter, there may well not be a business to cannibalise for too much longer.
Too radical? Probably. You can imagine the rumpus the NUJ would cause about such a scenario, egged on by those staffers who still think they can get to the finishing line with their pension intact and who abhor change of any sort which might rock that boat. But, as the saying goes, if you’re not radical, you’re redundant. Standing still is not an option. Indeed, you could argue that the time for such a response may be over.
A lot of what’s going on right now in the trade reminds me of watching the music business sailing over the edge a decade ago. Many of us who worked for major labels in the late 1990s knew that change was coming and coming fast, yet those at the top of the pyramid were too busy counting the cash from the CD boom (all those Bananarama and Fine Young Cannibals’ reissues in the case of my bosses) to take note of what was happening. The big bang happened and the business model collapsed.
But in 2013, there’s still a music business, albeit a more downsized and nimble affair. New players came onto the pitch and made out like bandits. Existing operators who wanted to stay in the game made the changes that had to be made to survive (and, whisper it, thrive). No-one puts all their eggs in one basket anymore, but spreads their bets. Everyone got a little smarter. The best players were the smartest and most hard working of all. As we know, talent alone doesn’t ensure success, hence the hard work. The end may have been nigh for one sector of the music business, but the business didn’t die. There are lessons in that history lesson for other sectors.
At least some within the media tents are realistic. One of the big media stories of the summer was Amazon dude Jeff Bezos using some of his bankroll to buy the Washington Post. Bezos has some ideas about how to save that venerable organisation, but he might need to tease them out a little. One of his new employees Timothy B. Lee did such a thing for his new boss with this blog post reacting to a notion to try to recreate the newspaper reading experience online. Let’s hope Lee gets promoted rather than fired for his honest, detailed and frank analysis.