Don’t weep for newspapers

by Alfred Siew on December 22, 2009

In my last lecture this term, I began by telling the class the irony I felt at bringing up the uncertain future of news media while telling them how great a career in journalism could be.

But I was not trying to confuse. Rather, I wanted to say what I had long believed: while newspapers may be dying and Big Media may be suffering from lost ad dollars, journalism is, in a meaningful way, returning to its roots.

That means listening more to readers, doing more on-the-ground reporting and simply being more accountable. Sounds like standard stuff? Well, the standards had slipped long ago.

Speaking to some fellow journalists here a few years ago, I was shocked that some of them did not bother to return calls from readers, and often dismissed them as pesky.

Amazing, I know. But I knew then the rot had set in long ago. It was borne out of a Big Media mentality that ignored the realities of the news media business, as well as a “I-know-better” snobbery that only a monopoly on information could bring about.

Of course, all that is changing, as I write this. In their rush to re-engage the reader, newspapers have turned to interactive tools like Facebook, Twitter and blogs to keep the conversation going. And a newspaper is no longer the last word on a topic.

These changes, despite the hand-wringing in newsrooms, are a good thing. And slowly but surely, journalists – at least the serious ones – must be seeing this as well.

I’m talking about how this big shakeup of the newspaper business is actually not such a bad thing in the long term. Sure, the newspaper industry in the United States is facing a crisis, with newspapers closing shop faster than ever.

But there is a need to differentiate newspapers from journalism. The medium is being superceded by the reach, speed and cheapness of the Internet, but the practice of newsgathering and dissemination is being helped – not impeded – by technology.

To many folks in the industry, and indeed newsmakers, the medium and the practice are one and the same. Mistakenly, they look at the death of newspapers as the death of journalism.

But ask yourself: how bad can it be when there are more, not less, people on the ground reporting and talking about an incident that just happened?

Consider the teenage Chicago blogger who scans the police chatter to follow the crime beat in his area. This is information that people would not have got previously, because the news may not have been “big” enough for city papers to follow.

Thus, the current shakeup is only bad if you are losing a monopoly over news – a power built up over the decades by news outlets, by the way. Otherwise, if you were a reader or an advertiser, diversity breeds competition, which brings better quality journalism.

I find it disturbing that professional journalists often still look at bloggers as poorer cousins. How can they be treated like media, I hear (like “media” is some God-given right to access information). How could these folks be treated on the same level as “us”?

Having been a journalist for a decade in Singapore and now a blogger, I have seen my fair share of good and bad journalists as well as bloggers.

The good ones know their stuff, behave professionally (do not receive gifts or favours, for example) and just go about their work with the knowledge that it is not they who are important – but their readers.

The bad ones ask for freebies and don’t return a cellphone or MP3 player sent on loan (Singapore Press Holdings, where I worked previously, had a strict policy on receiving gifts).

As I told my class, the medium is not as important as the content you put out. A lousy journalist is no better than a lousy blogger; a good blogger can be just as good as a good journalist. And who says a blogger cannot be called a journalist?

I have often said we should not weep for newspapers. They may die, and so might the business model of advertisting-sponsored journalism (a model of convenience, as we know). But we have to be optimistic about the future of journalism.

When the market is “flat”, and there are no barriers to entry, you will find the lousy journalists (and their shoddy “journalism”) rooted out by more capable upstarts, i.e. blogs which will grow into more professional outfits.

If I wanted real buying advice, I would rather read a review from Engadget than a lousy brochure-ware magazine giving no new information except some specs and a photo of a phone or camera draped on a sexy girl.

By the same token, the dime and a dozen lousy “bloggers” who suddenly find themselves in the limelight and getting access to news information, through media previews, interviews and other channels, will be out of the reckoning after they are exposed to be nothing but freebie seekers or shoot-from-the-hip writers without accountability.

In short, what the shakeup will bring is more competition, more dialogue. In a marketplace of ideas, this cannot be bad.

I’m also disturbed by the idea that democracy cannot survive without investigative journalism often done by newspaper reporters. The current brand of journalism as we know it is a relatively new, 19th century model – how did people vote before that?

Plus, some of this investigative work is being done by bloggers and experts in their own blogs. Yes, many blogs still shoot from the hip and are not accountable, but from this mess will arise a number of good blogs providing news you and I can use.

It was not different with “trusted” media outlets in the past. How did we come to trust brands like the New York Times? Didn’t the journalism we know spring from a chaotic start?

Lest we forget, the early newspaper man was never involved in any organised fashion, but employed the same underdog, guerilla warfare tactics we see now from new media practitioners.

So, don’t weep for newspapers as they go. The demand for news, accelerated by the Net’s timeliness and richness, is growing and the conversation between journalists and readers intensifying. How can this be bad?

Sure, the short term looks gloomy. The uncertainty and the lack of a businesss model bring the inevitable question: who’s going to pay for quality journalism when everything is free on the Net?

Well, no one knows. But the market can correct itself.

In his piece Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinking, writer and new media expert Clay Shirky pointed out the current transitional period as one of those where everything is in gestation and we don’t yet have a clue how things will turn out.

Journalism, he goes on to say, will be around much longer after newspapers. The same optimistic tone is in a recent Economist piece.

Newspapers survived the arrival of the telegraph by simply co-opting it and using the speed and reach it afforded, the article pointed out. Similarly, news outlets are turning to blogs, Twitter and Facebook to keep the conversation going with readers.

Most importantly, people are demanding more news, not less, with the Internet. We just have to figure out how to pay the journalists who churn out these stories.

My view is that the consolidation – a global one that destroys all geographically-based barriers like newspaper licences and regional advertising budgets – will leave us with only the best news outlets that stick by the principles that made good newspapers good in the first place. Again, that cannot be a bad thing.

It’s true that these are not happy days, as we often hear from those proclaiming the newspaper a sunset industry. But if you ask me about journalism, I only see new opportunities dawning.

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Well, actually, writing a lead is nearly as hard to do, especially if you are typing your first post on an empty blog.

So, I’m glad I’ve started.

It has taken a long, long time for me to post on a personal blog. I’ve owned this domain for several months now, after a friend mentioned to me: “why do you have no blog when you’re doing a lot of freelance work?”.

Yes, I know I need to tell the world what I’ve been doing since I left The Straits Times in September 2008, after almost a decade covering technology in Singapore.

But having been a journalist, I’m more interested in writing about stuff I am interested in – rather than my life story – and I already run a blog called Techgoondu.com with a number of my techie journalist or ex-journalist pals.

So, it was not until events this past month that finally compelled me to get things going on this blog.

I recently signed up to teach News Writing and Editing at the National University of Singapore‘s Communications and New Media programme. And I thought this blog would be a good way for me to share some of the news articles and commentaries on journalism that I come across with my students.

After all, these are interesting times for the news media. After decades of unchallenged power, the traditional media of newspapers, radio and TV are losing the clout they are so used to.

Now, it might seem hypocritical for someone who spent almost all his working life writing for The Straits Times – the dominant newspaper in Singapore – to criticise the traditional media.

But even when I was there, I always voiced my opinions. I’ve always maintained that the Net is here and there is no turning back to good, old newspapers.

This is actually not news. In the 1990s, personal homepages had already starting spawning professionally published websites such as Anandtech.com (started by a teenage boy, yes, called Anand).

Back then, you still required some skill to create a website (Cold Fusion, anyone?). And of course, the old media laughed them off when the Dot.com bubble burst in dramatic fashion.

But then the Web came back, in version 2.0. Blogs made it easy for anyone to have a pretty site with just a few clicks (who would have thought the free WordPress would trump professional content tools like Vignette?).

And Google started an advertising model that forever spoilt the market (US$1 to reach a reader in print versus 10 US cents on a website?).

More recently, of course, you’ve got Facebook, Twitter, and whatever newfangled social network services yet to become wildly popular in a short time.

So, to say that newspapers are only dying now is missing half the point. The writing has always been on the wall, but well, who cared when the going was good, right?

Sadly, even when things are getting as bad as now, you’ll find journalists still feeling sorry for the loss of a priestly mission. They’ll ask: who’s going to do our jobs of informing the public?

My question to them is: what have you been doing informing the public?

When was the last time you got a story yourself instead of a handout from the government press office? When was the last time you heard something on the ground and analysed the information?

More than ever, the most “precious” news now is 1) breaking news, which has short shelf-life 2) news with analysis, which makes sense of the info overload 3) scoops/exclusives which no one else has.

The media – and I mean Big Media here – have been fat, uncaring and out of touch with what people want and are interested in. Who cares about press freedom (in Singapore)? Who bothers with journalistic integrity?

It is not that these things are not important. It’s just that people – the very people journalists say they represent – do not see these high ideals in action.

One reason for the disconnect: journalists don’t get the big picture. In J-school, students are taught about objectivity, fairness, clarity. Good points, but not enough attention is paid to teach people about the whole business of journalism.

Unless you are working for news media funded by non-profit foundations (like Pro Publica), your “mission” has most likely been made possible by advertisers, who happen to find your newspaper’s reach useful.

Now that they have Google and Facebook to advertise with (at lower cost, I might add), why is it any surprise that they are pulling out traditional ads? They have never liked the risk of placing a juicy burger ad in a newspaper, only to appear next to a food-poisoning story.

There were two things I learnt during my years of practising journalism:

1) Keep it real: editorial “independence” is not a sacred mission or an artists’ right – it’s integral to the business of newspapers. So, when you say you don’t “sell out”, you are really doing your job; nothing more. If you write crap once, you might get away with it; if you write crap all the time, your readers will stop reading, and the advertiser you’ve been pleasing with good car or food reviews will be off to somewhere more ‘credible’.

2) Don’t be a brat: you, the journalist, are only a gatekeeper because of your reach to readers. Would your readers like you to behave like a brat? If you think a piece of news is not interesting, just tell the PR person: I don’t think we will print this. No need to throw a hissy fit.

If journalists understood the fragility of their “mission” and the impermanence of their position, it would be much easier to face whatever new media model comes along (don’t listen to the gurus, they don’t know either).

Ultimately, there is always a market for good journalism. Of that, I am sure. The simple reason is that people need to get a sense of all the data coming through. Whose review of the iPhone can you trust? Whose reporting of the Iraq war is the most lucid?

It used to be newspapers of record. Now, readers get a chance to re-evaluate, with all the choices online. The trusted source in future may still be the same journalists slogging it out on the ground, and filing for an online site. Or it could be a blogger doing the same (in which case, can we call him a journalist too?).

Whatever form journalism takes in future, I believe readers want the same things – accuracy, fairness and balance – in what they read. Those qualities have always made the best newspapers stand out.

And that applies too for Mr Blogger-turned-citizen-reporter. Endorse a few more phones in those paid-for postings and you’ll soon lose any credibility that your Web 2.0 status gives you. Readers just hate to be deceived.

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