As the diminishing content and disappearance of mainstream newspapers progresses, I can't help but wonder what future awaits journalism. Sure, broadcast media will hold out, even if it's dramatically different from Walter Cronkite's heyday, with cable outlets and the Internet marginalizing the evening news. But print media is the big question. It's been around longer than all other current forms of media and has been a constant in American society, preceding the republic itself. It seems the operative words in the previous sentence might well be has been. Today, daily newspapers aren't only reporting the news, they are increasingly becoming the news with headline predictions of doom and demise. Reports that a cornerstone of our democracy is gasping its last, reduced to dinosaurs at the brink of extinction. Especially for those of us taught to believe there is the imprimatur of truth in the printed word (excepting supermarket tabloids, of course). The general perception being that standards, expertise, experience and editors erected a firewall between gossip and fact.
Now news and commentary overwhelms anyone with access to a computer. Delivered with staccato rapidity and abundance, these pinpricks of information and innuendo are deflected rather than absorbed by a jaded and restless audience. Sometimes a report will go viral, snowballing into something bigger than its relevance justifies. Other times, a news item worthy of widespread attention will surge to the forefront through blind luck or the reporter's diligence, allowing a new avenue to expand public awareness. No doubt, journalism will survive, perhaps even thrive, in some form.
But in what fashion?
Growing pains are already apparent as media and businesses attempt to navigate a relatively new platform without a universal model for success. While the growth spurt is dizzying, the blogosphere's infancy has been a free-for-all, a childhood spent without much restraint or, in many instances, parental guidance. Rather it's the elders -- traditional media -- anxiously watching the upstarts, uncertain parents attempting to learn lessons of life survival from children. The synergy between staid and impetuous can be a scintillating, brilliant combustion. The Huffington Post is a great example, combining the immediacy and egalitarian embrace of internet exchange with the literal and figurative links to traditional media.
Citizen journalists can be great, no doubt. Democracy relies on a free press and citizen participation. And even if many contributing to the blogosphere never enrolled in Journalism 101, that doesn't necessarily diminish their skills or opinions. Experience can sometimes trump education. An early but outstanding example is Ben Franklin. Despite the justifiably admirable reputation of today's J-schools, Franklin didn't earn a degree in the discipline, yet graduated from penning letters to the editor to printing and publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette.
But where will the specters of Damon Runyon, Horace Greeley and James B. Reston materialize in any post-print age? While those venerated journalists have long been dead, their spirits linger in newsrooms and journalism classes, their legacies haunting journalists' ambitions with storied accomplishments and accolades. And even if many of the great journalists and publishers weren't formally educated in the profession, their examples wrote the textbooks and curriculums used at the best institutions. Closer to home, the legacies of William Newton Byers (Rocky Mountain News), Frederick Bonfils and Harry Tammen (Denver Post) have either passed into history or, according to some rumors on the latter, are on life support.
For decades, Denver's dailies battled for readers and advertisers before calling a sort of truce with a Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) managed business cooperation. The JOA, which attempted to allow the city competing editorial voices, managed to postpone but not prevent the collapse of the dual dialogue. Last February, as I picked up several copies of the final, keepsake edition of the Rocky Mountain News, I felt a sadness not only at the finality of that issue, but also at the physical transformation of the newspaper over the last decade. The shed pages and shrunken dimensions somewhat reminded me of an aged relative at the end, her formerly robust mind and body that brimmed with energy, ideas and information reduced to an abbreviated caricature, almost as if nature knew that time was running short and volume was a luxury not permitted.
A few stalwarts will likely survive the apocalypse, but even they might have to stop the presses, or at least slow them down, as they concentrate their journalistic and business efforts on an online presence. Among those I envision surviving the upheaval are the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other nationally prominent newspapers. On a personal note, I can't imagine a world without the New York Times. Its reporting, commentary and analysis are, in my humble opinion, inimitable. I'm not so confident about the endurance of the majority of metropolitan newspapers. But I'm certain that pedestrian blogs can't replace them. Likely, it will reside on the shoulders of sites like this one to expand their news operations to fill the void. After pondering my opening question in several hundred words, I am still wondering what future awaits journalism. There are a few indications but too many uncertainties for anyone to answer that question.
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