THE BLOG
07/19/2010 12:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

After 150 Years of Selling News, Media Outlets Need to Think About Turning Back the Clock

The nation's Twitter-length attention span is driving the mainstream media into a wild tailspin, rushing to recreate itself based on the latest search engine feedback.

So it's counter revolutionary to think of turning back the clock to a time when journalism wasn't packaged and sold. That's what Mitchell Stephens, a thoughtful New York University professor, wants us to do.

"If you take a long, historic view, its really only been a century and a half where journalists were able to sell news," Stephens told me. "There are numerous signs that this is ending, and we are going back to an era when news and facts were spread for free. We should be looking back at Ben Franklin's and Thomas Jefferson's time, when they gave us perspectives on what is happening."

"We can watch the press conferences ourselves or watch excerpts on YouTube. We don't need some Washington reporter taking notes and telling us. We can watch it. We can get it fast from bloggers and tweets and smartphones. The idea that we need highly trained veteran journalists to tell us what is happening strikes me as an increasingly outdated idea," insists Stephens, author of A History of News.

Technology is transforming the way we view news. Tastes change suddenly, as Stephens points out, looking back in history at the famous French artist Ernest Meissonier, who tirelessly posed men on horseback for armed victory scenes for realistic paints. Then photography arrived and Meissonier tumbled from fame, while French Impressionists moved in. Today reporters who play stenographers of the news are being replaced by writers who analyze the news, he argues.

Within the past decade more than 25,000 print journalism jobs have vanished, along with 8,300 broadcast jobs. A dozen newspapers are in the midst of bankruptcy, and Newsweek is up for sale after attempting to reinvent itself. Networks are slashing staffs (ABC lost 25 percent of its news staff) and opinionated cable shows are outpacing straight news.

"I have a lot of journalist friends struggling to make a living, but the harsh truth is telling people what happened today or earlier in the day is no longer a valuable skill. Amateurs have entered the game. News wasn't always a spectator sport.

"The (journalism) career ladder has broken," says Stephens, who has taught journalism for three decades. "I tell students to invent their own journalism. Go out there and don't worry about how. Start your own journalism -- take a camera or laptop and go. If I'm counseling students, I don't tell them to prepare to go to ABC. Take a flip camera and go some place where news is happening and send it to somebody."

Head-spinning changes have hit the news industry in the past five years. Two billion videos flood into YouTube every day, and 100 million Twitter users are breaking news and rallying protesters around the world. Mainstream news outlets are monitoring website traffic hourly and throwing up stories to attract distracted viewers. But don't expect readers to want an overload of serious stories. The most popular Washington Post website story of the past year was the financial troubles of Crocs shoes. No kidding.

"I'm calling for rethinking what quality means in journalism I'm calling for journalists to once again move beyond the mere collection of news as stenographers and see themselves as interpreters of the news. We could do with a third as many people covering the White House," said Stephens. "Let two-thirds of them wander around the bureaucracy and departments in Washington. We have too many (White House correspondents) taking notes on what the president and press secretary say and too little interpreting the meaning of public policies and investigating."

With scores of news outlets shuttering their Washington bureaus and vast regions of the world uncovered, ProPublica and Global Post and scattered new media sites are gaining ground. Yet at the same time so-called "content mills" like Associated Content and Demand Media are spewing out evergreen content for online and print partners.

"The efforts of mainstream American journalism to explore the territory beyond plain reporting of news have, in other words, been tentative, spotty and unreliable. So bloggers have stepped into the gap," Stephens wrote in a report for the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy. "Indeed, that is surely among the explanations for the rapid success of bloggers -- opinionated, snarky, smart -- like Andrew Sullivan, Markos Moulitsas, Josh Marshall, Mickey Kaus, Ana Marie Cox, Ezra Klein and others. They are not restricted by 'walls' between news and opinion and other vestigial remnants of an earlier journalism. They have a relatively clear view of where the value in journalism now lies: in exclusives, when available, but more often in intelligent, well-reasoned interpretation, in attempts at wisdom."