By: Michael Bugeja
I’m not going to name the blogger and bewail what he did online because there is a world of difference between us–a whole wide world–called the Internet.
I see the Internet as a resource. He sees it as a cheap digital printing press with built-in composing rooms and circulation departments. I think journalists should never become part of their stories; he thinks that he is the story with a link to “About Me.” I honor the wall between news and advertising; he sees no walls in the global village. I don’t see that village; I behold a global mall.
He sees the Web as the most egalitarian tool in media history, eliminating the cost of publishing and democratizing it. I see the Internet as a dynamic but unreliable tool, more powerful and unstable than any other tool in media history.
My goal here is not to expose the blogger but to engage newspaper publishers–to wake them up–so that they understand the medium of the Internet, in which they have so heavily invested at the expense of reporters in hometowns.
Bloggers are often accused of not being “real journalists.” But many newspaper reporters are now leashed to computer cords in the converged newsroom, googling facts and factoids, not meeting with sources and, increasingly, anyone else, but still claiming to be journalists?-an endangered species, thanks to online technology.
My book, “Interpersonal Divide,” reminds readers about the potential and limits of each medium. Newspapers cannot compete on the Internet without becoming a TV station in a box–the computer monitor. That is neither what they do best nor where they ought to be.
Newspapers have an outdoors history, from the corner barker to the newsstand vendor to the neighborhood paperboy to the reporter on the beat. Distribution boxes at public places reminded readers that the local newspaper was both government watchdog and citizen advocate. Passersby required quarters rather than passwords to retrieve our product.
Tipsters used to show up in lobbies. Now we ask them to register before we listen to them online. Then we spam them.
What is going on? Journalists used to have “street smarts”?-another term for common sense. Don’t we realize that our entire history is associated with the community, which we have abandoned because consultants in the dubious “dot.com” days told us to go online where the money was or risk extinction? Now they are telling us that newspapers on line risk extinction unless they blog, or provide content to a specific target market.
Community is our target market. The operative concept in the word “circulation” is “circle”?-which we drew on maps for distribution. Circulation is a geographic, not a psychographic, term. When managers target that circle for lifestyle clusters, they lapse into niche fragmentation, compete with magazines and lose more readership.
There are few absolute rules in the newspaper business, but one is “Know Thine Element.” You risk extinction when you are out of your element, and newspapers are out of theirs–which is a physical place.
There is an alternative future. Publishers will hire more reporters and place them in communities instead of in cubicles, where they can be seen, covering high school protests against Coke business practices, attending meetings in diverse neighborhoods, visiting the municipal court to hear verdicts in person in front of witnesses instead of accessing rulings online in front of no one.
Newspaper readership is declining. Of course it is. There is a cumulative consequence for basing decisions on profit rather than on community. We’re charging our newer readers to announce births, engagements and weddings, and our loyal ones for obituaries. Do you not think these misguided changes in content–which used to bring entire families into newspaper buildings–might have played a role in loss of readership?
When you are out of your element, you’re also out of touch. What stories have we been missing in our converged newsrooms? Journalism school directors like me also are to blame for jumping on the convergence bandwagon. We used to train students to burn shoe leather rather than DVDs. I can’t remember the last time in a major city when I saw newspaper reporters on the street with notepads in their back pocket scurrying to do “spot news.” That very term means physical place.
Publishers are reaching a tipping point. If they continue to upgrade technology and downsize newsrooms, readership will drop to new lows and the newspaper will be put on life support–Internet-only editions.
The real question is, when that tipping point occurs, will publishers even realize it? Will they fathom that there is no competition at the real front doors and welcome mats of American domains, except for the pizza person. I’d much rather compete against Papa John’s than blogspot.com.
Unless publishers reinvest in newsrooms, the Internet will spell the end of the journalism community as we knew it. The only difference will be that corporate journalists will dress for work and bloggers will work in pajamas.