The (Continuing) Decline of Print Media
For four decades, American newspapers have been lulled into complacency by being virtual monopolies. They have grown fat and ossified. During my time with just The Milwaukee Journal and Journal Sentinel, I watched as it went from a lean, tight newspaper with only a few editors to one with layers upon layers of assistant managing editors, senior editors, deputy senior editors, assistant senior editors, etc. (When I started at The Milwaukee Journal its news operations had one editor, one managing editor, one assistant managing editor; today, its masthead lists an editor, a managing editor, a deputy managing editor, six assistant managing editors, and at least six senior editors.)This, in fact, sounds like academia. At Marquette, as everywhere else in higher education, there has been a huge proliferation of people whose job is not to teach students, nor to do research, nor to provide needed services to students, but rather to “implement” various “initiatives” involving such (at best) irrelevant and (at worst) harmful things as “assessment” and “diversity.”
But universities are different from newspapers, in that the former are essentially a cartel, all the members of which do all the same things, with no choice of (for example) a university where a student will be free of politically correct indoctrination, or a university where religion is taken seriously, and a majority of the faculty are practicing Christians, or Jews or Muslims.
(Religious institutions -- genuinely religious ones, not places like Marquette -- provide a real alternative, but in academia prestige is so highly correlated with the age of an institution that newer alternatives are largely locked out of the market.)
Newspapers are not so lucky, since they face real, vigorous competition from other media, ranging from the Internet to talk radio.
We sometimes chortle a bit at the decline of the “dead tree media,” since it has come to be dominated by a standard liberal “mainstream media” worldview.
But, of course, Byers nostalgia appears to be for a world where large cities had competing papers, with different editorial policies. It was a world where editors did not see themselves as arbiters of what the citizens were allowed to see and read, since failing to report a story that would interest readers was to invite being “scooped” by a rival paper.
Byers has, multiple times, invited us to his classes to talk about blogging, since he apparently sees the enterprise as partaking of some of the vitality that newspaper journalism formerly had: aggressiveness in reporting, sharp diversity of opinions and the lack of a bureaucratic structure watching over (and stifling) the people doing the reporting.
We tend to disagree with Byers view that, if newspapers added content and did more and better reporting, the traditional newspaper model could be revived. He, for example, cites an Australian named David Kirk and explains:
He builds his argument around three pillars: strong content, addressing audiences and supporting his newspapers’ brands. He isn’t talking about cutting staff that his audience wants to read, like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and, frankly, most American metropolitan newspapers continue to do. Nor is he talking about dropping sections, ignoring portions of the audience, and allowing his readers to gradually drift away. He is talking about aggressively going after them.Our view is that dead tree media is going the way of the horse and buggy -- the victim of technological change.
But if the form of journalism has to change, the substance has to remain pretty much the same. Good reporting, good writing, incisive commentary, quality photojournalism, provocative editorial cartooning -- all of these can prosper on the web just as they once prospered in the daily newspaper.
So we have an irony here: good electronic journalism has to reflect the ethos of the anachronistic heyday of newspaper journalism. In reality, it now reflects that ethos better than the modern bureaucratic, over-managed, cost-cutting world of contemporary print journalism.