Thursday, October 16, 2008

The (Continuing) Decline of Print Media

Our journalism colleague Steve Byers has a blog titled Marquette Student Media which, in spite of the name, deals mostly with the print media off campus. Byers is an old-style newspaper reporter, with old style newspaper reporter values, and sometimes his critique of the direction of contemporary papers can be devastating.
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.

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4 Comments:

Blogger James Pawlak said...

Sometimes ago I asked the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's editors, how many of them were laid off of late or took reductions in pay to maintain that paper. I am still waiting for a reply. Are we surprised?

6:24 PM  
Blogger Dad29 said...

The only problem with your scenario, Professor, is that the newspapers have yet to figure out how to make MONEY as electronic entities...

8:23 AM  
Anonymous gus said...

The Milwaukee Urinal will never make money as a cyber paper, so long as it continues to print nonsense and play racial games.
I stopped buying/reading the Urinal 7-8 years ago. I occasionally log on to JSONLINE, but it's free. I'd never pay for propaganda.

5:42 PM  
Blogger John Pack Lambert said...

There are some truly distinguished religious schools. Hrigham Young University is one even if it at times has 8ts faculty badmouthed. It clearly excels in the hard sciences. It actually has key figures making lots of inpact in sociology, the editor-in-chief of the journal of sociology of religion is a 0rofessor there. It has some key figures in western US and Native American history such as Jay Buckley. It also has some strong thinkers in its philosophy department. Its law school has turned out lots of top law clerks and its business school is about top ranked among those that lack a doctoral program.

It at times is looked doen on in soft subjects like the English department because it takes seriouly doctrinal purity and removes professors who go against LDS Church teaching. It neither grants tenure nor promises full academic freedom. Yet its faculty are more politically diverse than at most other universities. They range from hard leftist advocates of afirmative action like Ignacio Garcia and slightly moderate types like Matthew amason who favors reparations for slavery but also spins reconstruction as good and then spins the post-Saddam Iraq as having the same issues. Then there are types like Profess9r Carey who has been a strong voice in favor of man/woman marriage. The one drawback is BYU lacks many grad 0rograms so to get grad degrees many students will have to go elsewhere. At least it has a social work grad program.

3:38 PM  

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