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In 2010, hope for the future of news

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The funeral dirge for news has been rising, in direct proportion to the spread of the Internet, for much of this millennium’s first decade. In 2009, it reached a crescendo, with newspapers cutting deeply into their staffs or shutting down entirely all over the United States and Europe, as budgets vanished into an ocean of red ink.

Apart from a handful of aggregate sites like Google News, which spend virtually nothing on the borrowed stories they bring to readers, the gamble that online media operations would generate significant advertising revenue has yet to pay off.

But there is reason to hope that a turning point is near. Instead of more and more websites with less and less content, the thrust of online journalism to date, we may be on the verge of an era that fulfils modern technology’s promise to deliver more of more.

It makes for a classic news story in its own right: a revolution forged in the convergence of dazzling technology, a transformed market and sheer human energy and imagination.

The year 2010 will be key.

WHO NEEDS THE NEWS?

The most compelling reason for hope is straightforward supply-and-demand. Reliable information – gathered by experienced professionals and backed up by established institutions – is an absolute necessity for three immensely powerful constituencies: business, the public bureaucracy, and the scientific research community.

The demand in their ranks for documented facts is constant. But for more than a decade, the supply has been in free-fall. There is no mistaking the consequences:

– Probing, widely-circulated reporting on distortions in the economy – notably the enormous proliferation of rogue, unregulated lending practices – might have deflated the trans-Atlantic housing balloon before it exploded into the worst financial debacle since the Great Depression.

– Ideological considerations often colour the rhetoric and legislative initiatives of politicians. But from the State Department in Washington to the city halls of California suburbs, the daily life of government is measured in countless practical management decisions. They rely on a consistent flow of dependable information about local, national and international realities – on facts. Most of those facts, historically, were gathered and brought to public attention by news institutions.

– In the scientific community, the news crisis has provoked widespread concern over evaporating links between research efforts and the general population.

“Journalists serve the public with their daily reports about our studies of flu vaccines and voting patterns and hominid fossils. But they also serve us. Every news story mentioning a professor’s research is a small strut supporting our mission,” says Harry R. Lewis, professor of computer science at Harvard, and co-author of Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion.

“In the absence of professional journalists specializing in health, for example, who will report news of the latest medical research to the broader public, and its implications for society?” asks Neil Henry, Dean of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

“With ever fewer highly trained education and science reporters gainfully employed, who will cover the important policy and fiscal issues connected with those critical fields, and their intersections with government and society?”

Similar questions are being posed today almost everywhere in the academic, business and public sectors. The demand is making itself heard, ever more loudly, at the upper levels of power and influence, and it is difficult to believe that the market will not find a way to respond.

THE PROMISE OF TECHNOLOGY

A second reason for optimism lies in technological developments affecting the media. After years of innovation that had the unintended effect of devastating the old world of institutionalized journalism, high-tech firms today are consciously working to undo the damage – recreating and radically updating the world that technology all but destroyed.

Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Reader are quickly moving toward the day when downloaded media of all sorts will be universally available and even more portable than the traditional printed newspaper, magazine or paperback book – but at a fraction of print’s production and distribution costs.

The bottom line is a lethal problem when publications are obliged to continue bearing the high costs of print, at the same time their product is offered by online sites that inevitably erode the subscription base.

The Kindle and its rivals are essential mediators in this painful transition, emulating the most desirable qualities of print – portability and ease of use – while erecting a platform for a functional online fee system.

But media technology’s larger impact, which still hangs in the balance, will rest on changes in the presentation of content. The Internet has not simply altered the way news is delivered. It has vastly expanded its potential scope and refashioned the expectations and habits of news consumers.

Bred on the explosive speed and phenomenal reach of Twitter, YouTube and other social media, the news junkies of the coming decade will not settle for a limited selection of individual subscription-walled publications, or a narrow choice between words and broadcast images, between professional reporting and impromptu dispatches filed from cell phones in the streets where history takes shape.

They want regular access to all of these sources of information and ideas, and if it deserves to survive, the industry must accommodate them. The emergence of the multi-media audience isn’t a threat to journalism. It is where salvation lies.

A NEW GENERATION

Fierce debates on the fate of the media are now raging all over the world. They involve lifelong journalists and editors, the private sector and the public sector, universities and think tanks, militants from both the left and the right.

We seem to be moving, at long last, out of a period of futile despair over what has been lost. There is ferment in the air.

Young people will be the principal architects and beneficiaries of what lies ahead, and they are taking up the challenge. I’ve found myself in extraordinary conversations about the future of journalism, over the past few years, with twenty-something reporters in the Middle East, Europe and Asia, as well as the United States. Their intelligence and determination – the fire in the belly that is the unquantifiable but necessary fuel of great reporting – humbled me.

In North America alone, 10,000 reporting jobs disappeared between 2001 and 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. Another 7,500 are thought to have been eliminated in 2009. Yet applications to college journalism programs are soaring, up by nearly 40 percent at Columbia in the past year, 20 percent at Stanford and s
imilar rates at major state universities – despite graduate school costs that range from $30,000 to $60,000 per year a profession where starting salaries averaged $40,000 in 2007.

For the students who flock to these programs,” says Dean Miller, Director of the Center for News Literacy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, “the ‘decline’ of the traditional news media is a gift of clarity. What the eager see in this period of sweeping change is a ‘journalistic renaissance,’ one graduating senior told us recently. He knows all bets are off, and he still wants in.”

 

Frank Viviano – barganews staff reporter – World View CBS5

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