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Is Journalism Dead?

by Steven Novella, Mar 16 2009

By now the trend is obvious and not much news. Traditional newspapers are losing readership and advertising. They are laying off staff, cutting costs, and consolidating news offices.

This has been a very bad thing for science journalism, which has always been a mixed bag even in the best of times. Now newspapers are letting go their specialty reporters, like science journalists, and handing over science news to general reporters. The result has been an overall decrease in the quality of science journalism.

The culprit is what you are reading right now – blogs and the internet in general. The public now is used to getting their news for free online. Online news is also more timely, more interactive, it’s hyperlinked to references – it’s a web of information. I dare say it’s a better, more useful, more timely, and more cost effective venue for information.

The problem is that the internet is killing traditional media before it is fully settled itself. It is not clear how to monetize internet journalism. How will journalists and journalism survive the transition? This has lead some to be pessimistic about the future of journalism.

Steven Johnson, however, is optimistic. Johnson is a science writer who, at a recent lecture, stated that he thinks journalism is not dead, it’s just in transition. The solution, he says, is the same as the problem – the internet. Newspapers need to find a new business model, and part of that will be ditching the printing costs of putting out dead-tree newspapers. Going all digital is the way to go, and many journals and papers have already done so.

I agree with Johnson – partly. I do think we are seeing the inevitable stampede to online content, for all the advantages I outlined above. The role of print publications is also certainly shrinking, but I don’t think they will vanish completely anytime soon. The real trick will be sorting out which kind of content is best online, and which still works in print – and how to combine the two in a way that optimizes news delivery and creates an effective business model.

I don’t pretend to know how to do this, but I have some thoughts as it pertains to science journalism.

First, I am obviously a big supporter of blogs – I contribute to four separate blogs, including this one and my personal blog, NeuroLogica. The advantage of blogs is that working scientists and educators can communicate science to the public in their spare time. There doesn’t have to be a business model – because I and other scientist bloggers don’t have to make a living off of blogs.

But there are also those who are experimenting with business models for blogs. One I think has a future is print science journals, like Discover and Scientific American, supplementing their print content with science blogs. Our own Phil Plait, for example, now blogs for Discover Magazine.

But I also have an appreciation for what blogs are not. Blogs tend to be quickly written, down and dirty articles. They are not the kind of feature articles that one would spend days or weeks writing. I have written those as well, often combining the work of many blog entries into a single longer article that is much more carefully written and referenced.

What this means is that the immediacy and accessibility of blogs are great, but there is still a role for more thorough works, and perhaps there is room for those longer articles in print – at least for a while.

Another legitimate concern is that we still need full-time professional journalists, which means that there needs to be a business model that allows journalists to live off their reporting. I cannot, in my spare time, do much primary journalistic investigation. I provide mostly analysis of news, not primary investigation. Without professional investigative journalists digging up the facts and telling the story, what news stories will bloggers analyze?

Science bloggers will always have the published literature to review. I also occasionally interview scientists about their research. But I cannot do a long-term in depth investigation.

That, in my opinion, is the real risk, and why, though I share some of Johnson’s optimism, I think there is a real risk to the transition. If journalism as a profession, especially science journalism, cannot be financially sustained through the transition, much may be lost.

In the end I think we will have a blend of online and print news. Experimentation will explore various models and in the end we will have something much better.

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19 Responses to “Is Journalism Dead?”

  1. SeanJJordan says:

    Local newspapers still have something of a legitimate function — many of them print legal notices required by law and are partially supported by local government funds as a result. They’ll be able to weather the storm.

    But the big papers are falling apart because they’ve been run not as businesses, but as institutions. They’ve relied on the presence of advertising (particularly classifieds) without adjusting to the new media, and they’ve gone out of their way to make content freely available online, where they’re not able to realize any significant income. In other words, they’ve slit their own throats by caving into demand for free online content, but refusing to adapt their business models appropriately.

    The free news will eventually dry up, and demand for good journalism will resurface. I’m wondering if news is eventually going to be socialized (I hope not!) or if it’s going to be publicly funded, like NPR already is.

  2. Drew says:

    This is coming off the top of my head, but I wonder if the future of media will be more bipolar: if you want quick information you go to do the somewhat more superficial medium of blogs, and if you want something clean and in depth you read a book.

  3. DocB says:

    I agree that it’s a transitional period, and many newspapers won’t make it. If we are lucky most of the newspapers that go down will be the ones that now try to save themselves by appealing to the lowest common denominator. I am not interested in infotainment, and I surely won’t pay for it. On the otehr hand, I currently have paid subscriptions for three scientific magazines, and these seem to do pretty well.

    Maybe we will find that there is a market for quality journalism, be it about politics or science. So in the long run the national newspapers may move to the net, and only specialised publications (local newspapers, science magazines, the Sceptical Enquirer) can afford to stick to paper.

  4. KNWachter says:

    The $42 question is how to make money off of online content. There are some ideas but no one really has any answers yet.

    You’re right that there will always be a need for professional reporters. No blogger in their right mind would sit through a mind-numbingly boring city council meeting or FDA advisory committee meeting withoug getting paid for it.

    For me, the attractiveness of blogs is that they allow reporters to tell the stories that don’t usually get published. My colleagues and I have been experimenting with this in our blog about medical meetings(EGMN: Notes from the Road).

  5. Anonymous says:

    In so far as journalism is dead, I think the traditional news media killed it. And not very recently either. As early as around 2000 (I can’t remember the exact date) I terminated my subscription to my newspaper (let’s call it the People’s Paper) because it had turned into essentially a propaganda rag for one of the political parties and its leader in particular. For a week on end, every single front-page story was clearly doctored in that way. It was a rather sudden transition and I was severly disappointed. I shopped around for a replacement, but (let’s call them) the Telegraph, Fides and Daily Paper didn’t really ‘taste’ believable or thorough anymore either. And the television news is even worse. Real reporting is almost not done anymore, press releases are shown in the news without comment, the news constantly takes sides (presumably hoping to attract viewers that agree with them), important developments aren’t reported if they don’t have a strong visual component that can be filmed (and shown in less than three minutes at that), and don’t get me started about ‘let’s ask a random person on the market square what should be done about such-and-such complex political issue’. It’s not all bad though, some channels in neighbouring states still do a half decent job.

  6. MadScientist says:

    If everyone wants the news but doesn’t want to pay for it, and companies don’t see any benefit in running ads, then governments will have to take over the production of news just as governments run the weather beureaus. Mmm … government run news. Hello Pravda! I may consider paying a small subscription fee to read the online news – after all, I know my money won’t be wasted as with the Dead Tree Scrolls because there’s no lazy monkey to hurl my newspaper into the neighbor’s swimming pool. I haven’t subscribed to newspapers for years because they weren’t being delivered properly and the newspaper office didn’t seem the least bit interested in assuring that I received my paper in good condition or that I even received my paper at all.

  7. Mully410 says:

    I’ll miss readying my newspaper in the bathroom. It’s just not same as reading news on my phone. Plus, it’s no big deal if the paper falls into the toilet by accident.

  8. beche-la-mer says:

    My take on this, as a journalist, is at my blog. I think the biggest issue is that, when it’s cheap or free, we as readers don’t care enough about the quality.

  9. Max says:

    Time isn’t free, though.

  10. Donald says:

    There’s a UK journalist, Nick Davies, who has written a book on this subject: Flat Earth News. He also hosts a website into what he calls ‘churnalism’ which is the churning out of re-hashed stories from sources such as the web and wire services. On the flip side we have people like Ben Goldacre who has the ‘Bad Science’ column in the Guardian. Is the glass half full or empty?

  11. Paul Caggegi says:

    What about the online presence of print publications? Don’t many journalists who work for the national papers, or popular magazines write blogs freely available via the websites of the publications they work for? I know that to be true of Australian publications, at the very least, but I assumed we took our cue from U.S trends.

    I am a fan of many graphics magazines, and they offer a great deal of free, online material. Being a new fan of the skeptical movement, I have noticed that Skeptic Magazine has a pretty awesome online presence which constantly pimps the print version (including a certain skeptical podcast).

    I won’t be presumptuous to speak knowledgeably about scientific journals, and correct me if I say anything wrong here: but I would assume that the respected brands so far known in their print incarnations would attract similar respect were they to transfer their publication online.

    Perhaps articles could still be reviewed before they are posted on the blogs, thereby maintaining their integrity? Or a new type of review process could emerge altogether, where bloggers are peer-reviewed on a global scale. A sort of… natural selection would see the least respected become marginalized and eventually die off, whereas the more respected would prevail. A financial incentive could be put in place, based on the number of favorable reviews.

    As far as I know, the podosphere has worked like this for the past few years.

    I’m actually encouraged that new media will open up the reach of respected brands of publications, and quacks and opinion bloggers will remain known as just that.

  12. Journalism isn’t dead. It just wears a clown suit, big red nose and floppy shoes at times. It’s much like the design industry. With years of experience, you’d prefer to do things your way but your employer and their client have a totally different idea.

  13. Die Anyway says:

    Nope, I don’t have the solution but I can certainly pinpoint the problem. Newspapers are so damn inefficient. If you live in a large metropolitan area the Sunday paper is a 2″ (or more), several pound, stack of newsprint. Seventy per cent of it is ads. I know, the ads pay for the production cost, but the inefficiency is so overwhelming. Most of the ads are for products or services that I’ll never buy. Either the product is something I just don’t use or there is a vendor who is closer. Or there is a third possibility… it’s something I would like to buy and would buy from that vendor but I don’t see the ad in all of that clutter. Totally wasted ads, totally wasted paper. Of the 30% that is actually readable content, what part am I interested in? Not the part about the plight of taxicab drivers in New Delhi. Not the story about mud slides in Peru. Not the obituaries. Not the celebration of overpaid athletes. Not the fawning over entertainment celebrities. When it gets down to it, out of several hundred pages of print, the parts I want or can use could be printed on 4 pages. I no longer take the local paper. I hated that I was destroying trees just to send stacks of paper to the landfill. I regretted the time spent digging through page after page of garbage looking for the bits I cared about. Whatever the question is, newspapers are not the answer.

  14. Gihan Perera says:

    Andrew Keen, in his book The Cult of the Amateur, takes a fairly pessimistic view on this topic. It’s exactly what Steven (Novella) is saying here in this post.

    Like it or not, professional journalism adds a layer of quality to the publishing process. OK, we can argue about “quality”, but you know what I mean. There’s a process of university qualification, media regulation, ethics, licensing and legislation that doesn’t bind us “citizen journalists”. That’s good and bad, of course, but the bad might be very bad.

    For instance, in Australia recently, after our horrific bush fires, somebody was arrested for arson, and a court order prevented media outlets from publishing his name. But some irresponsible idiots discovered his name and published it in blogs, Facebook groups, etc. Not only is this unfair to the accused (who is after all innocent until proven guilty), it also prejudices his chances of a fair trail – so the outraged citizen journalists might actually be shooting themselves in the foot.

  15. Paul M says:

    As Steven has pointed out on the SGU, there is also another dimension to this. The quality of science journalism sucks, period, and the internet has nothing to do with that. The idea that there are “two sides” to every story forces a writer to take a story about science, find some nonsensical/pseudoscientific view of an “alternative” and thereby elevate it to have equal standing and leave the reader on their own to decide for themselves what is right. In this regard, science blogging and the internet have been hugely successful at standing up for science.

    The flap over the “Darwin was Wrong” story in New Scientist in January is an excellent example of the pandering of the old print media in order to sell a sexy cover story, and then getting a royal smackdown on the internet for their shoddy work and explaining the truth.

  16. Action News says:

    I’ve spent my entire career as a TV man, starting out when I was just 19 years old. I’m also married to a newspaper reporter, so I have a unique perspective on the situation.

    To say journalism is dead is simply not true, but we’re on life support and our family is debating whether to pull the plug.

    On the television side, I think you’re going to see a dramatic shift in how the news is presented. Already networks are talking about pulling out of the local markets and simply pumping out their content over cable. Saves them money and they can better control the content. That would be disaster for local stations.

    Younger and younger TV reporters and producers are going on TV and telling you the news. Trust me, with the exception of the national nets, you can’t trust a word that comes out of these kids mouths. I’m in a major market, and I see recent college grads struggling to tell the city about free dental care at the local college. Forget about useful science reporting or explaining the bailout package…

    If you haven’t already waved goodbye to useful content on local news, now would be a good time. The simple and superficial is here to stay.

    The newspapers are even more screwed. Their bloated newsrooms simply can’t sustain current staffing levels with the loss of classified ads. Massive layoffs will continue and the news will get more and more thin. Outlets will go online only, like the Seattle PI, but I know the online game very well and I’m curious how they’re going to make a cent.

    With the paper’s gone, TV will suffer even more. Why are all of the local station’s stories the same? Because they steal them from the morning paper…

    In both TV and print, you’ll see less and less hard hitting, investigative journalism. It’s simply too expensive. My prediction… In 10-15 years, newspapers will be mostly gone, replaced by a few online sites that do well (both monetarily and with regard to journalism) and the 5 p.m. news will be gone, replaced by a daily “newscast” that is sent to your phone, iPod, TiVo, OnDemand, or the computer you have hooked up to your TV.

    It’s a brutal world out here…

  17. The death of journalism, should it happen, will be suicide.

  18. Sean Kinn says:

    All the newspaper industry has to do to save itself is to re-train staff. If individual freelance bloggers are pulling in $15K a month in AdSense advertisements, what would that do for a re-configured newspaper industry? Newspapers already have text gurus in place; it’s just a matter of instructing the writers and reporters on correct Web 2.0 Article Submission techniques, Web 2.0 Comments, SEO — in general, on how to treat their paper like a Web 2.0 Blog — to leverage the position they already have within their local communities. Heck, one person could start a Web 2.0 Newspaper in a town like Chicago and put the remaining mainstream online and paper newspapers out of business. SK

  19. The Old Quill says:

    After 26 years of working in the newspaper industry, I found that the concept of collating news has evolved into a middle class ‘what would my Mother-in-Law want’ way of Journalism.

    Reporters don’t seek out news from the lower end of society, the newsroom budget cannot afford it and over the years, as the younger Journalists came into the trade, it became acceptable not to report on what goes on in the ‘standard’ everyday world.

    Celeb-watching, The Royals and the ‘Man-Bites-Dog’ story have became the ingredients for a format that a second-generation of Journalists see as the norm.

    It is dead, the body has succumb to the nature of decay and changed into a shape that’s barely recognisable, but seems less grotesque than before.
    After years of spoon-feeding the populace this mild-mannered Clark Kent way of Journalism, folk now read and watch a version of story telling that they would have baulked at back in the 60′s.

    Rest In Peace.