Posted by: tksellman | January 11, 2009

Interesting Times for Writers of the Times

Our local-yokel newspaper, the Bainbridge Review, which appears twice a week in our community, has recently adopted a once-weekly production cycle. Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has gone on the block on the other side of the Puget Sound, and if they don’t sell the paper, they’ll stop production and “live” on the web. It is no longer unthinkable to imagine The New York Times going under.

This really isn’t “news,” so to speak. The decline of the newspaper as a media presence has been apparent for a good while now. Who’s to blame? Bloggers? Americans? Reporters? Editors? The economy? The president?

Probably all of these. And none of these.

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We’re at a crossroads in the Information Age.

• Consumers have become electronically savvy and demand several different ways to download packages of the information they most want. 

• This creates an expensive learning curve for the media, which would like to meet the needs of its consumers while still being able to pay its bills, yet it functions on a pre-web model that’s grown increasingly irrelevant.

• Competition is more fierce than ever before: the Internet makes it possible for anyone to download customized, packaged content that’s freely accessible to news consumers.

There’s something beautifully democratic about these developments. And I think it’s that beautifully democratic thing that’s going to tip the scales in favor of content development by independent journalists working the arena of digital media.

In fact, choosing to report as a digital journalist may become one of the best ways for a writer to make a difference in the world. Think of all the media outlets still looking for content:

ONLINE NEWSPAPERS
So-called “newspapers” will continue to be called “newspapers” even as they move off the paper diet and onto the web (and we’ll have to explain to our children that “in the olden days, the news came to you on several pieces of folded paper”). No decent paper functions without a companion website as well. They’ll need writers, page designers, copyeditors, proofreaders, and content editors.

Whether they continue to report the news in the same way will remain to be seen. It’s one thing to provide a public service by reporting on the weather , sports, and traffic; but for the tougher, more deeply textured news and issues of our times, newswriters of old-style journalism now must learn to compete with the empowerment and entitlement of bloggers.

Listen, when even a newspaper’s writers and editors are checking The Huffington Post before they check their own newsrooms for the latest, you know something’s out of sync with traditional journalism. 

BLOGS
The blog is alive and well and mainstream readers of all ages and inclinations are starting to see the value of aggregated news sources; that is, customized news sources subscribed to electronically through a reader. You could start your own newsblog, for free, right now, and no one would stop you. It’s that easy. Maintaining a blog, and finding readers, are the additional challenges facing bloggers (beyond clear and intelligent writing, good journalistic ethics, a sense of community responsibility, truth and fairness as twin missions, and strong fact-checking and technical skills).

(I didn’t say it would be easier to be a blogger, just easy to set one up!)

PUBLISHING
Nonfiction books and magazines of both interpretive journalism and investigative nonfiction continue to be popular. I know I tire of two inches of copy written on a complicated issue and prefer expanded coverage in the form of a lengthy article or even a book, when a subject warrants it.

Even if newspapers (and magazines) go paperless, all it means is that people will read them via Kindles or as downloadable files they can save and keep in their own digital libraries.

This sounds like a dream to me, as a writer. Once these articles and books are digitized, I can search their text from the comfort of my home computer at any time and with reasonably few fees or obstacles.

TELEVISION & RADIO
The fact is that people still “consume” news even if they aren’t reading it. They still watch it on traditional TV news channels, they still listen to it on the radio, and both satellite radio and TV have their own specialized news programs.

If you study news journalism, you also study broadcast journalism. They’re no longer separate entities. In J-school, you learn to write articles, sure, but you also learn how to write concise scripts that work into the segmented architecture of media broadcasts. The talking heads aren’t ad-libbing, after all; they’re reading it on a teleprompter or hearing it through a wireless earpiece.

ALTERNATIVE MEDIA
And let’s not forget all the alternative news media sources out there, aka citizen journalism, which depends upon independent reporting from individuals for the bulk of its content. They “live” in places like low-band FM, public access TV, YouTube, and iTunes.

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What do all these forms of media have in common? Writers. Even when news is broadcast through audio or visual channels, it’s still written first.

Because of these changes in the architecture of our media delivery systems, one thing we can expect is that there will be more patience of and demand for original reporting that breaks down old media rules and standards. That might mean more “passionate” or “subjective” journalists (versus “dispassionate” or “objective” reporters), writers with less training but with more motivation to get at the truth of an issue, and the sacrificing of lots of old rules about editing and formatting text that will no longer matter so much. 

For instance, if it’s true that space is limitless for articles on the web, then old rules about how many spaces to put after the period and whether you use the final serial comma become moot.

It’s also going to mean more instances of purposefully uneven reporting, sins of omission, sloppy stylistic standards, and attempts to plagiarize or slander.

(My hope is that consumers of media, not just content producers, will begin to embrace the idea of media literacy as a required skill, like reading or writing, as a result.)

But there will be bright shining moments of star reportage, too, and brave new ways to broadcast the truth.

The point is this: if you’ve ever thought that you’d like to be a newswriter, now might be the best time to jump into the trade. It’s going to be a clunky ride as the forms of media sort themselves out; as new media leaders stretch, break or reaffirm old rules (I hope, if nothing else, that they bring back the fine art of factchecking!); and consumers of news have more chance to vocalize what it is they want from news services, regardless of medium.

But it’s also a broad new horizon for writers, where opportunity awaits those who are willing to take a chance. Writers hungry enough for it may take a few hits running through the new news gauntlet, but then, so will they reap all the spoils.

If you decide to go there yourself, send us a postcard, eh?

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Responses

  1. Intriguing post, Tamara!

    I’ve been thinking of expanding the base for my profiles of writers and community activists. That is, in my next life–after the novel. I am looking for online sites that will be interested in profiles. Please send all relevant links my way!


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