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Summary:

As journalism professor George Brock points out, the newspaper industry has been in decline since long before the internet came along — and journalism is doing fine if you know where to look.

Among the pieces of conventional wisdom that get trotted out whenever the subject of the newspaper industry’s decline comes up, one of the most popular is that the internet is the main culprit: in some cases, it’s the entire internet, and in some cases it’s specific web services like Craigslist. But while the democratization of distribution and the atomization of content have definitely accelerated the decline, journalism professor George Brock argues that newspapers have been on a slippery slope for some time, and that what journalism is going through is a natural evolution rather than a disaster.

Brock — who runs the journalism program at City University in London, England — makes these points in a book he recently published, but also laid some of them out in a blog post entitled “Spike the gloom — journalism has a bright future.” Everyone has a favorite example of the decline of the industry, he says, such as the sale of the Boston Globe for 97 percent less than it sold for two decades ago or the massive rounds of layoffs that continue to sweep through the business.

inquirer-newsroom-cropped

Newspapers are not the same as journalism

It’s certainly easy to find that kind of evidence of doom, but I think Brock is right when he argues that “this picture of deterioration is one-dimensional, incomplete and out of date,” and that journalism is flourishing if you know where to look. Among the key points he makes in the post:

Journalism is always reinventing itself: Journalism “is forced to re-invent itself at regular intervals” and always has done so, Brock says, whenever the changing context of economics, law, technology and culture shifts the ground beneath it. “Re-invention and experiment are the only constants in journalism’s history.”

Newspapers are not the same as journalism: Journalists confuse the two, says Brock, but the golden age of newspaper journalism in the second half of the 20th century “was, in reality, a long commercial decline. British national papers reached their peak total circulation in the early 1950s.”

Television killed more papers than the internet: More papers were killed off by the arrival of television “than have ever been closed by competition from the internet,” Brock says. The internet made things worse, and helped kill classified ad revenue in particular, but “the decline of print began before the internet was built.”

Demand for news is strong and growing: Newspapers may not be benefiting, but the demand for news remains strong, says Brock. “What has imploded is the effectiveness of the business model of large, general-interest daily papers which require news reporting to be cross-subsidised by advertising revenue.”

Journalism is doing just fine thanks

NYT newspaper stand

Brock goes on to say that some big journalism brands will be able to adapt and some will not — and meanwhile, some of what he calls “the insurgents of news publishing” will go on to become the giants of the future. Among those insurgents, he says, are sites like Talking Points Memo, The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed — the latter of which is following a familiar pattern of disruption by starting with something that is seen as trival or outside the norm and then gradually building on that and moving further into the mainstream.

In many ways, Brock’s arguments are similar to those advanced by Business Insider founder Henry Blodget in a post about how we are in a “golden age for journalism” — a phrase that Arianna Huffington has also used a number of times to describe the innovation that is occurring in online media. Even New York Times media critic David Carr described the current environment that way during a Q & A last year in Toronto, saying Twitter and other forms of citizen journalism are having a largely positive impact, despite their flaws.

And Brock’s point about BuzzFeed is a good one as well: while the site has been widely criticized for being infantile and/or irrelevant, and many mainstream journalists have scoffed at the idea that it could become anything but a place for cat GIFS, the company is profitable and growing rapidly, and founder Jonah Peretti says it is investing heavily in both breaking news and long-form investigative journalism — something few if any traditional media entities are doing.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Feng Yu, Will Steacy and Flickr user Monik Marcus

  1. Excellent piece. I would say, though, that in smaller markets, newspapers are in fact the same as journalism. Talking Points Memo, The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed don’t mean much in 30,000-person Midwestern towns.

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  2. This article is inaccurate. We want well educated, well paid people without bias to do our journalism not bedroom bloggers with an agenda. How are journalists gonna be able to do accurate work if they have to sell/pitch all the time?

    Even if news is found in other forms such as blogs and news sites now a days. its not as professional (comprehensibility, reflecting) as before.

    I don’t read paper magazines myself and i think there’s god to come out of the increasing interest in more widespread media. But i react when i see blogs posting inaccurate and untrue content just to make their stand point more valid. That’s not pragmatic. You’re not pragmatic!

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    1. anon,

      do you think a journalist at a newspaper doesn’t have to “sell/pitch all the time” to his boss?

      Also, you generalize when you imply that newspaper & TV journalists are “well educated … without bias”.

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  3. Journalism will prosper if publishers let it. The threat is that commercial pressures drive publishers to give priority to native advertising/content marketing over ‘pure’ journalism. It’s good to see that Buzzfeed is investing in breaking news and long-form investigative journalism, because those elements certainly aren’t part of the current set up.

    Phil Whomes
    http://www.phlwhomes.com

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  4. Small newspapers became a profitable venture for larger newspapers for some time, because of them being able to consolidate some technical operations and many of the management operations of small newspapers. Their investments were not about meeting reader expectations but rather about making money. Their house of cards was unstable at best, and no one in the industry seemed to have a clue as to when and where the train went off the tracks, the happening of which made their house of cards start to crumble. Finally, other means of advertising appearing on the scene, as well as other means through which people could get their news, slammed the door for large newspapers to ever go back and fix the tracks.

    There will continue to be a sell-off of newspapers at a price where buyers can buy, fix the tracks, serve their readers, and make an honest profit as well.
    Lloyd Wold

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  5. Denise Lockwood Monday, September 9, 2013

    There’s also a huge difference between community journalism and sites that just regurgitate the views of their audience back to them as a form of mental masturbation. As a community journalist, it’s frustrating when the discussion around “journalism” skews only to HuffPo, BuzzFeed, Slate, and TalkingPoints. But then we talk about sites like Patch and say… ohhh… they just couldn’t get the audience, it was a failed business model and who needs community journalism anyway. We’re all just fine with the big boys talking about big “journalism.”

    More accurately, big journalism is fine… if you want to know how many times Obama went golfing, how many pictures Weiner sent to his latest girl, or Paul Ryan’s thoughts on Social Security or Syria.

    Community journalism is not fine… if you want to know about disciplinary problems in your kid’s school the past few years, the heroin problem plaguing the community, the shortage in police staffing or when that road (which has been closed for two years) will ever open. That stuff is falling by the wayside. How do I know? Because I ran a Patch site where, until we started writing about this stuff, the local newspaper didn’t even show up to the meetings.

    You are right in saying that the demand is there. I ran a site for Patch for a community that had 20,000 people over the age of 18 and consistently had 30,000 unique visitors on a monthly basis. Our local newspaper only had a circulation of 40,000 for a county of 200,000. I call that a success. But we really never frame strong arguments around community journalism this way because we still think the only news we need is “big journalism.”

    And I can tell you… it’s both. We need both.

    Denise Lockwood
    Former Caledonia.Patch.com editor

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    1. Thanks for the insight.

      Your example shows that traditional journalists need a kick in the butt from time to time, and only we can give it to them. Just like independent media called out the MSM when the NYT was pumping Judith Millers Iraq lies, you called out your local journos not paying attention to things important to your community. I say well done.

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  6. I’m always amused when academics like Mr. Brock — who gets a paycheck from City University — say that journalism is doing fine. I work with experienced journalists who have a master’s degree from Columbia or NYU but are struggling on $25,000 a year after taxes. Is that “doing fine”? No, it isn’t, especially in a major city where living costs are high. Unlike Darwin’s “survival of the fittest,” where the strongest and most capable survive a challenging environment, what we’re now seeing in journalism is the “survival of the weakest,” where mediocre people are all that’s left after smart and talented professionals leave journalism to move into more rewarding careers — like academics.

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  7. Less income for newspapers means smaller, overworked newsrooms. That means stories that deserve coverage go unreported. That means the subscribers are getting less for their money. They drop off and so do advertisers, reaching a shrinking audience. TV and the Internet can NOT support newsrooms like the big city newspapers once did. Thus they spend more time on the weather than real news.The downward spiral continues.

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