If you’re convinced this is the worst possible time to be a journalist, there’s plenty of evidence to support you: just this week, there have been cutbacks at the New York Post and news of cuts at the venerable Village Voice, not to mention periodic bankruptcies and printing-press shutdowns. But if you believe this is the best time to be in media, there’s plenty of evidence to support that as well, as Ann Friedman outlined in a recent piece for the Columbia Journalism Review.
Friedman is no stranger to the vicissitudes of modern media — she was laid off as the editor of GOOD magazine last year, after the publication decided to pivot and become a kind of social network for user-generated content. But in her CJR piece, she describes how on a recent speaking tour she grew frustrated with the numbers of people complaining about a lack of jobs, a lack of money and the rise of short-attention-span media like Twitter:
“Again and again, I found myself playing the role of cheerleader, trying to convince tired and broke journalists to get excited about the future of media.”
There is far more good than bad
As the CJR columnist acknowledges, it can be hard to motivate journalists — or anyone in the field of media — when reports from research outfits like the Pew Center lay out in bald detail how the business model for much of what we think of as the mainstream media is rapidly disintegrating, with nothing obvious to take its place, and when the number of journalists employed in newsrooms is lower than it has been at any time since the 1950s.
But Friedman argues — I think fairly persuasively — that there are far more benefits available to journalists now than there have ever been, if they choose to see and make use of them. Among other things, she lists:
Reporters have more access to sources: Thanks to the web, social media and other tools, “it’s never been easier to find and reach out to anyone.” This is unequivocally true, especially with the number of potential sources who have their own blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc.
Consumers have access to more media: Your job may have been more secure in the past, Friedman says, but now if you have something to say you have the ability to reach a much larger group of readers, and they have much more choice (this is also one argument against paywalls, she says).
Journalists get more engagement: Reporters used to work for years with little or no response from or engagement with readers (which some no doubt preferred), but now you get more feedback than you could ever want. Says Friedman: “I know a lot of journalists hate this, but it’s a good thing.”
Chaos promotes creativity: When traditional paths to professional success are closed, Friedman argues, “those of us who love journalism so much we’d never give up are forced to redefine success – and our methods of seeking it.” And there are more routes to success than ever before.
Disruption also produces opportunity
To some, this may all have a certain Pollyanna-ish feel to it, but I think Friedman is right — and in many ways she is saying something similar to what Matt Yglesias at Slate argued recently, when he responded to the Pew Center report and said that in his view news consumers were better off than they had ever been (although many disagreed). Jay Rosen made a similar case for why the internet is good for journalism in a debate hosted by the Economist in 2011.
Yes, much of the traditional media business is in turmoil, and the road to profitability — or even survival, for some — is far from clear. And it’s easy to look at the chaos of social media and “citizen journalism” during something like the Boston bombings or Hurricane Sandy and assume that we are much worse off, both as journalists and as news consumers (an argument I have tried to counter). And there is no question that many bad things come with the good.
But as Friedman argues, that same chaotic environment is what produces new things, many of which may grow to become powerful and positive tools for journalism — in some cases better than the ones we have. It’s easy to succumb to the gloom, but the reality is that while disruption of the kind the media world is experiencing creates great upheaval, it also creates great opportunity.