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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.
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doom, but I think Brock is right when he argues that “this picture of deterioration is one-dimensional, incomplete and out of date,” and that journalism is flourishing if you know where to look.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
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.