Getting Over Ourselves  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   June/July 2006

Getting Over Ourselves   

The media landscape has changed irrevocably. Let’s accept it, and fight to preserve what truly matters.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It's time to climb out of that slough of despond.

The newspaper business has changed irrevocably. The combination of the Internet (and the ensuing change in the habits of news consumers) and Wall Street profit pressures means that there's no going back. Life simply will be different.

In the wonderful movie "Beautiful Girls," Marty (played by Natalie Portman) quite aptly tells Willie C. (Timothy Hutton) that he's a "dude in flux." Well if there ever were a business in flux, it's the newspaper business.

Back in the '80s, Los Angeles Times staffers reacted to the latest perceived outrage by saying that things would be different if only the sainted former Publisher Otis Chandler were still around. One day editor Noel Greenwood had heard enough. "Otis has gone surfing," he said, "and he's never coming back."

So, yeah, different. But different doesn't necessarily mean the end of the world.

Lots of people have commented on how gloomy everyone seemed at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Seattle in April. And with all the battered budgets (and real-life consequences that come with them) and depressing circulation numbers, there are plenty of reasons for dejection.

But I have a sense that there's something else in the air as well.

In her insightful piece in this issue, AJR Managing Editor Rachel Smolkin examines the survival strategies that newspaper companies are embracing (see "Adapt or Die"). And she finds that a rough consensus has emerged:

Yes, newspapers will endure, certainly in the near term. But their role will change dramatically. They'll have to be open to new ideas and to reaching consumers in unconventional ways. They'll be the "engine" that drives a panoply of products including an array of Web sites, podcasts, vodcasts, niche publications and who knows what else.

Much of this, of course, has been simmering for quite some time, and some newspaper companies have jumped in far more quickly than others. The American Press Institute's Newspaper Next initiative is an important catalyst. And the Knight Ridder endgame, which showed in the starkest of terms how profoundly the world has changed, concentrated everyone's attention.

My friend (and AJR contributor) Marc Fisher's life offers up a snapshot of the new landscape. Marc writes a local column for the Washington Post, blogs daily on the paper's Web site, appears regularly on Washington Post Radio and does frequent online chats.

Of course, the thorny issue of how – or if – to compensate journalists for extra work must be resolved, but that's another story, or column.

The critical question isn't how news is delivered. It's what is delivered.

In a powerful speech at ASNE, John S. Carroll, one of the very best editors of our era, mercilessly dissected the nefarious impact of public ownership on newspapers and raised the horrifying specter of a world without public-service journalism (see "A Call to Arms").

If our multifaceted future means no room for powerful watchdog reporting, who – besides the shareholders – could possibly care what happens to newspaper companies?

But the inevitable Gary Pruitt of McClatchy, the closest thing the embattled newspaper business has to a rock star, insists that it's not either/or. Sure, he told Smolkin, you need a continuous news desk in the newsroom to deal with breaking news for the Web. But, he added, "there are others doing in-depth, investigative pieces. This is not mutually exclusive. We're going to have to do all of it. We can't abandon one for the other, because that will weaken the core newspaper."

Not long ago it was my pleasure to judge the Newspaper Guild's Heywood Broun Awards. Our winner was a terrific Los Angeles Times piece by reporters Matt Lait and Scott Glover. Their story, "A Case of Doubt," shredded the case against Bruce Lisker, in jail for the 1983 slaying of his mother.

Lait and Glover spent seven months on their investigation. They even got the prosecutor, now retired, to visit the crime scene with them, to make clear a key piece of defense evidence in the case – discredited at Lisker's trial – was actually valid.

After the awards dinner in early May, I spent some time with Lait and Glover and their cool wives. We solved many of journalism's pressing problems and extolled the virtues of seriously hoppy beer.

A week later, I got an e-mail from Lait. A federal magistrate had ruled that the case against Lisker had been "effectively dismantled" and that he should be allowed to pursue his claim of innocence.

Whether it's delivered via newsprint, television, radio, computer, cell phone, PDA or some version of those "tablets" innovator Roger Fidler has been talking about since what seems like the Korean War, there has to be room for this kind of meticulous, time-consuming, deeply important journalism.

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