A False Rivalry  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   June/July 2006

A False Rivalry   

They may not realize it, but print and online journalists have a common cause.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


There's a big misunderstanding between traditional and new-media journalists. It's clouding our conversations about the future of news and creating acrimony when we need solidarity.

It starts with the word "newspapers." When the dignitaries of print howl about the decline of newspapers, members of other media and younger generations yawn or chuckle at what sounds like the irrelevant noise of shortsighted, self-interested dinosaurs. That might be a fair assessment if the print people are mourning the crumbling business structure built around ink and paper. And some of them are.

However, many of them are using newspapers as shorthand for the types of journalism the best papers represent: Serious investigative and foreign reporting. Muckraking and watchdogging. Daily community news that nobody else covers. When editors protest the terrible things happening to newspapers, they're warning us that quality journalism is in jeopardy.

They might be surprised to learn that not everyone gets the message. To bloggers, disgruntled readers and some new-media journalists, "newspapers" evoke less noble images: Last night's news. Messy ink and wasted paper. Insular arrogance. Opposition to progress. Why would we care if they go away?

Unfortunately, the print defenders usually bury themselves in the next breath by saying something bitter about the Internet siphoning away readers. As if online news is part of the problem. That attitude is underscored by the resources thrown at efforts to revive print subscriptions, while Web budgets remain achingly low.

It must be tempting to blame online publishing for some of the changes happening in print newsrooms and set up a "print versus Internet" rivalry. But it's a false rivalry, and it's damaging in several ways.

First, there's no reason to believe the future of journalism depends on newsprint, or that online news is inherently cheap and shallow. That suggestion is a sure sign of dinosaur thinking and an insult to the many people doing important journalism on the Web. It's also an insult to online viewers, who are just as hungry for the latest news from Iran as they are for updates on Tom and Katie's baby. As we all know, news on the Internet can be important and influential; print journalism can be fluffy and trite. Newspapers were fighting pressures to make cheaper news long before the Internet showed up.

Second, when the conversation focuses on newspapers, it allows other journalists to feel unaffected, when they're not. Other media have always depended on the reporting of newspaper journalists and none has relied on newspapers as much as online news has. Yet if online journalists are paying attention to the breakup of Knight Ridder, it's usually with detached interest or even mild satisfaction. Because they've been made to feel like suspicious interlopers in so many newsrooms, it's not easy for online journalists to see how closely their interests are aligned with the state of newspapers. The connection should be obvious, but it's not.

Finally, the language of rivalry allows print journalists to think of the Internet as something alien and threatening. When it comes to reaching audience, the Web is actually the best thing that could have happened to newspaper journalism. Important reporting can have far wider distribution and greater impact than ever before. When Hurricane Katrina struck, temporarily stopping the presses of New Orleans' Times-Picayune, the paper's Web site became a national news source overnight. A significant amount of traffic to NOLA.com still comes from displaced storm victims in other states. If print newsrooms take a hostile stance toward the Internet, they're throwing away their best opportunity for growth.

Of course, audience growth is different from revenue growth. In that respect, newspapers are in a very bad spot. Much of the trouble has to do with audience behavior and high profit demands. Some of it has to do with the Internet but not in a way that warrants tension between print and online journalists. The Internet poses the same economic challenges to all of us. If we, as an industry, can't figure out how to make enough money on news Web sites to support a fair share of newsgathering costs with a profit to boot we all go down together. Our wagons are hitched.

Those who worry about the future of newspapers might gain more support by speaking inclusively about the types of journalism they wish to preserve: doing Pulitzer-worthy reporting, informing the public, challenging power, covering communities. And they should acknowledge that online journalists and yes, citizen journalists might be their best allies in preserving those principles. Sadly, newspapers have come to represent very different things to different groups but our ideas about good journalism are surprisingly similar.

Would a more harmonious relationship between old and new media save newspapers from savage budget cuts? Probably not. But it could help the public understand what's really at stake and draw a few more allies to the cause.

Maybe the dinosaurs have something important to say, after all. It's about the journalism, not the paper.

###