May 14, 2009

Department stores, newspapers and journalists no longer necessary?

Last week, the Buzz Bin posted old news: Newspapers are like Department Stores. It's just one more of many opinion pieces explaining why the printed product is failing. Still head over to the Buzz Bin post to learn why the mall is like the internet and why two mass market products, newspapers and department stores are failing rapidly. It's a post documented with links.

The comparison between newspapers and department stores isn't new to those who read That's the Press, Baby, a blog that carries the tagline "The future of newspapers, copy editing, and how it all relates, like everything else, to department stores."

David Sullivan, a full-time journalist since 1975 and recently home from the American Society of Copy Editors conference, has long been interested in department stores as well as journalism.

In his latest post, he recalls a time at The Flint Journal when local news copy editors were deemed unnecessary. That memory is just part of a post that looks at the dustup over the Tribune Co.'s layoff of design and copy editors and moves on to look at the jobs required in news organizations. Those future jobs will require some sort of copy editor because it's wrong to believe:
"that reporting staffs of the future are going to be composed of flawless wordsmiths whose writing will tumble into pre-formatted spaces in print or online, with little benefit of human intervention."
Sullivan explains that the Gods of Newspapers "made copy editors to make copy better, approachable, intelligible, and well presented. They are journalists, not mechanics."

He encourages copy editors to break out of past patterns and make sure the editors above them realize that copy editing is an editing job, one that will help information produced by trained and talented journalists stand out in the flow of information delivered online and off.

Sullivan's post starts off with another line of thought that I think a growing number of people in and outside of the industry are spending more time on: Are journalists really that special?

Sullivan says "Readers could give a flying fig" about who Steve Yelvington, Charles Apple or TTPB are and their dispute about the need for copy or design editors.

The idea of journalists having a better opinion of themselves than their audiences came up in discussions following Michigan State University's ReThink the News symposium. Three groups spent time dreaming what the news product needs to be and how to get there. A common theme in the reporting out of those ideas was the need to do a better job of promoting the value that journalists bring to the table.

There also was an overwhelming thread that the businesses now producing news are the ones best qualified to keep providing the community good of news coverage if funding can be found.

But maybe funding isn't the real issue.

Dave Winer is not the first to suggest "journalists are already an anachronism." Over on his Scripting News, he suggests that journalists need to believe their value was permanent, much like homeowners need to believe that the value of their houses is what they paid for them.
"I own a home myself, it's worth a lot less than I paid for it. I'm not happy about that, but as an adult I accept it. The same kind of acceptance is required of everyone who earns a living in journalism. And the higher up the ladder you climbed in your career, the harder that must be to accept."
Winer is exploring the idea of cleansing journalism in Rebooting the News #9, and why mainstream media is lashing out at him for arguing for change:
"If they did the job they say they do, following the truth where ever it leads, we would have avoided a lot of problems. But they don't do that. They avoid risks, like most people. They aren't the swashbuckling and courageous investigators portrayed in the movies. They're gray, average people who feel superior to the rest of us. And that veneer is disappearing now. "
At the Rethinking the News sessions, there was some talk about what will happen if newspapers go dark because ideas like a property tax or Chamber of Commerce dues to fund news in a community fail.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey, who is managing editor for Model D, was able to point to Hamtramck 's reaction to the closing of its community newspaper as one example. Those interested in seeing coverage continue are meeting, brainstorming ideas and figuring out different ways to ensure information is shared in timely ways. (One way the self-forming groups are exploring is using students to collect and share news.)

So maybe we will all end up shopping at Wal-Mart, reading one national newspaper and getting the rest of our information at the community coffee shop, or mixed in with the papers our kids bring home from school or in our RSS feeds.

Maybe not.


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