Before journalism dies out

There was a shooting at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo., which killed 12 people and injured 58 others a week ago. But anybody reading this likely already knows about that shooting. All my thoughts go out to anybody this tragedy might have affected.

Had this happened 20 years ago, word would have spread out quickly through television and, quite possibly, interviews and visuals at the scene itself. Had it happened 60 years ago, word would have spread out quickly on the radio and there may have been an audio clip from the scene, and visuals on television. Had this happened 100 years ago, word would have spread out the following day through newspapers.

But in 2012, word of the tragedy spread out instantly through social media like Twitter and Facebook. Only a few hours after it happened, an alleged victim posted pictures of himself on Reddit, a victim was identified as Jessica Ghawi,who narrowly escaped the May shooting at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, the suspect’s mother told authorities that, “They have the right person” while theHuffington Post and The Washington Post (and probably many other outlets, really) opened a live blog with any- and everything related to the incident.

For the most part, changes in the media industry have contributed to make the newspaper model obsolete. This is a cliché, but I think that it happens to be true. For example, The New York Times had suffered the loss of 100 jobs in the newsroom out of a staff of about 1,250 by the end of 2009–and it was one of the lucky ones as many, many, many newspapers folded.

Is journalism dying? Probably not, but it definitely is changing as the era of wealth and prosperity is finished. It’s now time to take action and anticipate the changes that are coming, not react to them. Otherwise this cliché might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am currently enrolled at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and I am hoping that the news industry will still be, if not thriving, at least able to give me a paid job when I graduate in a year. If I don’t want to see the news industry die, it’s partly because of that.

But not entirely.

Perhaps you are familiar, by now, with HBO’s latest original series The Newsroom. I have made no secret of supporting the show, for which I have received flack. Still young (i.e. only five episodes have aired), The Newsroom is the latest brainchild of Aaron Sorkin and, I quote from the HBO website here, “a behind-the-scenes look at the people who make a nightly cable-news program.” Will McAvoy (played by Dumb and Dumber’s very own Jeff Daniels) is the second most-watched nightly news anchor on cable television, but he’s loud and obnoxious. To fix this, his boss Charlie Skinner (played by Sam Waterston) fixes him with a new executive producer in MacKenzie McHale (played by Emily Mortimer). Soon enough, the viewers learn that the two have been romantically involved in the past and that McAvoy is still struggling with his emotions in the aftermath. The show chronicles the new beginning as the two ex-lovers hope to build something that will last while working with a new, young and eager staff. But more than that, the show is about the News, the one with the capital N, the one that makes reporting such a worthwhile pursuit. It’s typical Aaron Sorkin, with fast and complex dialogue, but most of the actors pull it off well.

The show isn’t perfect, not by any means, but it tries very hard to be. It tries very hard to preach to the audience what should be the ideal journalistic practices and that the media should always pursue the Truth, the one with the capital T, and nothing else. That’s one of the criticisms of the show, that it tends to be too preachy. Perhaps. But think about it, isn’t that a little like what journalists do daily anyway when they inform their readers or viewers on their society? In the end, The Newsroom is a pretty good show that suffers from inconsistency, but it has moments of sheer brilliance. It’s an inside look at my future life as a working journalist, if I ever become one, and I like it. It’s either scary or depressing, or both, to realize that just about all of my future relationships will be confined to the workplace and the newsroom. If there was only one reason why I love Sorkin’s latest creation, it’s that it shows how much news is important to the people covering it–it’s that the chaos of covering the News brings order to the chaos and to the madness of the daily lives of the people pursuing it.

The Newsroom isn’t perfect, but it’s important–and that’s why I’ll keep watching.

(That said, there is one thing that I wish Sorkin would have done differently. He should have spent more time with the characters as they got to know each other–it’s what he did in the first two episodes, and it worked great before he covered about six months with the third episode alone. Personally, I would have ended season 1 with what was Sorkin’s fourth episode when Gabrielle Giffords is injured in an Arizona shooting on Jan. 8, 2011. The viewers would have had a better understanding of each character’s narrative arc in the newsroom, and the season would have ended on a strong note with those final 10 minutes. Please note that I acknowledge it might have been a cheap trick to use Coldplay’s Fix You during the ending montage. But please don’t act like Aaron Sorkin is the first person to ever use music to elicit an emotional response in his viewers.)

The Newsroom is important, because the newsroom is. In 2012, publishing content is much easier and much cheaper, and anybody with a website can reach out to anybody else (i.e. look no further than at this website). In this day where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is as wide as ever, the media must keep holding government accountable whenever it can. For now, the role of watchdog remains perhaps the one still exclusive to legacy media because long investigative reporting typically demands huge resources of time and money that maybe the average citizen isn’t capable of putting forth. Not only that, but traditional news outlets typically have means that the average citizen journalist simply can’t replace–a daily or weekly relationship with sources and authorities that are the result of years upon years of collaboration or investigation, and that can’t be replicated by just anybody. If 1,000 bloggers can dissect the decisions of a Baltimore zoning meeting, someone first needs to report on the meeting.

 ‘Page One’ examines the ways by which newspapers attempt to foster their place in this new world. In the Page One book, 17 individuals, many of them journalists in some capacity, examine the future of journalism in as many different chapters and over 181 pages–the authors often disagree with one another on a number of topics, from blogs to the Huffington Post and WikiLeaks. It’s a good read, especially for anyone interested or working in the media. For Page One, the movie,  director Andrew Rossi has secured access to The New York Times’s newsroom. He examines the daily life of a reporter in the 21st century through the eyes of the charismatic David Carr, he who suffered two bouts with substance abuse in his 30s and 40s. Carr, his colleague Brian Stelter–who formerly ran TVNewser before joining The Times–and his editor Bruce Headlam work through the decisions surrounding, among other things, the release of the WikiLeaks cables and the reporting on the frathouse-like working environment at the Tribune Company (i.e. the one behind the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times).

In the end, both the book and the movie tackle a slew of different topics–it works well for the Page One book, but not as well for the Page One movie.

In 2012, the Internet is another medium to fill with content, another platform to be heard, viewed or be read. It’s a platform that has sped the news cycle yet again, where mistakes are compounded and nothing’s ever forgotten, and that has changed everything for print and broadcast. There was a time where page one was the most sought-after real estate in media. There was a time when whatever was published on the front page of the major newspapers would dictate most of the ensuing coverage for the smaller papers or TV stations (and there was a time when The Times’ page one would guide the other major newspapers, too). That was before the Internet–in 2011, online continued to dominate both in audience growth and revenue. There is now less money to be made in print media because the ad revenue has shrunk so much–and the ad revenue has shrunk so much because the readership has. In turn, this means that it’s less likely that the gap between the cost of producing content and what newspapers are charging for this content gets bridged. Newspapers lose money and unless they are proactive–which, obviously, many are–they will not survive.

One thing the Internet has changed is lowering the cost of content. That makes it easier to turn a profit and, make no mistakes about it, turning a profit is still what people like Sam Zell are after when they purchase a paper like the LA Times. (And when they don’t, well, they file for bankruptcy.) Publishing content online tends to be the easiest route to accomplish that despite the fact that nobody has found the way, yet, to fully finance the Internet. Some media outlets haven’t bothered–they simply post their content online, readers read it, and somehow someway the media may make money from ad revenue. Other outlets have installed a paywall, where readers will need to pay a monthly subscription fee in order to read any story (i.e. full paywall) or any story past a small amount (i.e. partial paywall, akin to that of The Times).

The pressure to produce content that is appealing to readers is high because a high readership is still a safe bet to attract ad revenue. This shouldn’t happen–the general public shouldn’t be able to dictate what information it wants and needs. But then, the problem becomes whether a reporter should tweak his or her content to reflect his or her readers’ preferences. Most would say no and that journalists need to stay independent and objective on every matter. These days, they’re said to be neither and yet, I wonder if they truly are biased or if a little bit of it isn’t simply that readers themselves are too entrenched in their views or unwilling to consider an alternative in the face of mounting evidence. But that’s a debate for another day.

Nothing is ever free–that some things are is one of the biggest misconceptions. Content always demands that a reporter put forth valuable energy and time resources that are limited to begin with. The customer has traditionally always,always underpaid for the news he or she has received. When newspapers ruled the world but charged only a few dollars for the content it produced, it made up for the difference with ad revenue mostly. But now, someone has to shoulder that bill. If it’s not the customer, then perhaps it’s the government, or corporations of any kind. But then how do you hold accountable the hand that feeds you? There’s a certain expectation that journalism will keep its independence from whoever finances it. There’s a choice to be made between quality and independent reporting, and nonprofit and independent reporting–the hope, of course, is that both are one and the same. The former will give readers in-depth and quality reporting while with the latter, content will be much cheaper to produce. But in this online world where the price of producing content is so cheap already, there is an expectation for the former that would come at the same price of the latter. That’s impossible–for now, we can’t yet have our cake and eat it too because journalists need to eat.

In Page One, Katherine Bouton says that, “There’s a tremendous pressure to do so much more than what is humanely possible.” She may be right. If this trend continues, revenues will continue to decrease and media outlets will have less at their disposal for their daily operations. You usually don’t do more with less. Saying that you do is simply rationalizing, or a mind trick played by people in the media industry that are hoping to maintain excellence and integrity in the face of difficult changes. Because usually, all you can do with less is, well, less. And only once has the media accepted that will it be able to fully enter this new digital age.