Last month, I visited my alma mater for the 50th Anniversary of the University of Connecticut and its journalism department. There were panels of alumni reporters, editors and news entrepreneurs — some with Pulitzers in big-city papers, some with broadcast backgrounds and some stringers for local news in hometowns, U.S.A.
A dominant discussion was the future of journalism — and who will pay for it? There were hopeful statements, for certain — just being a reporter these days demands resiliency among other mind and skill sets — but there was also plenty of worry.
What a time to be a chronicler of news. In 2015, being a newspaper journalist just overtook lumberjacking as the worst job in America — posting a 13 percent decline in employment prospects. (Broadcast news wasn’t far behind, at third worst.) Certainly digital news sites abound, but print historically demanded a subscription — and consumers just don’t pony up to online news sites and their paywalls like they used to do offline.
The original sin of the Internet was not the first display ad, it was giving it all away for “free.” Some argue the “big give away” democratizes information. Others see it as an alarmist trend toward socialism. The rise of the citizen journalist (I’m one here) doesn’t necessarily translate to the most learned of fact gatherers, fact checkers, superb editing and the advancement of human knowledge. Too often, it’s the lowest common denominator — rumor and innuendo, celebrity and entertainment, prurient subjects — that gather the most clicks and distracts the electorate (and quite a few candidates) from more considered concerns.
Just think about it — music, news, sports, weather, apps and so many other conveniences — how many of us, as users, pay online for what some more seasoned of us used to pay offline. Even where we do pay, is it at the level we once shelled out in print, or dollars to dimes?
And yet, our nation’s fourth estate — the vibrancy of our democracy — is at stake. Who is served when diversity of news and opinions are concentrated only in deep pockets, amid a hurry to post online and worry about fairness and accuracy tomorrow? When a columnist at a Las Vegas newspaper can’t even write about community business leaders who are owners of casinos — is this what journalism is coming to?
Let me conclude with some upbeat answers. When paid subscriptions wither, we all know who is there to fill the bill: advertisers. The division of church and state — keeping the newsroom independent of the publishing side of the business — is a time-honored and necessary check and balance inside most media organizations. Where it’s blurred, the integrity of information is sacrificed. That’s always worried me about native content trends. However, there are many journalists (alumni friends) who are very happy that advertising, advertisers and ad tech exist. They well know that without us, diversity of content, news and opinion, professionally gathered and edited, would go the wayside along with their livelihoods. It might be dimes instead of dollars, but it’s some compensation. Our hometowns, our nation, our world and now the Internet cannot afford anything less, and it’s certainly worth a lot more.