Fine Print - August 2008

I read the news today, oh boy
By G.D. Gearino

One of North Carolina’s highest-profile industries is deeply troubled, shedding jobs and watching revenue melt away like ice in August. Who mourns for this industry? Not thee. Not me. We don’t have to. The newspaper industry mourns for itself so loudly that we can barely get a word in edgewise.

It can’t be news to you that North Carolina’s big-city papers, like those across the country, are ailing and maybe even failing — though it’s too early to know whether the industry’s woes are due to the economy or structural flaws in its business model. If it’s the first, then a paper, albeit likely much smaller, will continue to land on your doorstep for years to come. If it’s the second, as seems more and more likely, tuck a few copies away in the attic. They’ll be collector’s items someday. We can debate what it will mean for society if newspapers disappear, and it’s a debate worth having — somewhere else. It won’t happen here, because I want to explain how technology sounded a specific death knell for the industry. (Hint: It’s not what you think.) But first, let me put my bona fides on the table.

I spent 30 years in the business, departing cordially (and of my own choosing) in April 2007. It was a successful career by any measure and lots of fun, too. For someone with no useful skills or talents, journalism was a welcome paycheck. But the half-dozen or so news organizations where I worked all were strange combinations of soup kitchen and besieged fortress: When we weren’t selflessly serving nourishment to mankind, we were trying to hold the door shut against the mob outside, which didn’t seem to understand that though the soup tasted bitter and certainly wasn’t what they’d asked for, we knew what was best for them. We were the only soup kitchen in town. The public ate what we served because it had no other choice.

The rapid evolution of the Internet changed that in the past decade or so. Technology turned the home computer into an all-purpose information center where news was available around the clock and could be updated in minutes. Much of the industry’s revenue stream, particularly its classified advertising, flowed to the Web. Newspapers created their own sites, but they tended to be treated as afterthoughts or — even worse — as a service readers should pay extra for (or at the very least be willing to endure the register-and-log-in drill). The effect was to block access to their Web sites at the very time newspapers should have done everything possible to get people in the digital door.

But those were mistakes the industry could correct, as it eventually did. What changed the business forever, not to mention vaporizing almost $24 billion of market value, is that technology unmasked journalism as a craft any amateur can undertake. This is the newspaper business’ dirty little secret. The basics can be learned in a couple of months by any reasonably intelligent, inquisitive soul. The ethical guidelines are few and fundamentally simple. Good writing is optional, not a requirement. Want to be a journalist? Show up, ask questions, take notes, double-check your information. That’s about it. Those four things make you a reporter. From that point forward, there are only varying degrees of competency.

That’s always been the case, despite the industry’s effort (with the connivance of college journalism programs) to turn what is basically an unskilled trade into a profession. It succeeded, until now, only because the capital investment needed to enter publishing was so prohibitive almost no amateur could establish himself as an alternative source of information. Anyone could be a collector of news; only a few could be a distributor of it.

But that amateur can register a Web domain name and get server space for a year for something like $100. Beyond that, the only investment is time. The amateurs have become a force unto themselves. As independent news/commentary sites become more sophisticated in their presentation and as the writing and reporting get sharper and better, readers become more aware that newspapers no longer have a stranglehold on journalism. In the same way technology made travel agencies obsolete (and may cause real-estate agents to go the way of travel agents), it took the dissemination of news and opinion out of the hands of a few and put it in the hands of the many.

And thus was the newspaper industry’s 200-year regime ended, with astonishing speed and dizzying consequences — especially for the more than 200 people at The Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer who lost their jobs two months ago.

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