My reaction to a spate of recent conferences on the future of media may have been a little uncharitable, a brusque thought aimed at media and newspapers in particular: Get over it and get on with it.
As I said, uncharitable. Because these are tough times to be in the newsroom, with those vacant desks and uncovered beats. Good journalists still do good journalism, still fight the good fight, but there is an air of uncertainty, gloom and, even among the most optimistic, no small measure of fear.
(I don’t have to imagine this, I’ve been there, during earlier recessions. First, I had to lay off good, hard-working folk and then I wound up on the other side of the desk when, in that lovely economics phrase, I was judged surplus to requirements.)
Newsrooms are paying the price for some things that have gone wrong (a corporate model based on shareholder value and great dollops of debt) and the acceleration of long-term trends (downward drifting paid circulation, looser ties to community, changing models for delivery, etc.).
There’s no need to rehash all of this: how we got here is a well-known story, ably told by the likes of Alan Mutter and others.
Getting over it means accepting what’s happened and where we are at. Raging against the dying of the light is fine, but the light eventually dies. Getting over also requires an acknowledgement that, if there is a spot of magic out there that will set things right again, no one has found it, and that waiting for the magic is like playing the lottery: somebody wins, but it only works because most people lose most of the time.
Getting over it means acknowledging what happened, tucking the lessons away and moving on, because there’s no way to go back and change anything.
Getting on with it is where we all have the control.
What if a newspaper were to assume that its current revenues were it: no one is likely to step in and save them; whatever bounce-back there is from the recession will be slow; the chances of going back to the days before the financial system collapsed are slim. What if, given that, a newspaper were to ask itself, “What’s the best job we can do with the resources we have?” What types of local newspapers, serving local needs, would come out of that?
That’s one way to get on with it.
Another is paywalls to reclaim some lost subscription revenue. If you have the content and the community that will make it work, why not do it? Do you need to wait for Rupert, if it makes sense to you now? And, if it does make sense to you, does it matter who’ll sneer at you for it?
There are hundreds of ideas about the future of journalism, the news and newspapers circulating out there. Some of them make no sense. But among them are dozens that do, and dozens more that, in part or whole, make sense for some publications.
(And does it really matter if an idea comes from someone who’s never had to write a variance report, draft a budget or do P&L’s? Plenty of people who do do those things have had plenty of bad ideas. It’s the ideas themselves that matter, particularly as they can be adapted, tweaked and prodded into shape by an individual newspaper.)
There really is no reason for not getting on with it, other than, perhaps, the institutional bias against large-scale individual innovation. (Read Mutter’s post Newspaper Epitaph: Who else is doing it?)
I realize this sounds glib, and I know it’s far easier to say these things than it is to do them. Newspapering is already hard work, and these are tough decisions, that take some careful study and thought and a little blind faith.
But I can’t help think that the time has come for individual newspapers — not the industry as a whole, and certainly not the future-of-the-newspaper conference industry — to start making the tough, individual decisions that will allow some newspapers to, if not flourish, at least see out the end of print with some journalistic and financial vigour.