The Rise and Fall of Professional Journalism

AllthePresidentsMenThere is no doubt that the newspaper industry is in trouble. The information explosion driven by the web is making it easy to access information from any number of sources, which is making it harder for local news sources to compete. So they change their editorial formats or they fail. A case in point is the San Francisco Chronicle’s online version, SFGate. As the Chronicle has had to make cuts across the board, from the Sunday comics section to staffing cuts, they have been supplementing their online coverage with citizen journalism as the print edition gets smaller and smaller. The site has added a Twitter feed and a new section called City Brights, where local professionals, politicians and pundits get a chance to share their views.

But what is happening to professional journalism?

Having been a journalist myself for over a decade early in my career, I have an appreciation for what it takes to research the story and get it right. One of my favorite films, “All the Presidents Men,” documents the lengths that Woodward and Bernstein had to go through to verify the facts in the Watergate cover up before they could go to press. That’s journalism! With advent of the web, the rules have changed as the difference between blogger and journalist becomes blurred. I want my news researched and verified before it gets served up online or in print.

I recall a Business Wire Media Breakfast where different Bay Area journalists talked about how and why they blog. One technology reporter for the San Jose Mercury News shared his criteria for when a rumor becomes a news story: if he could verify a story with three sources, it goes into the paper; if he couldn’t verify the story, it went on the blog.

While the growth of new media outlets such as Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and the millions of blogs across the Internet are changing the way we communicate with one another, they are also undermining the profitability of newspapers and conventional news media. Many news outlets are adapting as best they can. CNN uses Twitter feeds very effectively with multiple micro newsfeeds. Anderson Cooper has a big online footprint with a blog, a Facebook fan page, and more. These are great for brand reinforcement to promote the credibility of their television news coverage, and more importantly, they are a means for viewers to participate and engage in the conversation.

And then there are newspapers like the Chronicle. I fear that more papers will let the professional journalists and substitute content with online information and cheaper (read free) sources to cut costs.

The news industry is changing, and as new revenue models emerge to support the new media, it’s important to remember the old values of professional journalism. I want my information researched and processed by professionals. I only hope that professional journalists can still find a way to be adequately paid to be professionals.

[This blog post was sparked by a recent review of Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of Radical Price written by Malcolm Gladwell and published in The New Yorker. There are some interesting ideas shared in that review and we will revisit it in a future blog post.]

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