Macalester Today Summer 2011

JD_Macalester_Isjournalismdead.gif

Not necessarily, say Mac media experts.

New media studies Professor John Kim talks about the meaning of new media and why good journalists will always be in demand.

When people predict that the media as we know it is dying, that Tweets and Facebook updates will soon replace newspaper headlines and TV newscasts, stephen smith ’82 takes it all in stride.

It’s not that he isn’t interested in the media’s fate: As executive editor and host of American Radio Works, the documentary unit of American Public Media, Smith’s professional life is focused around the fourth estate. It’s just that after more that a quarter century in journalism, such dire predictions give him a serious case of déjà vu.

“The death of any particular form of media has been predicted many times,” he says. “Radio was supposed to kill the printed word. Television was supposed to kill radio. The Web was supposed to kill broadcasting. You can’t deny that the media is evolving right now, that the players are being shifted, but to look for any Titanic–sized disaster looming doesn’t strike me as being rooted in history. Certainly things are changing and there are a lot of growing pains going on in the industry, but ultimately citizen-produced content is not going to completely replace professional journalism.”

Is Smith’s confidence in traditional media forms misplaced? John Kim, assistant professor of media and cultural studies, believes that a clear shift is happening in the industry, from classic “detached” news reporting sponsored by large media conglomerates to eyewitness reports produced by independent witnesses on the scene of news events. “The greater expansion in the media is not going to be in traditional forms of journalism, but rather in alternative forms, like community-based blogs, social networking, interactive communication,” he says. “New media is reshaping the nature of journalism.”

It’s that very reshaping that excites Howard Sinker ’78. A reporter at the Minneapolis StarTribune since 1979 and a sports producer on the paper’s website since 2008, he’s seen his industry undergo many transformations. But none have been more revolutionary than those brought on by the Internet, and more recently by powerful social networking tools like Twitter. For a few years in the mid 2000s, things were looking bleak at the StarTribune, where a shrinking advertising base forced union contract buyouts and hiring freezes. But in recent years, Sinker says, he and his colleagues have been developing innovative ways to respond to their audiences’ changing expectations. Things are starting to look up.

“We should’ve been adapting like this years earlier,” says Sinker, also a lecturer in the Media and Cultural Studies Department, “but we’re finally catching up, figuring out where we fit in this new media environment. Today at the StarTribune we’re turning the equation upside down. Many of our news stories start out as tweets. You write your 140 characters saying, ‘Here’s what’s happening. Here’s the link to the story on the Web.’ Readers are responding positively. Five years ago, if my son had told me he wanted to be a journalist, I wouldn’t have had any hope for him. Now the transition is moving in a positive direction, and I think we’re going to make it out the other side.”

nice work

Established journalists may see a reason for optimism, but it can still be a struggle for young media wannabes hoping to break into the industry. The very upheaval and downsizing that’s creating exciting new opportunities for veterans like Sinker and Smith has also meant that media outlets are doing more work with fewer employees. Good journalism jobs can be hard to find.

Ask Jane Turk ’02, a college instructor and media historian completing her doctoral work in communications at Columbia University. She has taught at a number of institutions, including Lake Forest College and DePaul University. “Journalism is a tough field to break into,” Turk says. “And it’s even tougher now. You have to work really hard and scramble to get the few jobs that are out there. The saddest part of my teaching career is when I have to sit down my promising students and tell them that journalism is changing, that the Progressive Era and the Muckrakers are history, that the jobs are few, and their dreams may have to take a different form.”

But where some people see scarcity, others see opportunity. In his commencement speech to the University of California-Berkeley Journalism School’s Class of 2011, Robert Krulwich, host of the public radio science program “Radiolab,” took a decidedly optimistic tone about these graduates’ hopes for future employment. The radical shifts currently occurring in the media don’t have to mean the death of an industry, he argued. They can mean opportunity for innovation, invention, and change. “You are stepping into a world that is riper, more pregnant with newness, new ideas, new beats, new opportunities than most generations of journalists before you,” Krulwich told the graduates. “You are lucky to be you, very lucky, though you may not be feeling it at the moment.”

Although she’s not quite that optimistic about journalism job prospects, Turk does agree that an industry-wide shift provides a receptive environment for entrepreneurs to introduce unique products and publications into a marketplace primed for innovation. She also believes that larger media organizations are entering a new era of growth and centralization, a trend that may limit the range of voices readily available to consumers.

“From a cultural historian’s perspective, what I see is not the death of journalism but an increasing shift to larger, more centralized news sources like the New York Times, large cable networks, and public radio,” Turk says. “It’s important that space remains for independent voices. To a large extent, that seems to be a role that the Web can effectively play.”

line“The death of any particular form of media has been predicted many times,” Smith says. “Radio was supposed to kill the printed word. Television was supposed to kill radio. The Web was supposed to kill broadcasting. But you can’t deny that the media is evolving right now.”

still living the dream JD_Macalester_Livingthedream.tif

 Through most of his college career, Daniel Kerwin ’10 knew he wanted to become a newspaper journalist—even though everyone advised him against it. “Back in my first newswriting courses, everyone was talking about how newspapers were dying,” he recalls. “Maybe that’s the case, but when I graduated I still sent my resume to a bunch of papers around Minnesota. I wanted to work at a daily. To see my name in print was my goal.”

Kerwin landed a job as a sports reporter at theWorthington Daily Globe in Worthington, Minnesota, population 12,000. Although the Daily Globe has a website, his readers are more interested in the paper’s print edition, Kerwin says. “We put everything in the paper plus extra stuff online, but most people don’t go there,” he adds. “Out here, folks are still most comfortable getting their news from the printed page.”

Although Kerwin is fluent in the technology required to post stories, photos, and video online, he and his fellow reporters still direct most of their energy toward writing stories for the print edition. “We talk about putting more content up online,” he says, “but we really aren’t getting much reader feedback about that. ”

Five years ago, when Eliot Brown ’06 was preparing to graduate from Macalester, the former Mac Weekly editor was determined to get a job at a daily newspaper, even though it felt like jumping aboard a sinking ship. “At the time, it seemed like a decent question to ask if newspapers were going to be around much longer,” he says. “Now it seems like papers aren’t actually going to go away, at least not right away. And even if they are, being a newspaper reporter is a fun job. Why not stick with it until it runs its course?”

Brown’s fun job hasn’t lost its appeal. His first position on a daily was as a reporter for the New York Observer; last December he landed a spot as a real estate reporter for the Wall Street Journal. In New York, anyway, the newspaper business still feels solid enough.

Perhaps because print continues to hold a dominant position in the New York marketplace, Brown’s employers thus far have encouraged—but not required—reporters to participate in online technology. At many other publications, online participation is required. “Editors want more updates and blog fodder,” he says. “A few years ago it looked like there was going to be a bigger push to do videos with our stories. I’ve done a couple, but not that many. The shift I’m seeing is a focus on writing for the blogs and finding different ways to make our stories interactive.”

At the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based organization that trains journalists, faculty member Regina McCombs leads seminars designed to help participants stay up-to-date in the latest technology. She says that journalists need to diversify their skills if they want to survive—and thrive—in the digital revolution. “What we teach is not that you have to do everything, but you have to do more than one thing,” McCombs says. “If you want to be a writer, that’s fine. But you have to not just say, ‘I will write for newspapers,’ you have to be comfortable with many platforms and understand what makes them different from one another. To make yourself appealing to current and potential employers, you’ve got to be able to get out there and represent yourself in more than one area of technology.”

Ian Trontz ’92, assistant metro editor at the New York Times, says that at his flagship newspaper, the online and print areas still function fairly independently: “We actually have a whole separate operation in charge of making sure that reporters are participating in social media, encouraging them to tweet, for instance. No one is required to do it, though we are strongly encouraged.”

Does this shift toward a more active online presence signify that even old-guard newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are preparing for their own demise? Although Brown and Trontz believe their publications play a key role in American democracy, both can imagine a day when print is passé and their papers exist only online, read on laptops, smart phones, or tablets. Still, that doesn’t mean that the news won’t continue to be reported by professional journalists. A tweet can only take you so far.

“The day could come when there is no such thing as a printed newspaper,” Trontz admits. “I think that’s a strong possibility.
[
New York Times publisher] Arthur Sulzberger only half-jokingly says that we are not going to be printing newspapers at some point. This is a big deal coming from him. But that doesn’t mean the end of traditional media. Just because we’re presenting the news on a different platform doesn’t have to mean bad things. It just means different things. It means quicker leads, more updating, more context, and more resources. This is already happening. It’s only going to happen more. And that’s good for journalism.”

heba amin

As Western media outlets adapt to a new Web- driven reality, media sources in other parts of the world are discovering the internet’s unique power to quickly spread news of social move- ments. in environments in which the media are state run and out of touch with popular opinion, the uncensored voice of the people wields re- markable influence. this spring, when heba amin ’02 saw that the most reliable news about the political revo- lution sweeping her native egypt was coming from tweets posted by citizens, she decided that the mainstream egyptian news media had be- come irrelevant. Amin, who now lives in berlin, is a new media artist whose most recent work juxtaposes excerpts from speak2tweet mes- sages collected before the fall of the mubarak regime with photos of abandoned structures in cairo that represent the long-lasting effects of a corrupt dictatorship. As an egyptian living abroad, Amin experi- enced much of the Arab spring through face- book and twitter, two sources that she quickly grew to consider more reliable and up-to-the minute than information coming from tradi- tional news outlets. “facebook and twitter will redefine more traditional forms of media,” she says. “this was quite obvious to me during the egyptian revolution, when bloggers were dis- persing ‘news’ before the ‘News.’ traditional media outlets could not keep up with the speed of events, so they themselves resorted to twit- ter users and bloggers as information sources. in a country like egypt, where traditional media is controlled by the state, social media has be- come a substitute and a platform for providing people with a voice.” once silent, says Amin, that voice was heard around the world.

—andy steiner ’90
print? who needs print illustration

While traditional media work to respond and adapt to a new online reality, a bumper crop of Web-only publications is sprouting up around the country, giving young journalists an opportunity to practice their craft on a powerful platform that seems poised to take over the media marketplace.

Jessie Pascoe ’01 is associate editor at MetroMix New York. She and her four coworkers cover NYC events, theater, and style happenings for this online-only entertainment publication. “I’ve been swept up in the online thing,” Pascoe says. “Traditional media has rushed to embrace all those new media platforms, and I’m right here in the middle of everything. There’s this rush to not be left behind that causes everyone in the media to react to the latest thing so quickly. It’s chaotic, but it’s also fun. No one knows where the cards will fall but they’re determined to be there to pick
them up.”

Gabby Warshawer ’01managing editor of Brownstoner Brooklyn, an online publication focused on real-estate transactions in New York’s most populous borough—is excited by the movement toward independent, nonprofit Web-based publications featuring strong reporting on serious topics. If more of these publications can make it, Warshawer predicts a media renaissance, an opportunity for idealistic young journalists to make a difference in the world. Even if the Web eventually becomes the dominant media format, high-quality unbiased journalism can still survive, she says.

“Some of the nonprofit media efforts I’ve seen could completely change today’s media landscape,” Warshawer says. Good examples of this nonprofit, advertiser- and donor-driven approach include regional news sites largely staffed by former daily newspaper reporters like Minnesota’s four-year-old MinnPost.com and the Austin, Texas-based Texastribune.com. Another approach is to sponsor the work of journalists and then sell their finished pieces to larger media outlets. The Twin Cities-based Round Earth Media takes this approach. Founded by two former television reporters, Mary Stucky and Mary Losure, the nonprofit seeks foundation support to fund production of international reporting by emerging journalists.

“I think that this is a way that the Web can bridge traditional formats with Web-based approaches,” Warshawer continues. “With the demise of smaller papers, there are big news holes to be filled in terms of local reporting, and an audience that could attract the attention of advertisers.” One organization that has stepped in to capitalize on this opportunity is the new national hyperlocal web network Patch.com, with its fleet of online-only reporters based in communities across the country. Enthuses Warshawer: “The fit is perfect, and that change feels really exciting.”

only the supply survive

illustrationThose who’ve made it through the media meltdown say that the secret to their survival has been a willingness to adapt to shifts in technology, to invent new ways of presenting the news—and to recognize the distinct advantages of their chosen medium. Smith, the radio booster, is excited about the possibilities of new technology that will stream audio directly to a remote listening device. Already, a large percentage of his audience listens to his American Radio Works documentaries on podcast. Adding the option of immediate play any time will further broaden the listener base.

This highlights one of radio’s unique advantages, one reason Smith doesn’t see it going away any time soon. “Radio is the only format you can consume while doing something else,” he says. “You can drive a car, make a sandwich, run around the lake. You can’t read a newspaper, text, or use a GPS while driving a car, but you can listen to the radio.”

It’s understandable that the continued aftershocks triggered by the online earthquake could make journalists, advertisers, and even news consumers feel jittery. But Smith believes that we just need to allow enough time for the dust to settle. “There are many forms of creative survival that media types are engaged in at the moment,” he says. “We may be in a process of major reorganization and change that will lead to something we can’t quite envision, but the world will still go on, and it will still involve professionals doing journalism.”

Andy Steiner ’90 writes for many local and national publications. She is a regular contributor to Macalester Today.
illustration: jennifer dunn / art.com