Monday, March 23, 2009

Despite the Mich newspapers shake-up, the end really isn't near!

Ann Arbor News closing with a successor news operation to reopen as a web only site. Flint Journal, Saginaw News, Bay City Times combining operations for a three day a week print product, the others days online. Jackson Citizen-Patriot, Muskegon Chronicle, Grand Rapids Press more budget cutting. On March 31, the last daily edition of the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News roll off the presses as those papers go to home delivery only on Sunday, Thursday and Friday (a pattern Flint, Saginaw and Bay City are adopting) with a streamlined edition in box sales or mailed to your home the rest of the week.

These are gutsy moves by frightened news executives frantically trying to weather the economic tsunami of the web’s impact on news delivery. Add to that the perfect storm of the economic depression (we here in Michigan know a depression when we see it), and you have the cumulative effect of the news of the past few month. The Rocky Mountain News gone. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer morphing to the web.

Is journalism dead? Should the J-School shut the doors or is this a paradigm shift? It’s a paradigm, baby, of colossal proportions. Think monks in monasteries and Gutenberg’s moveable type. Same impact. Different world—things happen much faster now.

News organizations should focus on their own news markets and cover the news that the web and major news sites cannot—the school board, the city council, the parks and rec folks, the cops and courts. These were always the heart and soul of the family-owned newspaper. As they disappeared, so did much of this kind of coverage. But it is coming back. The J-School is involved in a Tandem project in partnership with The Detroit’s News’ multiplatform editor Jonathan Morgan. The funding comes from a Knight Foundation Challenge grant and was the idea of a group of students.

The problem is the technology is a whisker behind the economic implosion and impact of the web. Products like a Kindle-like-iPhone or a Harry Potter on the train to Hogwarts with all those folks reading the constantly changing newspaper is just around the corner. Literally. Products like Plastic Logic are in the beta stages of thin, light products that are the ideal format for news delivery. Do you really think the cell phone screen is large enough? When the youngsters, turn 45 and presbyopia (that’s when the listings in the telephone book become unreadable and you now need glasses to read anything is called), cells phone screens are just too small. They can provide tweets and text alerts, but missing is a design that lets you know what information is the most important among the morass of info assaulting you at warp speed.

The times have changed. The news and information delivery models will be different. And news organizations like newspapers, TV and radio are scrambling to catch up (and frankly, somehow must have missed that press release when Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web, or Craigslist started running free classified and…the list goes on and on.

The J-School has aggressively repositioned itself with our proposed new curriculum that will include courses on entrepreneurship, more all round tech training to learn storytelling and interview methods not just for words but visually, and the virtual newsroom which will be launched in the Fall 2009 term.

The key is still and will always be the journalism.

The only thing to fear is if the journalism disappears because of it.

Will that happen? Absolutely not. All those news aggregator sites like Google, Yahoo, AOL and Drudge gather their news content from some of the same news media outlets that are in peril. They also need to recognize this problem and start hiring the hundreds of journalists to keep their coverage alive and vibrant.

This is shake up, break up and then we will make it up. The founding fathers didn’t protect a free press in the 1st Amendment to be nice guys. They did it because they got it that someone had to watchdog government and the press was the one entity to do that—fearlessly. Ask the former mayor of Detroit about that. Without the aggressive, persistence intrepid work of Free Press reporters M.L. Elrick (one of our alums) and Jim Schaefer (an Ohio State guy who does darn good work, too!), that story would never have been told. The abuse of powers and misconduct that cost Detroit taxpayers more than $9M never revealed and likely ongoing.

So hang on. This makes the worst roller coaster in the world look like a kiddie ride. This is scary, challenging, thrilling, fun and most of us will live through it and even benefit.


At 3:26 PM, Blogger Michael Hoskins said...

Jane: Well put. Here's to the mission that journalism will never die, and the mantra of good watchdog reporting and storytelling will never die, just evolve.

At 7:46 AM, Blogger Louise said...

Thanks for addressing this, Jane. I believe that the solutions to these problems will have to come from journalism schools. I'm happy to hear that my alma mater is looking at a new curriculum that will offer broader training to future journalists. If there is any way that alumni like myself can help, let us know!

~ Louise Knott Ahern
J-school grad 1996

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