mael-strom – a powerful , often violent whirlpool sucking in objects within a certain radius – Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition
One of the great guardians of democracy — the journalism profession — is in distress, buffeted by technology, commerce, demography and politics.
At risk: reliable news reporting (local, national, international); investigative reporting; and fact-based analysis — all in need, perhaps as never before — as disinformation, “fake news” and hacking assail truth, transparency and accountability.
And, tragically, all of this impacting the careers of thousands journalists as well as the potential careers of many journalism students.
If you think “maelstrom” is too strong a descriptor for what is happening in — and to — journalism and journalists, consider what a bevy of experts have offered, just since Friday (this, a harvest of their money quotes):
In the immediate wake of 1,000 employees laid off last week at BuzzFeed, Yahoo, and Huffpost and more impending reductions at Vice Media and Mic — as well as recent layoffs at Gannett — here is Edmund Lee, New York Times :”The crisis in the digital sphere suggests that the journalism business was damned if it embraced innovation and damned if it didn’t.” “Digital: Media What Went Wrong”
Lee cautions: “… a complicated narrative emerges that does not lend itself to a one-size-fits-all interpretation of What Went Wrong or a handy forecast of journalism’s future. While leading digital publishers have resorted to harsh measures, legacy titles … have seen growth as they accommodate the habits of their increasingly digitally oriented readers [think NYT, WAPO, WSJ pay walls and subscriptions]”
His conclusion: “… the debate over journalism’s future comes down to which business model works better — or works at all”
The “complicated narrative” includes, importantly, digital publishers’ early alliance on internet giants such as Facebook to distribute their articles. When that macro channel evolved in other directions the “digitals” had to supplement revenues with non-journalistic products and services — at a time when their investors were seeking return on their investments.
Ann Marie Lipinski, former editor of The Chicago Tribune, now director of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, in her ” A Revolution for Journalism – or A Death Knell?” review of a revealing new book,”BREAKING NEWS The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now” (by Alan Rusbridger) offers historical perspective as well as ethical anguish:
“The rapid technology changes, collapsing business model, 9/11, media convergence, paywall (sic)wars, dawn of social media, rise of the ‘citizen journalist’ and more are here valuably detailed by a gifted reporter… so momentous for journalism and the stakes so high, it was hard to see the existential challenges looming …
“…we have created the most prodigious capability for spreading lies the world has ever seen. And the economic system for supporting journalism looks dangerously unstable. The stakes for truth have never been higher.”
Finally, there is this from Nicholas Thompson’s review of the new book, “Merchants of Truth” by Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, “Jill Abramson’s Book Charts Journalism’s Stormy Seas, With Some Personal Regrets and Score Setting” :
“She was upset because [an internal, “innovation report’] … also encouraged the Times to loosen the barriers dividing the editorial and business sides. That to her, was the road to perdition … She had wanted to be the executive editor who protected the newsroom from ‘crass commercialization’ …
“As the book ends, the digital pioneers are in tatters… Meanwhile, the winners appear to be The Post and, even more so, The New York Times … And the reason for [ NYT’s ] Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s] success comes from developing new products that depended on both the reporting and business sides, and following the metric charts that told the paper what stories to run.”
Not just for journalism, but – as it swirls at the center of society – for all of us.