With an unprecedented number of layoffs and buyouts, 2008 was a devastating year for journalism in New Jersey.
Or was it?
It all depends on whether you are looking at the glass as half empty or half full.
From the half empty perspective, it was truly sad to witness the struggles the state’s newspapers confronted in order to survive. Likewise, it was alarming to watch so many talented journalists depart the news industry in New Jersey.
As Joe Strupp, a senior editor at Editor & Publisher, wrote in the current issue of New Jersey Monthly, “Many in the business – especially those whose jobs have evaporated – question whether these decimated newspapers can continue to fill the Garden State’s information needs.”
This has been the sentiment in several eulogistic and nostalgic pieces on the state of journalism not only in New Jersey, but also nationwide. “What will the public know — and what will the public not know — if our poorly understood, and often unappreciated, craft perishes in the Darwinian jungle?” John S. Carroll, a former editor of three major U.S. dailies, said in a 2006 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
But for those who are consumers of the news with no professional or personal attachment to the industry and its employees, the glass is half full. We live in an era in which news and information are more readily available and more accessible than ever. It comes not from traditional media outlets such as newspapers, radio and TV, but from blogs, YouTube, Twitter and other new media.
Putting aside concerns over the fiscal struggles news organizations are facing, as well as the personal crises that journalists and their families experience when jobs are lost, think about why we as consumers read newspapers, watch television and listen to radio. We do so primarily to obtain news and information that it is important to us.
For several years now, the Internet has served this function, generally in a manner much more user-friendly than traditional media outlets. The Internet provides news and information faster than any other media. And it does so with great convenience and accessibility – bringing text, audio, video and interactivity directly to our desktops, laptops and handheld devices. It also makes it possible to personalize the news, allowing us to eliminate or filter those items that have little interest or impact on our lives.
Why pick up a newspaper when a few clicks of the mouse can yield everything from the latest details on the federal stimulus package to what your kid’s school is serving for lunch this week? Likewise, the stock prices and sports scores found online usually are more current than those in traditional media outlets. Here in New Jersey, the state web site can tell you the status of any bill pending in the Legislature, link you to many of the same studies and reports lawmakers are using to make decisions, and even allow you to access live and archived audio and video of committee hearings and voting sessions.
But veteran journalists such as Carroll contend that, despite the many benefits of the Internet, there still remains an important role for traditional media. Journalists serve as watchdogs over government and conduct investigative reporting that helps and protect citizens. “Newspapers dig up the news. Others repackage it,” Carroll said in his speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “The blogs, noisy as they are, have virtually no reporters. They may be keen critics, or assiduous fact checkers, but do they add materially to the nation’s supply of original reporting? No, they don’t.”
While much of Carroll’s comment rings true, the truth is new media have substantially and forever altered the landscape of the industry.
Bloggers played an instrumental role in Dan Rather’s departure from CBS; Twitter feeds provided some of the first accounts of last year’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and The New York Times has even entered the picture, elevating the status of its Interactive Newsroom Technology group which develops and implements a wide variety of projects that go far beyond simply placing the content of the newspaper’s print version online. The projects bring Times readers “closer through comments and interactivity, rendering the relationship between reporter and audience more intimate, immediate, exposed,” Emily Nussbaum explained in a New York magazine article about the group.
The time to debate new media versus traditional media is over. The industry no longer is changing. It has changed. Those willing to embrace change will survive. Those who attempt to carry on as they did in the past may not be so fortunate.
As Bob Dylan warned some 35 years ago when he declared The Times They Are A-Changin’: “You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone.”
Dylan is a good model for the news industry to follow. He practices what he preaches. In an earlier era, he rose to notoriety with just a guitar, a harmonica and his songs. Today, he hosts his own radio show – and it’s on a satellite station.
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