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A & S News

Brave News World

July 1, 2010

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of the Arts and Sciences magazine.

By Mary Landon Darden

Seldom does a week go by without a long-running U.S. newspaper announcing it has stopped the presses and closed-up shop or implemented extensive lay-offs and severe budget cuts. Rapid changes in technology¯including the Internet and social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, YouTube and Digg¯have radically changed traditional means of information delivery.

While the world watches to see how print media adapts its age-old model to the robust landscape of technology, scores of Baylor's Journalism alumni have ringside seats to this fight¯if they aren't already in the ring themselves. Despite the current status of the profession, the Journalism department thrives, maintaining strong enrollment and successfully placing graduates across a number of jobs.

Two questions¯exactly what lead to these rapid changes and where are things heading¯were posed to several alumni, all recognized leaders in the field of journalism. Drawing on their many decades of experience, all were asked to describe journalism's transition from the hard-working trail ride of yesterday to the bucking bronco that is today's print media.

Dwindling Profits Led to Cutting Corners

One of the biggest changes for print journalism has been the decline in revenue from both advertising and sales.

Tony Pederson, '73 B.A., describes the decline in advertising as a "systemic" problem related to technology and the transition to an Internet news product. The classified section of newspapers¯real estate listings and employment advertisings¯is virtually gone from many newspapers. They have moved to separate online real estate sites.

"We had a virtual monopoly on used-home real estate," Pederson says. "We had terrific classifieds for employment advertising. What we didn't see was the development of new distribution mechanisms like Realtor.com or Monster.com and just the fundamental change ... the Internet was going to create."

This began the slippery slope, as many papers turned to cost-cutting measures which ended up being "self-inflicted" wounds, says writer Henry J. Holcomb, a former Baylor student and Philadelphia Inquirer manager.

Holcomb says that even when the profits were good, the Inquirer tried to increase profits, often in unhealthy ways. "They would cut back on the number of presses we were running every night, which meant we had to start printing the paper before the night ballgames were over," he says.

The Inquirer then began to cut the number of trucks delivering the paper, which meant that many papers arrived later. Distribution also was reduced as advertisers narrowed in on a core market of people in selected neighborhoods. Despite these cost-cutting moves, the publisher still sought to improve revenue by increasing the price of the paper.

"There were many things we could have done to take cost out of the system without taking value away from the reader," Holcomb says. "Instead, we took value away from the readers by going to press earlier, delivering later, and cutting staff ... . The cutting was not managed with an eye for preserving our future."

Transitioning from the Physical to Digital Word

Various technological advancements have had a profound and long-term effect on print journalism. "The Internet created unbelievable change and, in retrospect, newspapers very sadly misjudged the Internet," Pederson says. "The whole transition to electronic journalism has not been particularly good for newspapers."

Many newspapers considered the Internet as merely another new medium. In the past, legacy media had adjusted positively to new media. Radio, Pederson notes, remade itself three to four times during the 20th century, yet remained a vibrant medium.

"Henry Jenkins of MIT has defined this very clearly - that it [the Internet] was a fundamental change in the relationship between mass media and the public," Pederson says. "It was not merely a new medium but rather a major cultural shift in how we communicate and, to some extent, how we think."

Pederson calls the decisions involving major metro newspapers and the Internet a "broken" business model. "Clearly, the decision to give away the news content of the newspapers was a mistake," he says. Pederson believes that there may have been a much different outcome if the papers had charged for online access to content from the beginning.

A technological revolution involving the home computer and the Internet has been taking the place of print journalism for some time now, notes David McHam, B.A. '58. Technological innovations of the past, such as the popularization of news on radio and television, were additions to how people received news, while the Internet is coming at the expense of existing media. "We are subtracting for the first time," he says.

Is There a Future for Print Journalism?

"I think there is a future for good print journalism, but we have gone pretty far down in the valley and we have some steep mountains to climb," Holcomb says.

Kathy Vetter, B.A. '83, does not see print journalism going away anytime soon. However, she indicates that once publishers start dropping days from their delivery schedule, "the decline will accelerate" and will not be reversible. She says the mid-market papers will remain and likely become more specialized,switching from "quick-breaking news" to "more thoughtful journalism." Pederson foresees print versions of large newspapers continuing for the next few decades, because the population over age 50 still takes home delivery.

Interestingly, Pederson does not believe that online advertising alone can ever again sustain a major news organization budget. Online ads only produce about 10 percent of a newspaper's current revenue. "Unless there is some other revenue stream developed - and in my opinion it should be charging for access on the Web site - I think newspapers really are in trouble," he says.

McHam predicts that the industry may eventually switch to The Wall Street Journal model, where subscribers pay a fee to see the complete online content.

Holcomb says a scenario where the right mix of an aggressive approach to new media with a complementary role for old media, coupled with a good understanding of the advertising base, could still result in survival.

McHam, Pederson and Holcomb all observe that the Kindle - or a Kindle-like-device such as the Nook by Barnes and Nobles - will likely be increasingly involved in the future of print journalism.

McHam adds that universities may need people in the future who may not necessarily have Ph.D.s, but instead, people with important experience in the field who can teach the new technologies necessary for students to truly be prepared to enter the workplace.

"At one time in our industry, it was kind of a joke that we made money hand-over-fist, but put not one cent into R&D [research and development]," Vetter says. "It is not in our DNA to experiment and create new ways of doing business, but yet, we have to do that even while people are being laid off and we don't have as much money as need to do what we need to do."

Back to Basics

"Students, first and foremost, must learn to write and tell stories," Pederson says.

Pederson indicates that journalism is much more complicated than when he was a Baylor student. Writing skills of high school graduates are poorer than ever, he believes and adds that perhaps writing is weak because students no longer read literary-style content but instead scan the Internet, text messages and Twitter.

Pederson says that students must learn to be technologically adaptable beyond merely using Dreamweaver, Flash, Final Cut Pro, and shooting and editing video. "They have to be comfortable with the idea of changing technologies," he says.

McHam also says that students will have to be technologically savvy. He added that students need to be able to design for the Web, put content online quickly, produce audio and video and perhaps write a blog. Such an observation reinforces the need to integrate these components throughout [the students'] education without neglecting writing. "If you can't write, you can't work," McHam says.

Vetter agrees. "There will always be a need for journalism, but I think that any student who comes out of college now who doesn't know how to shoot video, collect audio and tell stories in multimedia ways is probably in big trouble."

Vetter also says that students should learn how to tell the story first, then transfer that onto the various platforms. "In the end, people who can tell compelling, credible, accurate stories will be fine."

McHam adds that students will increasingly need more education, greater basic knowledge and smarter than before.

Holcomb, who volunteers with Build a Bridge International, an organization of artists teaching communication skills, agrees with McHam. Hocomb's advice: "Work hard to develop your curiosity, your interviewing and listening skills and find ways to be on the cutting edge of new communications technology."

Holcomb says the new generation must be more entrepreneurial in figuring how to get paid for their work. Holcomb recently attended a meeting with the new media giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, who said there would be room in the future for about the top ten percent of current newspaper employees and that the people who "get hits and attract an audience" on the Internet will be both successful and well paid. The popularity contest might leave a news gap. Those reporters' stories that serve the public interest, but do not sustain a dedicated, long-term social networking following may be left out of the new media landscape.

The Need for Responsive Education

Holcomb recently visited the students in the department of Journalism at Baylor and says that they were already well on their way.. Department Chair Clark Baker says that despite the decline of traditional newspapers, enrollment has been steady. With close to 400 majors, the department has been busy continually integrating the current technology and formats - along with the traditional storytelling¯into virtually every class.

"Our photography class is a good example," Baker says. "What began as a black-and-white, film-based still photography course moved to strictly digital photography and editing and now integrates digital video shooting and editing into the course. We are being responsive to the changes in the profession as the technology changes."

Baker explains the department has continued to have enormous success in helping to place students in the field, often with major corporations and with skills that allow them to work in many venues.

In the end, McHam says that every corporation needs people who can communicate, be it through stories, news releases, publications or web-only content. While he says that not as many students will go to work at newspapers, that doesn't mean there aren't jobs. "I think there are going to be even more opportunities," McHam says.

What to Expect

The interviewees agree print journalism of the future must prepare for an ongoing format metamorphosis. Roles will morph significantly or even shift in significance.

Journalists of the future will have to be better prepared and more adaptable, not only in the traditional areas of writing and storytelling, but also in every current media format. They must be ready to immediately step into new media that may be only a dream today, but may well be reality by the time they are gathering news in a brave new world.

Special thanks to Mike Blackman, The Fred Harman Professor of Journalism at Baylor University.