What Will Become of Journalism, And Journalists, In the Internet Age?

The internet is perhaps the greatest disruptor of established businesses in modern times. For example, twenty years ago when I needed to plan a plane trip I would go to the office of the nearest secretary, to borrow a copy of a massive paperbound publication that I would use to plan my itinerary, the Official Airline Travel Guide (OAG).

OAG was a great business. They published a large book, knowing that it had to be updated frequently as the airlines changed their schedules, and so must have raked in piles of money from all the people who had to subscribe to it so they could run their business.

OAG lives on as a website, though I am sure they are much less profitable than before; itness Expedia, ITA Software and Kayak. [1]

Moreover, many people who used to be travel agents no longer work in that industry, driven out of it by sites such as these.

The daily newspaper industry is especially threatened by the internet. Though I subscribe to the NY Times and read its printed edition daily, I visit Google News several times a day to get the latest. Daughter Jen reads the NY Times via its website; she never buys a printed copy.

The Times is not alone in being challenged. For example, I gave a keynote talk at a workshop on Open Source in St. Louis in October, 2004. [2] One of the presenters was from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a great newspaper, yet he related how the computer technology in the newsroom was hopelessly out of date as the paper didn’t have the money to invest in new technology.

The NY Times has sought ways to live in the internet age, first in the form of requiring payment for access to its web site, more recently by providing such access for free, as discussed in my post The Gray Lady has a new spring in her step: Times to Stop Charging for Parts of Its Web Site.

Many newspapers have survived only by making drastic cuts in their staff; the Los Angeles Times is a good example of this.

Many journalists have moved to the web. For example, the editor-in-chief of Politico.com is John Harris. He began his career as an intern with the Washington Post and went on to become one our best political analysts, yet he has moved to web, as have many others. Mr. Harris is a frequent guest on my favorite news show, Washington Week, hosted by Gwen Ifill. [3] Many of the other regular guests, who used to be associated only with print or broadcast media, now have a presence on the web, in some cases it is their only presence, as is the case with Mr. Harris.

Yes, as they say on Wall Street, “It is what it is. Deal with it.”

Yet, I wonder what will become of journalism, journalists, reporters, and us as we move forward.

Mr. Harris began his career in journalism as an intern, as did Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post. [4] Bob Woodward took a job as a young reporter at the Post after applying to several law schools. I expect Peter Applebome, the NY Times columnist and author of a recent column that was the subject of my post Peter Applebome: Soldiers’ Portraits Make the Costs of War More Visible.

These men all began their careers as young reporters, as did the late David Halberstam, one of my favorite authors.

It took them decades to learn their craft. That they mastered it is shown in their writing.

Yet, where will we find the next generation of journalists and reporters? There will be far fewer jobs available. Though some will choose journalism as a career, their numbers will inevitably decline, as will the number of professors in schools of journalism, such as Ari Goldman of Columbia’s school of journalism, the subject of my post Kaddish.

Some will find homes on the web.

But those homes will be on the web. Those journalists won’t be working on a local paper and writing about the town in which they live, the town that is their home.

We are going to pay a price for all the stories that will thus go unwritten. We don’t know what it will be, we just know we will have pay it, in the currency of ignorance.

Corruption will flourish when the lights of journalism are dimmed, or extinguished, as will plain, ordinary incompetence.

So we should pay careful attention to those who continue to work as journalists, and the few who will carry on their work, deciding it is more important to tell us about the world as it is, and not to seek to make oodles of boodle working for hedge funds.

We should honor them, too.

Notes:

1. Our family has used Expedia to plan many trips. However, I find ITA is the best for exploring airline flight schedules. Their matrix displaying flights is a thing of beauty and a great piece of technology. A friend recommended Kayak, though I haven’t yet used it. It is an uber-travel site in that it just searches all the others such as Expedia and ITA, harvesting the best deals.

2. I flew out of LaGuardia Airport late on a Monday afternoon, only to note that well over half my fellow passengers were wearing Red Sox caps, a sign that they were true fans on their way to see the World Series in St. Louis. I spent Tuesday going over my talk, only to learn late that night that I would be facing a tough crowd indeed the next morning at 9AM, as the Sox ended the series by sweeping the Cards Tuesday night.

3. Ms. Ifill was the NY Times reporter assigned to cover the campaign of Bill Clinton in 1992, at a time when has a definite underdog. His success, and her skill in writing about it, launched her career. She later moved to NBC and for the last several years has been the moderator of Washington Week.

She is very good at her job, second only to the matchless Paul Duke, who moderated the show during the Watergate Era. Then called Washington Week in Review (WWIR), it was our best source of information during those troubling and very confusing times. We watched it religiously. The regular guests then included Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News, Neil Harris of Time Magazine, and Charles McDowell. They were all great journalists; Lisagor the first among equals.

Ms. Ifill was also the subject of a scurrilous attack the radio personality Don Imus some years back. Unsurprisingly he was thrown off the air after making a racist remark about the Rutgers University Women’s Basketball team earlier this year.

4. Mr. Bernstein was once married to the writer and film director Nora Ephron. His peradventures resulted in divorce, followed by her revenge in her hilarious, devastating, book, Heatburn. Her son Max was a classmate of my son Mike at Rodeph Sholom nursery school in NYC in the 80’s, and I recall attending one of Max’s birthday parties with Mike.

A couple of years later Mike had as a classmate one of the sons of the violinist Itzhak Perlman. When the class did a project in which each child had to build a model of a building in New York City, Perlman’s son did one of Carnegie Hall, as it was the building he knew best.

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