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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What does digital media's rise say about traditional journalism?

David Carr of The New York Times wrote an interesting column about the launch of a new digital weekly magazine, Huffington. In his column, he made the point that the magazine’s launch, similar to so many traditional print magazine launches of yesteryear, was another sign of the increasing velocity of the transformation of modern media to digital-only formats.
“I’ve written before that The Huffington Post may be one of the fastest build-outs of an editorial brand in history, all the while complaining that it derived a lot of value from digitally kidnapping the work of others,” Carr writes. “But I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t matter what I think is right and wrong, or what I think constitutes appropriate aggregation or great journalism. The market is as the market does.”
He also relates a story about the Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans, which cut production from daily to three times a week and laid off about half of its staff. On the news, he turned to his colleague, Brian Stelter, to say, “Well, the future you rooted for is finally here.” To which Stelter replied, “I didn’t root for it, I just realized it was going to happen no matter what.”
This is all well and good.
I have no problem with embracing the future of newsgathering and dissemination, whatever form it takes.
I don’t have a problem with the future of (print, digital) newspapers and magazines, as long as that future includes good and important journalism, not just snippets of celebrity news and a couple of paragraphs of stolen copy from another news source.
It’s all well and good to accept the brave new world of digital media, as long as digital media can foster — and generate revenue from — doing good journalism.
I am not worried that digital-only magazines like Huffington are going to supplant traditional print magazines like The New Yorker or that The New Yorker will someday go to a digital-only format. So be it, the market is as the market does, as Carr puts it.
My bigger concern is that digital-only magazines like Huffington will no longer provide — or be able to afford — the kind of journalism that The New Yorker or The New York Times is now providing.
In other words, the market isn’t necessarily saying, “We want digital.” Rather, the market seems to be saying, “We want short vapid stories about celebrities and grisly murders.”
Yes, as Carr points out, The Huffington Post won its first Pulitzer for its 10-part series on wounded veterans. However, two big points:
• Is that series the norm or the exception?
• I strongly suspect that the execs at Huffington Post know exactly how many hits that 10-part series received as opposed to, say, the stories about Kim Kardashian’s divorce, which arguably took fewer resources.
You see, this hole we’re climbing down really has less to do with digital presentation of news. It has more to do with content.
The reason that the Internet and digital-only sites like Huffington Post have exacerbated the downfall of traditional print newspapers is because it has allowed the market to voice itself much more quickly. And the market is telling us it doesn’t want long-winded boring stories about health care reform and AIDS in Africa and austerity measures in Greece.
Of course, print newspapers have lost circulation to readers who do read these stories online, and advertisers have scattered to online advertising, which add to the problem.
But I will argue that the real problem is that thing that newspapers do better than anyone else — really good important journalism — is becoming less and less in demand.
And that, my friends, is the real story behind the rise of digital media and the downfall of newspapers.


  1. Scott, I think another part of this problem is that readers who do appreciate good journalism were accustomed to consuming it for not much money, so they have a sense of entitlement to it, and don't feel they should have to pay what it really costs to support it.

  2. I agree, that is part of the problem, too.