Last month, a major American newspaper chain laid off many hundreds of employees. The biggest cuts were in Birmingham and New Orleans, making them the two large cities in America without a daily newspaper.
These cuts are a reality of the current transformation in news — and a fairly massive transformation at that. The problem is, as we move from print to digital, we’re struggling with the revenue side of things. This isn’t exactly a bold statement here: We in media screwed up the Internet. We took steps forward without bothering to check our footing. From the start, most news organizations failed to find ways to make money online.
In 2012, we have amazing tools for telling stories and sifting through data, more than we’ve ever had before. It’s an exciting time for sharing stories and engaging audiences. But there’s so much more left to learn about storytelling on the web.
Whether or not we learn those things is up to the type of leaders we find in journalism.
I know that there are media leaders capable of thinking about the future. I’ve seen them out there. Here’s a quote from one great media thinker: Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos.
“The reason I’m doing it is that it is a symbol of long-term thinking, and the idea of long-term responsibility. We humans have become so technologically sophisticated that in certain ways we’re dangerous to ourselves. It’s going to be increasingly important over time for humanity to take a longer-term view of its future.”
There, he’s actually talking about building a clock. But the same quote could hold true for Amazon.com and their long-term media strategy. As one of his former executives also notes, Bezos “thinks in decades and centuries… Unlike most of us, Jeff is hard-wired for the very long term.”
I look at the cuts happening in news organizations today, and I ask myself why I don’t see more thinkers like Bezos. I want to know if there are newsroom leaders out there who are forward-thinking, too.
Like the cuts in Birmingham and New Orleans, for example. I want to know: Were those moves made with the future of journalism in mind? How are the moves and cuts that news organizations are making today building a better future for our industry?
I fear that these aren’t forward-thinking changes. These seem to be cost-cutting moves. Jobs are being slashed because it makes sense in the short term.
In arguing for the cuts, the Huntsville Times’ editor discussed the need to “preserve quality journalism.”
It’s the kind of word that gets thrown around at, say, nursing homes, when they tell you they’re going to do all they can to preserve your grandpa’s quality of life.
Companies that are building amazing things don’t use words like “preserve.” That’s a word that reeks of desperation, of a company still clinging to something they once had.
And that’s not good enough. We can’t be building the future of journalism if we’re too busy trying to maintain our grasp on the past.
It takes great leadership to ask tough questions about what we’re doing and what we’re building. But we have to start asking these questions — questions like:
- What is it that we, in journalism, actually do?
- What is our role in our communities?
- By making significant changes today, how are we building a form of journalism that can be strong 5/10/20 years from now?
These are all questions that we’re asking at Stry.us. I know that journalism companies don’t have lots of money to experiment. That’s why we’re testing things out ourselves, seeing what works and what needs iteration. We’re going to continue to document our experiments here on the site. I hope we learn a lot from this Springfield project, and I hope news organizations take our findings and implement them in their own newsrooms.
But I also hope those news organizations realize a simple truth: Outsiders like Stry.us can only do so much. Traditional media still has massive influence in the news that gets read/heard/watched by millions. And every decision made by those newsrooms that’s not part of a long-term strategy is a decision that’s just making things harder for us young journalists. We’re the ones who, like it or not, are ultimately going to have to clean up this mess.
It takes great leadership to make things a little bit worse in the short term in order to build something stronger for tomorrow. Things are going to get worse — or at least a bit more chaotic — before they get better.
What I see today are news organizations making things a little bit worse in the short term to make things a little more financially palatable today.
On behalf of the young people who love journalism and stories and the role we serve in our society, let me say: We strenuously object.
From one generation to another, I’m asking you: Help us start building the future of journalism. We will make more mistakes along the way. We do not know which is the right path.
But this is the journey of a thousand small steps, and I cannot understand why we are putting off that first step for tomorrow.
Let’s begin now. Let’s admit that we have failed before. Let’s pledge to revisit our mission statements and our roles in society, and let’s make decisions that serve the future of journalism.
Let’s take the first step.