The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

A journalist’s duty

Jeremy LittauRoy Peter Clark has an interesting post on Poynter’s web site declaring that it is the journalist’s duty to read the newspaper (“…emphasis on paper, not pixels,” he adds) while we for business models to make online news solvent. The thinking, as it goes, is that journalists need to use their own product more to keep the newspaper viable, presumably while we transition to online news. The calculus seems pretty straightforward: if newspapers go away and online news isn’t profitable, then professional news goes away.

While his conclusion might be true (and that’s a mighty big “might”), the premise is all wrong. Steve Yelvington had a fantastic piece on his blog that the problem is not economic viability, but rather that news has become irrelevant because it has essentially locked itself in an ivory tower. I won’t duplicate his thinking on the subject because it is pretty clear, but there are other issues to discuss here anyhow.

Clark is not talking about saving journalism, he is talking about saving newspapers. This is an important distinction.

What Clark is trying to head off is Joseph Schumpeter’s process of creative destruction, which posits that entrepreneurial success necessarily means that established institutions unable to adapt in the new environment suffer. This is a reality in the era of globalization (ref. Thomas Friedman’s excellent “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” in part to see his account of how such giants as IBM were not able to adapt to an era of consumer choice; the company lost almost everything).

In the era of globalization, where creative destruction is the norm, you cannot just throw money blindly at the status quo. It won’t work. Change is not only the driving force of this new economic era, it is a necessity. Newspapers have been slow to change, soaking in their 35% profit margins and not preparing for what is next. Now they’re suffering the consequences, and the way a journalist is supposed to show they give a damn is by feeding the lead-footed beast (even though the beast is still unwilling to give up those lofty profit margins in the face of fierce competition)?

Forget it.

I prefer to answer that Clark has forgotten his Elements of Journalism

“Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.”

If you believe in this institution called the press, you should be ready to adapt to whatever form the media take. It’s not about the medium, stupid. It’s about the journalism. Maybe newspapers need to go away if they can’t adapt, and the person who wants to do journalism and believes in it will find (or create!) another medium.

Yes, this stuff is scary. But as long as people are interested in the truth and want to see that truth in the public discussion, there will always be journalism in some form or another. Always. It might be restricted in authoritarian societies where telling the truth might be more difficult, but it will not go away.

And, as Yelvington notes, there is a market for this stuff. We just have to come down from the ivory tower and rediscover how to be partners with our communities in the process of news.


October 12, 2007 - Posted by | Jeremy Littau


  1. Thanks for you thoughtful critique of my essay. Like other critics, so far, you argue that it’s the journalism and not the medium that is most important, and I agree. But you gloss over the problem of resources. It’s not about who makes the highest profits. It’s about who makes enough money to improve the quality of public service. “There will always be journalism….” is no comfort. Who will pay to build the news capacity to keep local communities informed. Right now that institution is the newspaper, and until we build its replacement we should work to reform it and preserve its health for as long as we can. Cheers.

    Comment by Roy Peter Clark | October 12, 2007 | Reply

  2. Interesting observation, but I really don’t think that even if every journalist subscribed to their local newspaper it would make one bit of difference in a newspaper’s bottom line. The problem is economics, but it isn’t subscriber economics. What you are suggesting isn’t even a Band-Aid fix, it’s only a feel-good fix.

    Maybe I am the only one comforted by the idea that there will always be journalism, I guess, but to me it shows that the craft is stronger than the short-sided herd that runs it.

    Comment by Jeremy | October 13, 2007 | Reply

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