"Where do we go from here?"
In the wake of the demise of local papers like the Rocky Mountain News and the well-publicized battle between the New York Times Co. and the Boston Globe's unions, this question has increasingly been on the lips of media professionals and those interested in the future of journalism in the Internet age. This past week, lawmakers, professional journalists, and representatives of some of the most successful Internet ventures all weighed in with their own predictions and prescriptions.
Turning a spotlight on recent developments in the media, Senator John Kerry on Wednesday convened a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet to investigate "The Future of Journalism." In his opening remarks, Kerry painted a grim picture of shuttered newsrooms and falling stock prices, while issuing a call to action in order to "preserve the core societal function that is served by an independent and diverse news media."
In its effort to diagnose what ails journalism, the Committee heard testimony from representatives of both old and new media: David Simon, a former reporter at the Baltimore Sun (and creator of The Wire); James Moroney, publisher of The Dallas Morning News; Steve Coll, former managing editor of the Washington Post (not, as ABC News reported, the Wall Street Journal); Marissa Mayer, Google Vice President for Search Products and User Experience; Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post; and Alberto Ibargüen, president and chief executive of the Knight Foundation (note: CMLP receives funding from the Knight Foundation). Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) also offered arguments in favor of his recently introduced legislation that would grant non-profit tax-exempt status to newspapers. As befitting a hearing about the future of online media, the hearing was extensively covered on Twitter.
The assessments of journalism's future ranged from the dire (Coll's fear that we could experience "a lost generation of American journalism" before online media hit its stride) to the sunny (Huffington's assertion that consumers are now "getting the news they want, when they want it, how they want it, and where they want it"). Summarizing what's at stake, Knight's Ibargüen reminded those assembled that the future of online journalism, good or ill, will depend upon widespread access to broadband Internet. "If the future of democracy's news and information is online — then we must ensure everyone is online. Otherwise, we disenfranchise millions of our fellow citizens," Ibargüen said.
The hearing even managed to dredge up the specter of a crack down by content creators on the republication of articles and headlines by bloggers and news aggregators like Google (at least the latter of which could be easily remedied by a simple technological fix, were the Associated Press and other content creators inclined to implement it). Moroney, taking a page out of the AP playbook, claimed that the use of The Dallas Morning News' content by websites like the Huffington Post "isn't a fair use."
Those covering "The Future of Journalism" hearing, however, devoted perhaps the greatest number of electrons to the discussion and dissection of Simon's challenge that "[t]he day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore Zoning Board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we've actually reached some sort of equilibrium." Not surprisingly, Simon's comparison of citizen journalism with the ideal of professional journalism (which, as Walter Pincus points out, has already begun to disappear in the flurry of staff cuts as newspapers attempt to staunch the bleeding) has come under attack by many on the Web.
While the politicians were debating the future of journalism in Washington, DC, the next new thing was coming out of a different Washington: Amazon was introducing the Kindle DX, hailed by some, including Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, as print journalism's savior.
The Times' Sulzberger wasn't the only media mogul searching for a way to monetize digital access to print publications. Rupert Murdoch announced Wednesday night his plan to begin charging for access to News Corp. owned web content within the year.
Meanwhile, Michael Wolff -- Murdoch biographer and Newser.com founder -- was delivering a keynote address at the annual E&P/Mediaweek Interactive Conference in which he argued that we are about to see the death of newspapers. Wolff's prescription for the media? The consolidation of Internet content providers into giant "networks," where a smaller number of companies with a large user base, like the TV networks, control and disseminate the news. (Which leads one to wonder whether Wolff has been asleep for the past few years, as the major networks have struggled under increasing pressure from the fragmentation of their audiences resulting from more and higher-quality offerings on cable. Perhaps a better model for the future of media would be HBO?)
Of course, newspapers could always follow Mort Zuckerman's advice for success in the Internet age.