Tom Eblen: Journalism faces challenges, but the future holds many possibilities

Technology gets credit and blame

Herald-Leader columnistDecember 10, 2013 

Tom Eblen

This is the season for holiday parties, which means several opportunities a week for someone to corner me in a crowded room and ask about the future of newspapers.

Some people tell me they worry about newspapers going away, because they like the feel of paper in their hands and the smell of ink in the morning.

Others worry more about journalism itself: How can American self-government survive without a robust, credible news media?

I fall into the second group; I worry about the news, not the paper. When asked, I give people a brief synopsis of why newspapers are hurting, why good journalism is threatened and where I think the trends could lead.

Then I ask if I can get them anything from the bar, because by that time I need a drink.

So, in the interest of public curiosity and my own sanity and sobriety, here are some thoughts about the future of newspapers and journalism.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, these are the best of times and worst of times for journalism. The reasons for both are digital technology and the Internet, which have profoundly transformed the news media.

The good news is that the digital revolution has given journalists amazing reporting tools and news-delivery platforms that they could only have dreamed of a few years ago.

Rather than just being able to publish one or two print editions a day, newspaper journalists can now deliver up-to-the-minute news, photos, video and audio anywhere on websites and mobile devices. Plus, readers can instantly respond with comments, changing journalism from a lecture into a conversation.

Newspapers' print circulation has slipped some, but growing online readership has more than made up for it. And that's the irony: more people are reading newspaper journalism than ever before, but newspapers are making less money. A lot less.

Before the Internet, mass media was an exclusive club. Media companies needed a lot of expensive equipment and vast distribution networks, so they often became monopolies.

Technology has ended those monopolies. Now, anyone with an Internet connection and a digital device can publish information that can be seen by unlimited numbers of people around the world within seconds.

But the same technology that has created what should be journalism's golden age has ravaged the advertising-based business model that has always paid for journalism. More than two-thirds of newspaper revenues come from advertising.

As with news, there are no longer advertising monopolies. New digital advertising platforms keep taking slices out of the pie. Newspaper print advertising is still a good business, but it's not growing.

Traditional media companies are getting some of the online advertising, but there is a lot of competition. Much of it comes from companies that are not having to spend money to create real journalism, or even what is generically called "content."

As advertising revenues have shrunk, so have newspaper pages and staffs. The American Society of Newspaper Editors reported in June that newsrooms have shed 18,400 jobs since 2000, with employment falling from 56,400 newspaper journalists nationally to 38,000.

Will print newspapers survive? I think so, at least in some form in most markets. Print advertising remains very effective for many kinds of advertisers. But digital is the future, which means organizations that want to continue the costly process of creating good journalism will have to find new revenue streams.

I always thought newspapers made a mistake by giving away journalism online, but that model is changing. Most newspapers have recently initiated some form of online subscription or "pay wall." That will only increase.

The New York Times recently reported that its online subscription revenue had surpassed online advertising revenue, which is a promising sign for journalism. It costs money to pay trained journalists to do quality reporting, writing, photography, graphics and editing.

The economics of journalism will continue to be a challenge, but the future holds many new possibilities. One exciting development is small, niche journalism websites being started by entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations. They could help fill some voids being left by shrinking media companies.

What worries me, though, is the rise of entertainment, hucksterism and political propaganda masquerading as honest journalism on scores of websites and cable TV channels, such as Fox News and MSNBC.

But that's another conversation. Happy holidays.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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