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Present Conditions

I want to begin with a couple of parables of journalism in our times. I'll leave it to you to decide whether this story has an unhappy ending or not.

A successful magazine writer in New York was offered a job in 1998 as editorial director of a large Internet service provider. His job was to make up the Internet service provider's home page: to decide which items to feature on its first screen and which to link to: a job very like that done by whoever puts together the front page of a magazine like Vanity Fair or Chatelaine. Useful work, but not normally lavishly paid. The service provider paid him only a little more than his old magazine career had done, but it offered him generous stock options. At one point, he was worth $20 million. Today - nothing.

Another story. My wife and I happened to publish books close together in time in 1999-2000, and so Amazon.com published a little novelty item about us. They sent a young staffer to interview us, a fellow in his mid-20s. I remember he wore black nail polish. I asked him about himself, and he said he wrote some of the reviews on the Amazon site. The job didn't pay much, but again there were those stock options: He figured after three or four more years, he would have accumulated enough to retire to New Mexico and write novels.

In other words, we've just come to the end of the Klondike Gold Rush for people who do what journalists do.

Prospects for people in more conventional forms of journalism were only somewhat less dazzling. The number of magazine titles on U.S. racks reached an all-time peak in the 1990s. Television opportunities proliferated: a decade ago, there was no Fox News, no Oxygen, no Newsworld. Publishing went online: Slate, Salon, Inside.com, MSNBC.com. In 1998, Canada even got a new national daily newspaper.

Compared to the mad expectations of the late 1990s, when people expected to become multimillionaires by writing 300-word book reviews, and when every day seemed to bring word of some new start-up, any future would look bleak. But I am here to contend that despite the grim conditions of 2002, the future of journalism is bright.

I'll acknowledge that present conditions are grim. We are enduring the worst recession in the advertising market since at least the 1950s. The shares of major media companies from AOL Time Warner on down are collapsing. Journalists have lost jobs and income; magazines, websites, and cable channels are closing; and no hope for improvement is yet in sight.

TK journalists were killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Danny Pearl, kidnapped and murdered because he was a journalist, an American, and a Jew. And a free press is one of the symbols of Western democracy that the terrorists seem determined to attack. Al Qaeda contemplated blowing up the broadcast terror of Radio Free Europe in Prague; the anthrax terrorists, whoever they were, targeted two networks, a newspaper, and the headquarters of the tabloid publishers American Media Inc.

In Canada, there are special problems. The private-sector Canadian media have grown in a shape and form largely dictated by government regulations that are being rendered obsolete by technology. What future is there for Much Music when television begins to arrive over the Internet? And the public-sector media depend on government budgets that will shortly be squeezed flat by the coming retirement of the baby boomers. What hope is there for TVO when the province of Ontario must spending on healthcare, as it surely will in the next fifteen years or maybe even ten years?

And yet, as I said, I am an optimist. Before I justify my optimism, let me define what it is I am optimistic about.

Journalism is the business of bringing information and opinion about public affairs to a mass audience by people who try to be accurate and disinterested.

I say "public affairs" because I think most of us would agree that say Nigella Lawson or Ann Landers are not journalists.

I say "mass audience" because I think most of us would agree that newsletter writers who provide highly specialized or technical information are not journalists.

And I say "disinterested" because I think most of us would agree that the financial writers who put together those interesting bulletins from Nesbitt Burns or Merrill Lynch are not journalists either.

So long as people want to know about the world around them - and they will always will - so long as they prefer accurate information to rumor and surmise - and so long as they would like to hear from people who do not have a direct material stake in the information they bring - they will want journalism. And so long as people's need for information grows, so will the business of providing that information.

We all live this growth: every time we read that morning's edition of The Dawn - published in Karachi but available on your desktop - or walk through an airport following the face of Lou Dobbs from overhead screen to overhead screen - or check our wireless PDAs to keep up with the box scores minute by minute. It's growth rapid and all-transforming than any change since the advent of radio; maybe even since the advent of cheap printing in the 1880s and the creation of the penny-paper and the mass media. Growth so rapid and so all-transforming may bring great opportunity to some - like those AOL employees who were able to liquidate in time - but it brings stress and turmoil to others.

Here are the contrasts: The American newsmagazines are dying. Time has lost one third of its readers over the past decade and a half, and will continue to shrink in the years ahead. Yet the Economist, also a newsmagazine, flourishes: It may be the single most profitable magazine in the English-speaking world today.

The networks are shrinking: CBS, NBC, ABC, CBC too. The American networks' evening programs have only a little more than half the audience they had a decade ago. Yet there is more and better news and information program available to North American viewers than ever before: Instead of half an hour a night with Walter Cronkite, we have constant converage from news networks - and a rich buffet of background information on stations like the History Channel and the Discovery Network.

The daily newspaper is in trouble. Readerships are shrinking and so are the total number of titles. Canadians are lucky: Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmon, but with rare exceptions - New York, Boston, Chicago - most American cities are either one-paper towns or have two papers under joint ownership, with all that implies for competitive enthusiasm. And yet, I the newspaper reader have access to almost every title in the world instantaneously, either free or (as with the Times of London) at a lower cost than readers in the cities in which the paper is published.

Journalists feel that cost-conscious managements are squeezing their ability to do serious and in-depth and unusual work. But if I'm interested in any subject - from the number and severity of anti-semitic incidents in Norway to the true effectiveness of NATO's newest rifle - I can check into the vast on-line network of bloggers and learn from somebody directly on the spot more facts than even the most lavishly funded reporter would ever tell me.

So if these are the worst of times, they are also the best of times - which is a trite way of saying that these are unusually complicated times in which both those of us who produce journalism and those of us who use it must find new ways to do our jobs.

The Consumer

I'm glad we're beginning by looking at the news from the consumer's point of view, because I believe it is for his or her sake that we work. We often talk - and I know Mark Starowicz cares deeply about - journalism's contribution to society. Good journalism can make us feel united, can help knit together a nation, can fight for important causes, and those benefits are important. But important as they are, they are incidental benefits - benefits that occur in the course of journalism doing its work. Journalism won't knit together a country for example if the knittees don't watch - and they won't watch if journalism does not tell them things they wish to know.

The British journalist Claud Cockburn - a horrible Stalinist but a very funny man - tells a story about his early days in his autobiography, "I, Claud." It was the early 1930s and he had found a Depression-era job on the BBC. He wrote his first radio script, and was called into the office of his chief. "Cockburn," the chief said, "this script is everything that we at the BBC would wish a script to be - it is learned, it is insightful, it is even profound. But Cockburn, you must always remember that we are competing for the attention of an elderly woman in the north of England with nine cats. And this time, my dear Cockburn," and here he threw the script in the wastebasket, "I'm afraid the cats have it."

It is one of the long-running tragedies of Canadian journalism that it has in general failed to knit together the country precisely because it did not understand - or care to understand - all its audience, both east and west.

Now from the consumer's point of view, the new ultra-competitive world of journalism presents serious new challenges. A couple of years ago, I was lecturing at the University of California at Fullerton, and I had a question and answer session with a rather belligerent young media-studies student.

He told me that people in his generation did not trust the big corporate media - they weren't fooled by the Wall St. Journal and CNN.

So where do you learn what's going on in the world, I asked.

The Internet, he answered proudly.

Oh great.

The Internet is both the world's best news source and its worst. On the Internet, I can learn the names and histories of every single person killed on 9/11 - and I can learn that the 9/11 attacks were a hoax, plotted by the U.S. Government (or alternatively, the Israelis) to justify bigger military budgets (or alternatively, the repression of the Palestinians). A world in which the Internet becomes the dominant medium, as it surely will, is one in which news users will have to make more frequent and more sophisticated judgments about what can be believed and what cannot.

The Internet is promoting what might be called the de-professionalization of news. A hundred years ago, news-gathering was a pretty harum-scarum business. Most newspapers were mouthpieces of a political party, put out by people whose main business was printing. The distinction between fact and opinion was completely blurred. Individuals drifted in and out of reporting jobs.

In the years after World War II, all that changed. Reporting became a career, then a profession. Columbia established a School of Journalism; Harvard gave journalists fellowships; canons of professional ethics were informally agreed. The links between papers and parties were cut: Objectivity became virtue, and then a standard. Forums like this are the culmination of this drive to professionalize.

I don't know how many of you read blogs - but if you visit sites like AndrewSullivan.com or Instapundit or Talking Points Memo or Little Green Footballs or dozens more, you find yourself back in the world of 1900 or maybe even 1750: the age of the pamphleteer. Now as then, these pamphlets are not small operations. Successful blogs like Instapundit get hundreds of thousands of visits a month, rather more for comparison than the websites of influential magazines like the New Republic or the Weekly Standard. Increasingly, these blogs drive news. It was bloggers for example who made a big story in the United States out of the assassination of Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands. For a week, no major American paper referred to the murder at all.

Journalists are giving their audiences more and more - and journalism is demanding more and more from its audiences. Consumers must become more discerning to make intelligent use of the information that journalists now offer them. The good news is that consumers are doing just that. As far as we can judge or measure, the general public is better informed and more knowledgeable than ever before in human history. Somebody has to be doing something right.

But our audiences are changing, and journalists must continue to change with them. As society gets richer and richer - as people devote an ever-dwindling portion of their incomes to purchasing the necessities of life - "consumption" comes to look more and more like a form of self-expression. Journalism will serve its consumers not merely by informing them, but by helping them to define themselves. That is what magazines have done for a quarter of a century, and increasingly, it is what public affairs television is doing: think of the success of shows like "The O'Reilly Factor" on the Fox network.

And these self-defining audiences will not be content merely to watch and listen. Through the Internet and the blogs, they are criticizing - and effectively criticizing - what they watch and read. They are suggesting news. They are beginning to publish it for themselves. The inter-connected and multi-linked individual blogs are beginning to come together in something that looks very like a cyberspace magazine, in which the most popular bloggers, like Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, function as elected editors.

What's the future of journalism from the consumers' point of view? In the future, we will all be journalists, if we want to be.

The Producer

An abundant market from the consumers' point of view is a very tough market from the producers' point of view. When the Internet and the 500-channel universe became realities, many commentators marveled that the supply of information was rising to near-infinity. The corollary was not as often remarked upon: When the supply of something rises to infinity, the price falls toward zero.

So it may not be merely the recession that is squeezing the profitability of the media giants. Media companies may be facing a much more profound and long-term challenge. Of course no single channel can have the ad revenue in a 500-channel universe that it did in the days of the 13-channel dial. Of course newspapers will have trouble raising their newsstand price when they make their contents available for free on-line.

Media companies have tried to solve this problem by building themselves up into bigger and bigger conglomerates: Maybe if you own 300 of the 500 channels, you can achieve earnings like those of the old CBS. This agglomeration is sometimes given the fancy name "synergy": but I wonder whether "synergy" is not Greek for "I hope this company is now too big to fail." But no company is too big to fail, and building taller and taller towers on weaker and weaker foundations is not a formula for safety.

For individual journalists, the future is easier to foresee. In a world in which information becomes abundant, success will go more and more to journalists who do more than report - who can make their own personalities unique and recognizable.

There's an old Hollywood joke about the four phases of an actor's career:

"Who is Joe Blow?"

"Get me Joe Blow!"

"Get me the next Joe Blow!"

"Whatever happened to Joe Blow?"

For better or worse, that is the career trajectory that many of us who work in the media can now also expect.

In other words: journalism is about to become more unsettling, more unpredictable, more turbulent than ever before. The potential rewards will grow, but so will the risks. It will become a career less and less attractive to those who like certainty and security; it will continue to draw its best new recruits from those who see journalism as a mission, not a business.

And after all: If you had wanted a quiet life, you would never have become journalists in the first place, would you?

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