A couple of weeks ago I was in Malta at an international conference of technology journalists. Along with other Americans, CNET Executive Editor Tom Merritt and I participated on a panel at the event where we talked about the future of the news business in the age of blogging.
The event was a bit of a culture clash between the Americans and the mostly European and Asian journalists in the audience. To a person, the Americans were pessimistic about the future of print and at least somewhat optimistic about blogging and online journalism.
While none of us predicted that print will disappear any time soon, we all agreed that the future of print publishing is looking pretty murky. But several Europeans who spoke up had a different perspective. More than a few were somewhat bullish about printed newspapers, pointing out that many European cities still have multiple competing papers at a time when American newspapers are facing enormous challenges. The Rocky Mountain News recently shut down, and many other U.S. newspapers teeter on bankruptcy.
Even papers not at imminent risk of folding, including the venerable New York Times, are coping with fewer employees, fewer subscribers and fewer advertisers. Some problems of American papers can be attributed to the current economic climate. But even after the recovery, papers will have major challenges thanks to the ever-rising cost of printing and their ever-shrinking share of ad dollars. Having to compete with Internet Web sites for display advertising dollars is challenging enough, but competing with Craigslist and other free or low-cost sites has taken an enormous toll on the once-lucrative classified advertising business.
The European papers also have their challenges, but the Internet hasn't yet had the same impact as it has in the United States. But it's only a matter of time before my overseas colleagues start to face the realities that U.S. print journalists are dealing with now.
But the news business is not about print, it's about information. It doesn't really matter whether you read the news on paper, on a computer screen, on a mobile phone, on a Kindle, or on an as-yet unavailable technology. However the news is consumed, what's important is that there remains a cadre of talented, honest, and enterprising journalists to dig up facts, dispel myths, and keep powerful people in check.
What's sad about the current state of the newspaper industry is that there are now fewer people to do this important work. Some say that's OK because the bloggers will pick up the slack. But a lone wolf opining on a blog is not the same thing as a newsroom full of reporters and editors with the resources and experience to shine the light of truth on the often murky world of government and business. While there are plenty of blogs focused on national and global issues, there are relatively few dedicated to local topics. Someone has to keep an eye on mayors, city councils, police, school districts, and other local services.
There are still TV and radio stations, of course. But while some stations have excellent reporters and investigative units, it's no secret that many people working in broadcasting rely on newspapers and wire services for ideas and even some of the basic facts that make up their stories. I know that firsthand. Even though I do my own fact-checking, hardly a day goes by that I don't look at Web sites with copy from The Associated Press, Reuters, and several U.S. and overseas newspapers to find topics for my CBS News and KCBS radio segments.
Eventually, our economic troubles will abate. Let's hope that competent news organizations--however they deliver the product--survive and find the resources to flourish. Given our collective hunger for truth, I'm optimistic that will happen. I'm just not sure how.
Podcast: Listen to Tom Merritt and Larry Magid discuss their experience with European journalists.