Are Journalists the 21st Century's Buggy Whip Makers? Newspapers Might Vanish, Too, If They Continue to 'Dream of Past Dominance While Taking Their Product and Trying to Fit It into Their Competitor's Terrain.'

By Dietrich, William | Nieman Reports, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Are Journalists the 21st Century's Buggy Whip Makers? Newspapers Might Vanish, Too, If They Continue to 'Dream of Past Dominance While Taking Their Product and Trying to Fit It into Their Competitor's Terrain.'


Dietrich, William, Nieman Reports


In 1990, at the height of the Pacific Northwest battle over whether to cut the last virgin "old growth" timber, many loggers and sawmill owners panicked. Their specialty was cutting and sawing giant trees and, if the national forest supply disappeared, their equipment and skills were obsolete. Environmentalists were not sympathetic. These woods workers, they argued, were no different than the buggy whip makers put out of work when the automobile arrived. After all, times do change.

Today, the availability of inexpensive digital cameras and recorders, the triumph of the Internet, and the explosion of amateur Web-based publishing--MySpace. com, blogs, e-mails and Web sites--puts similar stress on those of us who remember the "good old days" of fat and sassy monopoly newspapers. When anyone can record and post information--the commodity for which reporters, editors, producers and photographers are paid--journalists are in danger of becoming a luxury society no longer can afford.

The direct cause of shrinking news staffs is a loss of advertising and circulation to new digital competition. But my questions--and they are still only questions--are whether recent layoffs because of loss of revenue are only part of the technological earthquake. Will the ubiquity of information make traditional journalism less valuable or even obsolete?

Thinking Ahead

To paraphrase Andy Warhol, in the future everyone will be a journalist for 15 minutes. When crime victims can post wrenching accounts of assaults (and accompanying photos of bruises) and politicians bypass the press with Web-based campaigns, then the role journalists traditionally play is being usurped. Instead of sitting in the front row of history being made, we're now two or three rows back at hurricanes, tsunamis, wars and campaigns, with our view sometimes obstructed by on-the-spot, competing amateurs whose accounts of the event provide immediacy, passion and, yes, rumor, exaggeration and misinterpretation.

That's exactly the point, journalists protest. We aren't simply descriptive witnesses of spot news, but careful, accurate and fair reporters of what we observe. We collect vast amounts of disparate information and synthesize it into coherent stories. We cover the whole range of news, not the day's fancy of the blogosphere. We provide a sense of history and perspective. We're eloquent. We're witty. The world's pundits, gasbags and gadflies take their cue from what we produce. In short, we're indispensable.

But let's face it; a fair amount of traditional journalism has been mechanical, shoe-leather stuff. Sit through a routine council meeting or congressional hearing. Check the police blotter. Travel to a disaster. Record what is going on in stenographic fashion. And the less inspired the reporting is, the more it becomes obsolete in the Internet age. Why cover a council meeting, publishers might ask, when the handful of readers who care about it can access documents and testimony online? Why travel to a distant forest fire when those who want to follow its progress can go on the Web to find photos, a wire story, and some eyewitness accounts?

People used to pay newspapers to gather information that was often expensive or tedious to find. But with the Internet, we have lost our monopoly on information. Yes, newspapers have numerous advantages, but so did horses. They were quieter than cars, less likely to get stuck, could be fueled in a field, and didn't depreciate as quickly. But have you commuted by horseback lately?

I live in a small city of about 15,000 about 60 miles north of Seattle. Citizen Web sites on contentious land use and community issues often offer more detailed information and trenchant analysis than the local weekly. Their weaknesses: one-sidedness and a tendency to come and go. Still, amateurs with a cause have more time to devote to researching an issue--and more Web space to show what they've discovered--than the harried reporter on the tiny staff of a paper publication.

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