Daily journalism: that dog won’t hunt

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Having grown up in Brooklyn, speaking an accent that’s almost a dialect, I’ve always enjoyed regional idioms and the folk wisdom they reveal. One of my favorite acquired sayings is, “that dog won’t hunt.” That’s how good-old-boys describe actions or ideas they consider to be unworkable.

These days I think of newspaper journalism as a dog that won’t hunt. I say this sadly because I enjoy newspaper work. But facts are facts and it costs money to employ a bunch of journalists even if individually they don’t make much. Eric Schmidt worries about the future of newspapers. Their demise would leave Google bereft of content to scrape, as he told Frontline.  

But journalism’s hard times cannot simply be blamed on the web. Rafat Ali, shown above, was “a laid-off dot-com reporter who’s making money online writing about, well, making money online.” That’s how Wired News profiled him in 2003. Last week hundreds of media entrepreneurs, investors and observers gathered in San Francisco under the banner of Ali’s Paid Content.

Now that dog can hunt.

Daily journalism, by contrast, has grown accustomed to being supported, of not having to think too hard about where money comes from. Editorial departments are remarkably separate from advertising. That’s one of the hallmarks of newspaper culture and it is meant to insulate coverage from commercial pressure to the greatest extent possible.

Now long years of being disconnected from the economic realities of the business has made the newspaper guys weak. They don’t know how to make their writing valuable. Newspapers are hoping to transfer their business model to the web. The Los Angeles Times became the latest big paper to revamp its editorial operations around the web. New research indicates that readership increases substantially when online viewers are considered, but these online readers don’t command nearly the advertising revenue, per capita, as the declining ranks of print readers.

Meanwhile it’s a bleak time for paid news gatherers, as this report suggests:

“The media industry slashed 17,809 jobs last year, a nearly two-fold increase from the 9,453 cuts in 2005, outplacement consultancy Challenger Gray & Christmas said. The figure was the industry’s largest annual job-cut total since 43,420 media job cuts accompanied the collapse of the technology bubble in 2001, the survey said.”

The future  — and here I mean of the republic rather than the folks getting riffed — need not be bleak if the loss of paid newsgathering positions is offset by a greater citizen participation. That is the promise of We Media and the citizen journalism movement. But citizen media has yet to earn its stripes in the watchdog department. 

Meanwhile paid journalists will have to learn how to make money from their works. Thay will have to get entrepreneurial. It may be possible for more hadworking specialty reporters like Rafat Ali to pick off topics that lend themselves to some sort of electronic trade publication.

But newspapers won’t be able to cherrypick topics. They can’t just cover the money-making topics that fill the sections inside the paper. Ideally, they have to write about the powerless and confront the powerful. While critics feel mainstream media has performed poorly in this regard I do not see any successor institution ready to do at least as well if not better. As the New Yorker’s Malcomn Gladwell blogged recently:

“We are dismantling the institution of newspaper journalism precisely at the moment when it seems to be of greatest social value.”

Meanwhile. if Rafat Ali’s gathering in San Francisco was any indicator, trade journalism rocks. Valleywag posted a writeup and photos if you missed it and want to catch the flavor of the event.