Unbaked Thoughts on the Future of Journalism

Like so many people in journalism, I spend a lot of time pondering, talking about, and trying to prepare myself for what the future of this profession might be. And next month I’m going to be speaking on a panel at the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism called “Making the Most of Turbulent Times: Finding Opportunities in a Changing Industry,” that seeks to add to the conversation on this subject.

In preparation for that panel, Tommy Tomlinson, the moderator, sent out an email to get us all thinking.

I put together something a few days ago in response to his prompt and while it’s fairly unbaked, writing it made me feel a bit hopeful — both about the panel and about the future of journalism. Here’s what I wrote:

I think there are opportunities, and I agree with Mara (Schiavocampo, one of my fellow panelists) that many of them are in the freelance realm. If you are looking for a job where someone will take care of the economics while you take care of the journalism, you will be disappointed. So I think we’ll be seeing more people working to build their business skills (as CEOs of their own mini journalism businesses) in addition to working on their storytelling and reporting skills. It will be very hard for those who are really not inclined to find “sponsors” for their work, but journos aren’t the only ones facing this transitions. Talk to artists and they deal with the same conflict.

I’m also interested in new kinds of support systems that will sprout up to meet the needs of an ever expanding group of independent journalists. Imagine the kinds of tools all these freelancers will need — continuing education and training, technology, research services, new models of syndication. These areas present great opportunities to entrepreneurs and perhaps employment opportunities for reinventing journalists.

I have a whole month to percolate ideas on this and would love to hear if anyone has any thoughts in reaction to this. Am I nuts? Is anyone seeing any interesting opportunities that I should be sharing with the audience?

And by all means, come to the conference if you care, worry or wonder about the future of quality journalism. Though this is my first time going as a speaker, I’ve been to the conference several times before and it is always one of the big learning moments of my year.

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11 Responses to “Unbaked Thoughts on the Future of Journalism”

  1. Kathryn/kathrynhallpublicist.com Says:

    Good thoughts, Marci. All I can say is I’m glad I’ve been an independent publicist for almost thirty years because I’ve kind of “been through it all,” so from one standpoint none of “this” is new to me. On top of that I’ve developed a successful blog and am very active on Twitter. I think people who do not continue developing their skills, esp. social media skills, will be really hurting–or simply find ways to drop out of the race. It’s definitely a HUGE turning point which will require great courage and fortitude, I do believe. It’s also an incredible opportunity to dig in and find the best in yourself–and find venues to put it out there. (The collective) you are not alone.

  2. Andrew Delaware Says:

    I read your thoughts with interest, Marci. My concern about the idea that journalists will need to become business-savvy entrepreneurs is that this drains enormous amounts of time, and forces people to wear too many hats. Generally speaking, most people are better at what they do (especially when it is a specialized craft, as is jounalism) when they focus on it. Exclusive focus is perhaps a bit much – there is a balance – but certainly, having to learn how to market oneself, network like crazy, pitch to numerous publications, etc. etc. leaves little time for the real work.

    IF things do progress to the point where journalists are almost exclusively freelancers, watch rates rise to the point where it will no longer make sense, and in-house will become de-rigeur again. After all, if you have to spend 30 hours on the business side for 10 hours of writing, that’s a lot of time to have to account for financially. We saw that happen in IT – and so, I believe that if journalism heads that direction, there will be a quick retreat to the reliability of in-house journalists.

    After all, as a publisher, wouldn’t you want the GOOD writers to get the work, regardless of their business acumen?

    My two cents. :)

  3. Katie of Collective-E.com Says:

    My favorite part of the Gawker tweet that announced Liz Smith’s departure from the NY Post, was when they said: “you can find her right here on the internet.” So my question is, do you feel more empowered with your blog and other types of online outlets?

    I just read Kathryn’s comment (after I wrote mine), so it looks like the survivor journalists are going to be on the Internets…

    That’s a good question Katie. It’s not really about empowerment for me; it’s about reach and about what the work entails. When I blogged for The New York Times, my blog was read by thousands of people whether or not I did anything to market or promote it (though even then, more people read me when I did some work to get people to read my work.) When I write on this blog, I wear several hats — reporter, editor, publisher, marketer. — Marci

  4. Working Girl Says:

    These are some interesting ideas, Marci. I, too, wonder and worry about the future of journalism. The “morning paper” is a pleasurable part of my day and I hate to see it disappear. As it is, my local newspaper has dwindled to two skimpy, unsatisfying sections. It’s sad.

    In a general sense, I think we all need to be entrepreneurial in the way we run our careers. Believing that a company, any employer, will “take care” of us is a potential path to disaster. Not to mention somewhat delusional. It’s better, smarter and more realistic to rely on ourselves! This has always been true. Maybe it’s just more true today.

    In the case of journalism, it seems to me that a lot of the “new media” relies on a foundation of traditional media. All those blog articles link to and base their work on the “real” news supplied by the New York Times, Wall St. Journal, and others. When they are gone, or radically altered, then what? I will be curious to see how this shakes out. I keep thinking it’s going to loop around somehow, back in the direction of the traditional model. Maybe not completely, but some. Right now the situation feels off balance and untenable.

    Meanwhile, individual people need to navigate these choppy waters. Your approach is one good way to do that.

  5. Ilise Benun Says:

    Marci, I see many writers, as well as designers and other creative service providers, going freelance in droves as jobs get eliminated.

    That’s why we partnered with HOW Magazine in August to put on the first business conference for freelancers, “Creative Freelancer Conference” http://www.creativefreelancerconference.com/

    To our delight, it was a success, which proved to us that there is a tremendous need for this type of education, now more than ever. So we’re doing it again this August in San Diego. We’re just finishing up the program and will be covering how to price your services, tax issues, social media and other marketing tools, how to deal with nightmare clients and much more.

    And I have to I disagree with Andrew: the business side takes time to learn but doesn’t have to take that much away from doing the real work, once you establish the tools and systems that work for you. And it makes us all so much more autonomous and capable of weathering any storm that comes along.

    As a self employed person, I am in a much stronger position than anyone with a job and I feel extremely lucky to be in this position.

  6. Linda Ziskind Says:

    Marci, I’d say your thoughts are baked just fine. Your viewpoint is one of the most insightful and strategic that I’ve read on the topic. Unlike many others in the business, you have an unblinkingly clear understanding of how radically media has to change in order to survive, and, as far as I can see, the only one who’s offered some sensible suggestion of a way forward. Brava and well said.

  7. Helen Says:

    Time to re-read Dan Pink’s Free Agent Nation! http://tinyurl.com/cxfjmo

  8. Jessica Says:

    Hello Marci,

    I think you’re right that journalists will increasingly have to run their own ships. But, Andrew is also right about the amount of time it takes to run the business, vs. get the actual journalism done. It makes you wonder if/how journalism schools are addressing the issue: are they adding entrepreneurial/social media skills to the curriculum?

    Perhaps small groups of journalists should get together and hire social media strategistsconsultants to help them leverage blogs and social networking websites. The advice you got from Katie Hellmuth is a good example of how working with a social media expert could help illuminate the online networking labyrinth.

    Also, it seems that groups of established journalists who are interested in a particular area (business, sports, etc.) should be able to start their own niche news site, then hire marketing/ad people. If you look at the team at VentureBeat, for example, it’s mostly former newspaper reporters.

    Jessica

  9. Barbara Parry Says:

    Banding together in groups for joint marketing/business ventures may be one answer for journalist freelancers. All of the technology is there for the harnassing. I’m a retired newspaper editor, and I am excited about the possibilities technology has to offer. Of course, I’m not worrying about a job, but several years of involvement in blog communities has led me to think in terms of community for help. My 2 cents worth, after enjoying your post. The “Man on Wire,” Phillipe Petit, is an enormously creative person. What do I do, he mused when asked what he was thinking before the first step on a high wire: “I turn a question mark into an exclamation point.” !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Gypsy Boots Says:

    Firs, let me recommend this Clay Shirky piece on journalism’s future (http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/).

    Second, while journalism is figuring out how to make the transition, more of the juice has transferred to the “push” side. That is, people with messages to get into the public arena now have more responsibility for managing them, with less of a media filter to contend with as papers shrink, close or go online with smaller staffs.. This is an opportunity for powerful “messagers” to control more of what we read and hear. I don’t know whether this is good, bad, or indifferent. Maybe all three at once.

    Thoughts from people in PR?

  11. heymarci Says:

    Gypsy Boots — Thanks for posting the link to Clay Shirky’s piece. It lays out the issues perfectly and has been a hot topic on Twitter over the past few days.

    And good point on the “messagers.” It’s kind of irrelevant whether it’s good or bad — at times it will be both — the key is that it’s the new reality and there’s no way it can be ignored.

    – Marci

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