Editor's weekly: Journalism at the crossroads | St. Louis Public Radio

Editor's weekly: Journalism at the crossroads

Jun 13, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 13, 2008 - A few days ago, Sam Zell, who owns the Tribune Co., announced that he plans draconian cutsĀ  for his news organizations. Because Tribune owns such luminaries as the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, the announcement set off much gnashing of teeth in newsrooms.

"What has become clear as we have gotten intimately familiar with the business is that the model for newspapers no longer works," Zell told employees in a memo - a conclusion that I reluctantly agree with.

Zell's response - which I adamantly do not agree with - will be to cut space until content and ads run at a 50-50 split. He also plans to cut staff, having concluded that many reporters are not productive enough. Once again, newspapers will try to lure readers by providing less.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to spiff up online operations. Zell pointed to Channel 11 in St. Louis as a website to emulate. When I looked, that website was featuring a story on Wrestling at the Chase - a nostalgic trip for those of us who watched as kids but an odd choice, to say the least, as a model for leading newspapers to follow.

A second journalistic happening may offer more hope. At a conference of online journalists in Minnesota, the talk was all about providing valuable content. Think of people as citizens, not consumers, several participants implored - a position I agree with. Some were more concerned about "building community" than reporting on it - though I would argue that good reporting is essential to building our community.

The group included a wide variety of people engaged in some aspect of online reporting or commentary - from those who blog as a labor of love to those who work for mainstream media organizations. In between were a few groups like the Beacon - non-profits dedicated to carrying the best of traditional journalism into the new digital world and exploring what the new journalism can become.

Everyone seemed focused on the promise built into the name of the sponsoring organization - Journalism That Matters. This conference, too, included discussion of the bottom line - but achieving economic self-sufficiency was generally regarded as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Lending his perspective to the group was a Washington lawyer who specializes in business. He was fascinated by the ferment in the room. Business analysts know that it's hard - some would say nearly impossible - for established organizations to change rapidly enough to survive a fundamental shift in economics and technology.

In this room, the lawyer said, are some people who will find a new path for journalism, who in 20 years will be its new establishment. And also in the room are those whose organizations will become corpses along the path, he said.

At this point, he added, it's impossible to tell which is which. I suppose it's possible that Sam Zell has the answer. If so, that raises a whole new set of questions.