The wailing, the gnashing of teeth, and the rending of garments is getting tiresome. The "death of journalism" / "death of newspapers" meme has been useful, but it's time for it to die. It's not true, and it's outlived its usefulness.
Useful? Yes, useful. Five years ago American newsrooms were dominated by denyers who refused to face the facts about changes in the media landscape, and curmudgeons dedicated to the proposition that all change is inherently bad.
That is no longer true.
When Bruce Sherman's financial maneuvering brought Knight-Ridder crashing to the ground, the scales fell from many eyes.
That set off a familiar pattern to anyone who's studied emotional responses to change:
- The struggle against denial. It can't be true. Oh, yes it is true. No way. Yes, way.
- Storm and stress. It's true, but what does it mean? What can we do? The world as we knew it has been turned upside-down. We fear chaos and darkness. Woe, woe. All is lost.
- Reluctant acceptance. We begin to see beyond the thunder and lightning. We adjust to the new realities, integrate them into our worldview. We may sigh. We may mourn. It is what it is.
- We look forward and move on. We've adjusted to reality. Our feet are on the ground. We begin to see possibilities. We plan for the future. We get back to work.
The "death of journalism" meme is part of stage 2. It would be really nice if we could jump from stage 1 to stage 4 and skip all the sturm und drang, but it doesn't work that way. We have go through the stages. Some of us will move faster than others.
But let's not get stuck.
Let's come to grips with some realities.
Newspapers are not the alpha and omega of journalism and not the anointed vessels of the First Amendment. Journalism will happen with or without them.
But newspapers are not going away, not any time soon. They are far more healthy than generally believed. Don't confuse huge corporate finance mistakes with a failure of the advertising business model. Don't imagine that the problems of the Baltimore Sun and the Boston Globe are the problems of every newspaper.
Among the more than 1,400 daily newspapers in the United States, most are very profitable operations today by any reasonable business standard, even in the depths of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.
Newspapers can embrace change. I know of some that are making 20, 30 percent or more of their advertising revenue on digital products. Migrating from a single-product factory mentality to a customer-focused portfolio of solutions is hard, but it's necessary. It's not impossible.
The Internet is not your enemy. Your customers are not your enemy. Your competitors might sometimes be your enemy, not not always. You are part of a herd. If you're smart, you'll figure out how to be the alpha. (Hint: Organize the herd.)
The next time you hear or see someone wailing that there's no way to make money on the Internet, or that newspaper journalism is doomed, ask some questions. Has this person ever sold an ad? Has this person ever run a P&L? Does this person really understand the underlying business landscape? Odds are that all of the answers are "no." Understand that this person is simply going through the terror of the second stage.
There are other ways to get stuck in stage 2, of course. One way that is popular among some people in top management positions is to declare war on change. It is not a war you can win. Accept your defeat gracefully. Retire if necessary and let others carry on.
As we move to stages 3 and 4, we will find that the new reality is different, but not the dark and scary place we feared.
While much of the past will be gone -- including many individual newspapers -- much of the past will survive, as it always has. Remember, the flip side of Gibson's "the future is already here; it's just unevenly distributed" is "the past is still with us; it's just unevenly distributed."
There are more horses in America today than before the invention of the motorcar. They're not, however, our primary mode of transportation; they're used for other purposes. We will still have printed periodicals for quite some time. Figure out what they'll be used for. But keep your eye on the new tools; that's where the big opportunities will be.