The state of print journalism in the Garden State

So I paid a visit to Montclair High School tonight for a program about the state of New Jersey print journalism (note to Baristanet: the fee was $20, not $15 as you had listed it).

About 50 locals showed up, mostly over 55. A handful of MHS students were on hand, too; I’m guessing they were either members of the school paper or taking a class in the topic.

Kent Manahan, acting executive director of NJN, and acting president, NJN Foundation, was the moderator. The panelists — a sad looking trio of former Star-Ledger staffers — included Jim Willse, who had just — and I mean just — retired as editor; John Hassell, now vice president for content, Advance Internet, a national online news media company that produces http://www.NJ.com; and Dusty McNichol, founder, http://www.NJSpotlight.com, a new statehouse website.

In a nutshell, the 90-minute program consisted of the journalists opining on the future of the industry. The good news: we’ll have a lot more trees. The bad news? Well, bad is a relative term and it depends on your point of view. If not getting your news in a traditional tactile form is bad, sorry, but it seems like a published newspaper is going the way of the eight-track. Willse told of going down to the local store at six a.m. to buy a bunch of papers and bringing them back to the house to savor over a cup of tea. That was then; this is now: hopping on the laptop to read the same outlets. “And if I’m not reading the paper on paper,” he said, “we know we’ve gone to a different day.”

This old model — a printed publication supported by ad revenue — they all agreed, was dying. What will a new model look like? Will readers pay for on-line content? Some publications, most notably Newsday, have begun putting certain content behind a “pay wall.” But just moving to the web may not be the answer either, if content does not maintain a high level.

The panelists were pretty much preaching to the choir at this event; since most of the readers were older, it’s likely they’ve been following the paper-and-coffee routine since they were kids.

What readers don’t realize, they said, was that the news does not fuel the paper as a whole. In fact, if one is to believe them, readers actually buy a paper not for the news, but for all the ancillary items: the TV listings, the weather, the sports. In fact, the newspapers weren’t the money-makers, it was the printing plants and the trucks that delivered them — owned by the publishers — that brought in the bucks.

One of the audience members complained about the dumbing down of the news, thanks to on-line sources such as the Drudge Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Willse (at least I think it was Willse) said there was nothing wrong with injecting humor into the news (although he did take pause with Drudge).

It was also interesting to witness the discomfort of the panelists in talking about what is obviously a painful subject. After all, these guys have been in the business for upwards of 30 years. Willse, especially; he spent most of the evening with his arms folded tightly across his chest.

The upshot of the discussion: things will change, but we really don’t know how yet. This year’s model might not be valid in ten years, or even five. And while newspapers might be shrinking, the number of jobs available seems to be holding steady, although not in the traditional sense. It will take imagination to branch out into other avenues, but quality reporting will still have a place and still be greatly valued.

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  • A reluctant welcome

    It’s no secret what’s going on the field of print journalism. It’s going into the crapper. I wonder if Mr. Internet realized this would happen when he invented the World Wide Web. Regardless, the situation is here and we’re stuck with it. The purpose of this blog is to blow off a little steam, and I invite my fellow ink-stained wretches to join in with their own tales of woe or triumph. Maybe this will turn into a nice little support network. Questions? Suggestions? E-mail me at worriedjournalist(at) gmail(dot)com.
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