The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.
– Paul Valery
And the trouble with the present is it’s so much like the past.
As we leave 2007, I decided to turn back and see what was being said about newspapers and journalism a decade ago.
Some context for 1997: There was a big newspaper company called Knight-Ridder. It was before Cragslist was feared (it started in 1995). It was the year the domain name “google.com” was registered, but before the Google, the company, was started. Flickr, Facebook, Twitter? No one would have guessed.
There was a lot of buzz about AOL’s Digital Cities, which started was started in 1995, and Microsoft Sidewalk, which started the next year. Both were local online guides that were the Googleman, I mean bogeyman, of the day for newspapers, who were deciding whether to partner up with the enemy or entrench on the front lines of local.
So what were America’s editors focusing on in 1997? At the April gathering of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, there was a fascinating panel discussion on online media, journalism and newspapering called “It’s still the content, stupid: 1997-2010.”
The 1997-2010 part of the title was meant, I suppose, to be a look to a bright future, but it actually describes a coma for journalism as practiced by newspapers. For other than pockets here and there, not much has really seemed to have changed in the past 10 years.
Who was on the panel? It was an all-star cast (names and companies at that time). Ted Leonsis of AOL, Bill Bass of Forrester Research, Diane H. McFarlin of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, George Berge of the Journal and Courier in Lafayette, Ind., Ron Martin of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Mary Jo Meisner. between jobs, but former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Regina Joseph of Think New Ideas, and Farai Chideya of CNN.
What follows are some quotes from the transcript of the panel:
Ron Martin: “Part of newspapers’ challenge is to define what part of that content we do best — what’s the best for us to focus on — and leave the chat rooms, perhaps, to others.”
Mary Jo Meisner: “As newspaper people, we’ve really seen it in the context of news — covering events, reacting to them, trying to tell them passionately, but also objectively and fairly. What we’ve been perplexed by in the last couple of years as editors, is widening that definition and seeing it in new ways. We’re always talking about the local news context. Now, we’re starting to see it in terms of getting our readers to write for us, stories from the very low levels of our community where they’re providing the content for our newspapers, removing us as the filters.”
Ted Leonsis: “One of the issues the industry faces is that we think of things in discrete buckets as content: There is chat, there is advertising. I don’t think you’re going to break out of the smallness of that and think of how big a new business this really is, unless you start thinking of new brands and new businesses.”
Diane McFarin: “We’re crazy if we sit still and wait for AOL and Microsoft to come to town and set up city sites to deal with what we have the expertise in. We have the critics. We have the history and understanding of all these things. These folks don’t know anything at all about our communities.”
Ted Leoniss: “We’re more in line with some of the traditional ethos of newspapers — providing local information and context — than some of the big newspaper companies are.”
George Benge: “While I certainly appreciate all the wonderful things that the online world has brought to our business and our culture and our personal lives, … There is something about what we do as journalists that is unique, and it always will be unique. So long as we are willing and able to change tools and to discuss new idioms and new ways of presenting what we uniquely do to different and new markets, I think there will always be a wonderful future for newspapers.”
Ron Martin: “We’ve tried and need to be a mass deliverer of information in our communities. That’s a challenge for us, and one that we can’t easily give up. To say let’s just adopt an attitude — turn our baseball cap on backwards and wear baggy pants — that’s not us.”
Bill Bass: “It’s interesting you talk about newspapers presenting a complete package but, if I go through about any of your newspapers and start looking for what was created locally and how much is packaged from other people, the amount of local stuff is vanishingly small. You take out the wire stories, you take out the stock tables, you take out the classified ads, real estate and things like that, and what is left that you people in this room deliver is really a small part of the entire package.”
Ted Leonsis: “I don’t think about content. I don’t think about newspapers. I think about talent, streams of information, context. In the future, editors are going to be bartenders. That’s what I think. I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but the role of an editor will be social media: “I’m bringing you into a place … into a bar. I’m going to give you the news. I’m going to bring other people around who’ll talk to you about the news. I’ll find dissenting voices, and I’ll package that up for you.” That’s a great new position in jobs.”
Bill Bass: “Go to any newspaper and it has hundreds of years worth of papers up on the walls. Look at the ones from the 1890s and the ones from the 1990s. They look pretty much the same. Now, we have this irritant. Is it going to form a pearl? Papers haven’t had to change for a hundred years. I question whether they’ll be able to make this change — the first really fundamental change in the way they have to do business in a hundred years.”
And at least for a decade, sadly, Bass has proved right. Change a few company names, update the buzzwords and the adversaries, and this panel’s dialogue is current for today. If you’re in a newspaper, you may have heard some of this in the last week.
For the most part, the outsiders in the panel got the picture and America’s editors, publishers and their organizations have — like those on the panel — spent the ensuring decade failing to heed the admonishment to move quickly to change.
Now in 2008, the squeeze of economic forces is undeniably pressuring for change. It’s a fair question to ask if there is still time. For those who believe newspaper journalism and newspapers as institutions can continue to thrive and prosper — or at least survive — what are you doing about it?
As the saying goes: “If not you, who? If not now, when?”