Are Newspaper People Really Still Wondering If Journalism Can Exist Without Newsprint?

A wax dummy looking in wonder at a newsroom computer, forever.Decades of often awkward interaction with America’s “print media” professionals has proven (to me) that writers who talk about their medium are bores, and also bad writers. This goes for the people who type up rules for “curating” the Internet and the people who propose “best practices” for typing bullshit on Twitter, but it’s the newspaper person who is most guilty of being terrible all the time. Often applying the term “ink-stained wretch” or “scribe” to himself—and it is always a “him”—the newspaperman looks back on his career (which started when personal computers were already in every grade-school library) and sees not the stories covered or drunken camaraderie of the journalistic fellowship, but the type of harvested plant matter used in the manufacture of the paper used to distribute a particular kind of media product.

Several years ago, I was training a younger editor to replace me on a blog I was quitting, and he informed me with pride that he had no idea how to blog. Computers, in general, were beneath him. “I’m a dead-tree media kind of guy,” he said, on the telephone. It’s the kind of thing he could’ve only picked up reading the Poynter.org website, because by the time he entered the work force, every part of the news gathering and production process was electronic, including a majority of its distribution to readers.

We all develop habits, and the worst of us fetishize these habits that just happened to be the main way of doing something at the time we started doing it. Still, we’re several years into the Tablet Era and I’ve yet to hear a website writer say, “I’m a CorningWare man, myself. What I write is meant to be read through the Corning glass screen of the iPads made in the past two years, and that’s it!” Why has the false idol of newsprint taken such a heavy toll on the intelligence and creativity of people who are supposed to be writers?

So it’s almost 2013, and printed newspapers haven’t been the dominant form of news dissemination for what, 40 years? And the reduced business that somehow became the “golden era” of 1970s investigative journalism lasted for maybe 15 years total, before the massive consolidation of the newspaper industry began in the late 1980s with the closing of most U.S. afternoon papers, effectively halving the newspaper workforce a decade before AOL diskettes darkened the nation’s mailboxes. The era of monopoly/Joint Operating Agreement newspapers was short, painful and not very good for journalism—yet it’s what people in the 21st Century enjoy longing for, because those Macy’s brassiere ads and color home furnishings inserts kept a lot of people employed doing things like copy-editing the pre-edited features syndicate copy that was also being re-copy edited in those other 1,500 daily paper newsrooms around the country.

Anyway, Craigslist and Monster and Yahoo! Movies and Gizmodo and digital this or that did terrible things, in taking revenues from one form of media without actually taking most of those revenues, yet there is no sign anywhere that Americans want less news, or want their aunt on Facebook to cover Syria (unless she’s there!), or have tired of advice columns, automobile ads, personals, Hollywood gossip, horoscopes, weather, stock prices, sports recaps, recipes, murder reports or any of the hundred things newspapers used to be able to sell in an exclusive bundle. And because we have a “newspaper industry” instead of a journalism industry, the newspaper people still need to be punched in the head with stuff like this:

To see those opportunities clearly—to understand exactly what will rise from journalism’s ashes—we have to consider carefully what we mean by the word journalism.

Interestingly, journalism stems from a word that we don’t commonly use in English to refer to news or the actual media through which news is delivered. It’s not newspaperism, it’s not broadcastism, it’s not newsmagazineism. This is not merely a cheeky observation. Because buried in the word journalism is this core concept: modern journalism should be format agnostic. While the word’s root—journal—does convey a physical object, the modern use of the word does not require faith in or a commitment to any specific format.

Wow that is interesting, that topical writing and photography is not legally bound to be printed on pulped Canadian forests.

Next, the Future Journalism Project carefully explains to the ink-stained wretches (of the 1980s) that in other, more foreign countries, sometimes the foreign word for “newspaper” isn’t even part of the accepted name of the industry:

In other languages this gets trickier, because in French, for example, the word for newspaper is actually journal, the same is true for Russian, Italian, and others. I stood in front of an audience of German media executives in 2008 and tried to explain to them how in the English language, our use of the word newspaper was entirely unique. In English we actually took pains to include the medium, the paper itself, in the word, tying us dangerously close to a concept of the medium that trapped the news—and the revenue model that supported it—in its physical form. In German, their choice of the word Zeitung for newspaper was much more fortuitous. Literally, the word means times, as if every newspaper in the German language could claim to be the paper of record for its community! This allows German journalists to understand instinctively that a newspaper is supposed to be timely as well as a medium for connecting to the times in which we live. In Spanish, whoever chose the word periódico for the newspaper was similarly focused on a benefit of the medium—it was regular or periodic.

See? If American words weren’t so stupid, our newspaper reporters would be able to “bridge the digital divide” or whatever.

Meanwhile, forever, it is up to people who never worked in an actual newspaper building to move forward, on FourSquare probably, toward a new kind of reporting that will still be the same kind of reporting but still not on newsprint.

Photo by cliff1066™.