What is the future of journalism?

"Weird and messy," this is my work space. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar, January 29, 2010

If anyone knows the answer to this question, please leave it in a comment below.

Things are scary for journalists these days as we struggle to keep doing good work.  Everyone who isn’t a journalist who I talk to about this says, don’t worry, we want to read the newspapers.  And for us at the Chronicle at least, the circulation numbers have not dropped much at all.  People are still reading the Chronicle, that’s the good news.  But advertising is down, and that’s what pays, by far, the bulk of our salaries.

The size of the newspaper is determined by the advertising.  We need to have about half of each page filled with advertising (on average) to pay the bills.

Is the current drop simply a function of a slow economy or of advertising shifting to the Internet?

Assuming the economy improves, we will know the answer eventually.  Meanwhile newspapers all over the country are trying to do the same work with smaller staffs.  We are all trying to do more with less, and it’s frustrating.  I recently stumbled on a wonderfully funny group on facebook called, “Overheard in the Newsroom.”

One of the posts was a photo album of newsrooms titled, “Journalists are weird and messy.”  In one of the newsrooms was a blow-up doll of some sort, possibly Spider man?  With crime scene tape all around it.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that in one way, this is an online support group for journalists, with a twist of sick humor running through it.

For example, one comment overheard in the newsroom, related to our pay scale, was something like this:  “At least we don’t smell like French fries.”

Some of the comments below had me cracking up, including one person who said, no, we smell like despair.

Okay, despair is kind of a strong word.  But it’s January and things never look that good in January.

What does look good to me are my colleagues — those of us who are still in this business and those who have left it or been laid off.  The talent of journalism is truly a talent and truly bizarre.  You have to be the kind of person who really wants to know how things work, is not afraid to ask important people really stupid questions, and then can quickly boil down inch-thick court documents or legislative documents or scientific problems or economic problems into something regular people can easily understand.

When I say quickly I mean, say, in under an hour.  And things will not be quiet while you are doing it.  A police and fire scanner will be buzzing, and your co-workers might be having a conversation about how much detail to include in a story about a horrible child abuse case.  Sure, ignore that.  You’re on deadline.

You don’t have to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but you might have to interview that guy.

It’s true that all these same things can just as easily be done on the Internet, but is enough advertising going to follow us there to pay our salaries?

We shall see.  As always, we will keep you posted.

Meanwhile I have to say that the Chronicle (newspaper) is still reaching about 22,500 people a week, each of whom spend an average of 40 minutes with it.  The paper’s circulation is one-third that, but research shows us that typically three people read each Chronicle that is bought at a store or delivered by mail, and they spend an average of 40 minutes with it.

Does anyone ever spend 40 minutes on a web site?

When I opened up this week’s Chronicle I saw a full-page ad for a beauty salon in Newport.  Jon Somes, master hair colorist, master hair cutter.

And I thought about how smart he was to go so big and splashy.  Especially in a smaller paper, a full page really stands out.  He will have that ad paid for in new customers within a week, would be my guess.

I’ve got to say, it made me want to get my hair cut — by someone other than my own self with a bad pair of scissors.  Luckily I’m a journalist and therefore a weird, messy haircut is okay.  But I’m thinking I might try to save up for the real thing with Jon Somes.

Hey, thanks again for reading.  I hope you will check out the Chronicle’s web site, and, even better, pick up a newspaper and support our advertisers.  Tell them where you saw their ad — please and thank you!

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7 responses to “What is the future of journalism?

  1. Dear Bethany,
    Well, you’ve captured the gallows humor that maybe only a newsroom can generate. Jeez, I miss that.
    We, aka the media, often get beaten up by politicians and the public, but really, truly this is a kill the messenger deal. Our job is to get to the bottom of things, and sometimes, maybe most of the time, people don’t really like to hear the truth all that much.
    I don’t have any answers, but here are a couple of additional thoughts for your readers on what it means to be a newspapering kind of person:
    — At it’s best, it’s a team effort;
    — Reporters bear witness. Sometimes they’re the only members of the public on the scene, and they’re there to stand in for all the people who don’t have the time, the patience and the energy to wade through long meetings and press conferences.
    How we’ll make money at this? Who knows. I mean it’s not like we made that much to begin with — local journalists have always worked long hours and lived at the bottom of the pay scale. We put up with a lot for a little — that’s why further cuts are so painful.
    I hope the public will begin to value what we do and help us find a way to make a living at it. Buying a full-page ad in the Chronicle is a good place to start. Makes me want to drive all the way to Newport for a cut and color.
    Yours truly,
    Anne Galloway

  2. Good points, I need a haircut too, and I bet in coxts less in Newport than it does in Exeter NH where I live.

    One of Charlie’s good friends works for the San Jose Mercury which just went bankrupt, and I wonder how he’s doing. His AP-Dow Jones friends from Tokyo seem to be mostly all over Asia, and their names turn up on the raidio or in the NY Times every so often.

    Frank and I usually spend about 40 minutes on the Chronicle. Sometimes I share it around. Our neighbor across the hall who used to work for the NY Times kept wondering why the NYT hadn’t picked up on the wonderful Chronicle stories about the Derby line customs inspection stories.
    Robin Tenny

  3. Thanks for the mention! You can see all the overheard posts on our site, http://overheardinthenewsroom.com

  4. Yes, people do spend 40 minutes a day with news websites. The majority of visitors will return to a news 3 to 5 times throughout the day looking for new infomation. If content is held for print or content is not refreshed during the day, which sadly often happens, the return rate goes down. People will spend between 5 to 10 minutes with an article.

  5. I think newspapers as we know them will not exist in 10 years from now. I think many will switch to digital media. Most of us have smart phones where we can get instant news wherever and whenever we want. It is not necessary to wait for the news to come to us. I am not saying this is right or wrong, I am saying things as I see them. You journalists will have to change with the times…

  6. Gee Bethany,
    I’m thinking a good old 70’s perm would look really good on you………I kid, Ikid.
    Love the blog,

  7. As a college student, I find myself pressed for time between academics, an attempt at a social life, and all the other things I’m trying to balance. I honestly get most if not all of my news either online or via word-of-mouth, and when I hear something interesting: I turn to the internet. But when I had an online subscription to the Chronicle, I still didn’t have the time to go on and check it out — there’s just something about seeing a copy of newsprint on the table that just makes you want to pick it up. And when you do, that feeling of thin paper and black ink is just such a delightful texture it makes it worth your while. Also, you never know the allure of seeing the headlines and a large picture of a familiar face or place if they aren’t right in front of you. I think that if I had to go to a gas station every morning on my way to work, and saw a paper in front of me, then yes — I would still pick it up because that allure is still there. But as it is, I am walking to class and work and do not have that opportunity. I think that pull will always be there, but it just might come at us from a different angle. I am one of those people that checks my e-mail first thing in the morning once I get to work, and every Friday I find my announcement about this blog. If the headline intrigues me I read it immediately, but I sometimes put it off until I have more time later over the weekend or early the next week. However, when I was getting the notification from the Chronicle, all it had was an announcement that it was available (maybe this has changed, I do not know). Perhaps you could include an image of the front page of the paper to try and grab on to that instinctive pull? I mean that’s why it’s so important to get the key stories on the front page above the fold — so people will see them.

    Thanks,
    ~Katie

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