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Journalists face changing role as broadsheets shift online

Journalists face changing role as broadsheets shift online
by Alex Vitlin

Facing financial losses and an uncertain direction for print media, newspapers are turning to their usurper, the internet, to consolidate their future. While there has been broad coverage of the financial impact of this changing climate on newspaper publishers, there has been little coverage on the effects these changes might have on the individual journalist. In a migration to online publishing, broadsheet journalists will face a fundamental shift in the business model that supports their profession, and a need to adapt to a distinct mode of communication.

The recent decision by the Hearst Corporation to cease printing the 146-year old Seattle Post-Intelligencer and move it exclusively online warrants serious analysis. So far, it is the most significant paper to make such a fundamental change, and will likely be monitored by other publishers keen to determine the viability of this move.

With mid-range circulation numbers similar to the Post-Intelligencer, and increasingly moving online, the Sydney Morning Herald can be considered a local comparison to the Post-Intelligencer. Suggestions in the New York Times that the Post-Intelligencer will constitute a permanent staff of “about 20, rather than the 165 it had” must concern local journalists. Clancy Yeates, a Herald business reporter, explains that following a restructure of Fairfax's business sections across its major publications, he has not seen downscaling at the Herald. Rather, there has been a change in the roles of staff. “In the Business section, we’ve recently merged with The Age . Because there are more staff now… journalists have been filing more for the web [rather than print publication].”

While this shift is beneficial to the paper's online offering, Yeates suggests that "moving online exclusively could cause reporters to become increasingly captive to the constant deadlines of the web." The potential danger of this is that the "pressure to file often throughout the day - if not managed properly - could leave papers becoming more like wire services".

While, as users, we expect constant, real-time updates to our news services, journalists may find that they are less able to undertake investigative journalism. Yeates estimates that he spends half his time "looking for stories." The requirement for more content online would likely mean a redistribution of the balance between journalistic legwork and filing editorial.

The practical aspect of journalism moving online in mass form prompts a consideration of who is responsible for aspects of online publication. The Post-Intelligencer, for example, intends to replace dedicated roles with multiskilled positions . Reporters will require a fluent web 2.0 skill set - to be able to identify potential links and related articles, to embed video or other multimedia, and the ability to employ these effectively.

"Beside the odd link to a website, it’s not something we [as reporters] do at the moment," Yeates says about this new media functionality. "Since we don’t do much web 2.0 stuff now it’s hard to say whether the journalist, editor or someone else should be responsible for it." But he adds that "it’s definitely an area reporters will have to become more familiar with".

For the working journalist, it seems unclear what shape the future will take. Until the ongoing viability of print media becomes evident, journalists will need to be fluent in both print and online publication, able to adapt stories to the distinct media. But despite the uncharted waters ahead, Yeates comes across as philosophical about the possibility that the Herald follows the Post-Intelligencer. "No one knows exactly where it will end up, but I would [be] positive about moving online."

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Big sharks, small sharks and us trying to learn to swim...

Alex, that's a very interesting issue, mind you, that's the very reason why I altered my studies from Journalism to Public Relations!

I think the change of platforms (from print to on line) will happen to all newspapers, sooner or later!! But no, I don’t think the news quality will be compromised or lost. Even our print news productions nowadays rely mainly on news releases, in some cases, journalists are so busy they don’t even have the time to paraphrase, they just copy and paste. 

The one difference I see in the distinct platforms is the ‘user interaction’ factor!! That same factor that gives me the chance to post here and comment on your article, what would be very unlikely to happen on print platform, at least not so easy!

I also would like to add that the newsagents are also being affected by the online news switch and even if the big newspapers corporations survive by changing platforms, it's very unlikely that newsagents will be able to cope with the web revolution. 

A scary thought...

You make an interesting point, Alex. For a journalist student studying 'Online Journalism' it is a somewhat alarming concept knowing that an already competitive industry may become even more competitive in the future. For the journalist unskilled in web 2.0 this must be an even scarier and uncertain time for them. If journalists have to rely on being multi-skilled it may run the risk of them under-developing other skills more in-depth, i.e. we don't want our news reported by journalists who have spread themselves too wide.

Here comes the Ice-age of journalism

The ongoing global warming seems have nothing to do with the newspaper business. On the contrary, instead of a warm spring following the winter of 2008 comes an ice age for the century-old business. Therefore, when Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt expressed his interest on newspaper websites, he sounds like a messiah for the long struggling business shaking like the last leaf in the chill winds.

According to the statistics of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), overall advertising revenue has seen a continuous nosedive in the past two years (NAA 2009). Moreover, with the booming of the internet, Google news to be specific, the reading habits of most readers has changed. The circulation of newspapers in the US has seen a slide since 1989 (NAA 2009), the year the World Wide Web was invented. (Simons, Margaret 2007) “In the USA, advertising and sales are used to finance most newspapers. Figures from 1997 show that advertising makes up a much larger percentage (about 87 percent) of total financing than sales (about 13 percent).” (McKenzie, Robert 2006)

“Micropayment” is the term Schmidt used to describe the new business model: “the reality is that in this new model the vast majority of people will only deal with the free model.” The decreasing revenue from advertising and barely nothing from subscriptions put most newspapers in the dilemma.

According to Schmidt, news websites seem to be the next step in the evolution of the newspaper business doomed. However, it was the free meal on the website, such as Google news, that changed the business environment.

Dinosaurs died out because of the changing environment and climate. SSo did mammoths, because of their gigantic body and slow reaction. Perhaps newspapers may follow the dinosaurs and the mammoths into history, while smaller, quicker new forms of news business may survive the ice age. Should it be a news website such as Google news? Who knows?

Fiona: Gang Shen, could you please provide hyperlinks to your references? That would be helpful to other readers.

Hyperlinks of Newspaper Association of America

The NAA newspaper circulation statistics are available at: http://www.naa.org/TrendsandNumbers/Total-Paid-Circulation.aspx

Google Says It's Here to Help As Newspaper Industry Bleed out: http://www.informationweek.com/news/internet/google/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=217300540&cid=RSSfeed_IWK_All

Fiona: Thank you for these links, Gang Shen.

Stepping up

It is undeniable that the instantaneous satisfaction which online news can provide is extremely desirable to users in this day and age of  immediacy. People can search and readily locate any information they desire.

This is a challenge which must be met and journalists must step up and tackle it head on or be left behind.

By embracing the benefits of the online medium, stories can be given a greater depth of context and audiences can take so much more away from articles, all at the click of a button. Particularly important here is the fact that audiences can receive a more balanced point of view on topics. All that is needed is the desire to search.

The risk here is, as has been pointed out above, that anyone can become journalists and herein lies the problem of mis-information. This is a particularly large risk considering journalists are now being stretched to their limits and becoming more desk bound as the bottom line becomes the biggest priority.

It is thus up to the consumer to actively source alternative information and diverse points of view on matters.  

A big ask and assumption that it'll happen.

Journalists may become publishers

Alex, we are witnessing great change in the role of the journalist in our society. Now anyone can be a journalist and everyone has an opportunity to be heard. It is hard to see how newspapers will be able to survive.

Profit and revenue slid in News Corp's fiscal third quarter because of lower ad sales at its television stations and newspapers. The company maintained its earlier forecast that operating income would fall 30 percent in fiscal 2009.

It is hard to see how journalists of the future will be able to earn an income. How will we be able to support journalists who want to do in depth research? I think that books may be the answer if a journalist wishes to spend time and effort on a particular subject write a book. Become the publisher.

Hopefully the entry of thousands of amateur journalists to the market will bring more democracy to journalism. The power of the news mogul may be reduced. But the voice of a dedicated journalist will always be heard.


It is interesting, isn't it? The rash of blogs and bloggers is a democratising moment. To my surprise, I must say as I was always a sceptic about the political impact of the internet which I regarded as another communication technology that, like the telegraph and the telephone, revolutionised communications without becoming instruments of freedom.

It appears to me that blogging and citizen journalism is at least the equivalent of (and probably more than) the pamphleteers who seized on the cheap printing press in the 18th and 19th century in Britain and Europe to spread their views, mobilise for change and generally invigorate democracy. See EP Thompson's The Making of the Working Class for an account in which the author clearly feels that he wishes he might have been amongst it at the time.

The internet is a contested space. Ideas compete. Credible ideas achieve support. So do loony ones but it is in the nature of electronic pamphleteering that there is a contest. Over time, one hopes, sites will evolve that are more credible and relaible than others. It already looks that way to me. Perhaps we need an internet version of the (US) PBS to guarantee access?

Given the shameful standards

Given the shameful standards of mass media I relish their downsizing. The WWW can eventually bring more honest news and already has far too many opinion pieces but forcing people to think will be no mean feat. We need a further revolution in the information drum. Journalists of integrity will still find a voice, but we may lose most of the p r pieces that pass for news!

 Maybe this site will form part of a great Aussie journal? Early days!

Death by a thousand cuts

If it were to become the paradigm, online would no longer have the papers to bounce off. We'd be at the position the Nurd-och press would love to retrieve, of big organisations having monopoly control over news and analysis. And we know how the tabloids behave in that position.

Certaily the Hearst staffing sounds cheap and nasty, the basis for tabloid-only operations.

What seems to happen at the moment is that big tabloids, wire services and the like break stories and then a plethora of organisations, from a few like Crikey at the broad end,  to many much deeper or single issue oriented specialist sites further on, then begin the digestion of events through analysis and discussion.

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