IMAGE: Courtesy of John Nichols
Journalist John Nichols thinks the future is bright for young people like me wanting to go into journalism.
This despite an estimated loss of 15,000 to 18,000 newspaper jobs last year.
Nichols will be at Powell’s City of Books on Jan. 20 along with academic and radio host Robert McChesney to discuss that conclusion and others in their new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again.
Nichols—a pioneering political blogger, Washington, D.C., correspondent for The Nation and co-founder of Free Press, a media-reform organization—argues that in order for unpaid newspaper interns like myself to arrive on the other, brighter side of this media revolution, we’ll need a little help from the government.
He’s also optimistic that journalism’s future rests mostly in nonprofit and low-profit models much different from the current approach. So…does this media revolution start in a book? Sounds interesting, but I don’t really read books anymore. Luckily Nichols did a good job of explaining his ideas when we spoke by phone.
The subtitle of your book refers to a media revolution. What does that mean exactly?
The current crisis is both a great threat to American democracy but also a great opportunity. Major dailies are closing. Others are cutting back. Radio has been in collapse, and television is in bad straits. The Internet has not yet produced a viable new platform. It’s a very scary time. What we argue is that there’s actually tremendous opportunity because we don’t have to go back to the old model that has failed. Our core point is to get over fretting and bemoaning the loss of the past and get serious about shaping the future.
Who’s to blame for the current meltdown?
A substantial portion of the blame has to rest with the profiteering mentality that took over with newspaper ownership several decades ago. Quality newspapers were being bought and sold at incredible prices. News corporations ran up huge debts, and then they were forced to lay off journalists to pay off that debt. Some technical aspects, such as the Internet, also came along. Most traditional newsrooms haven’t been creative with the Web. Instead of embracing it, they’ve been resistant and bumbling. They’ve produced a product that is too dull for young people. All of this has been accentuated by the recent economic downturn.
Is it too late for newspapers to make money online?
Newspapers did just about everything wrong; they didn’t really even pay attention to the Internet. They couldn’t figure out how to make money off it, so they didn’t embrace it. A few did, like The Wall Street Journal. It isn’t about charging money, though. The genius of the Internet is that you get a lot of information out of it easily, especially with things like aggregate sources. This is very healthy. The idea of charging for content on the Internet is, frankly, a silly concept that ultimately will fail. Take the recent Tiger Woods incident. If you had been the first to know about his transgressions, you could have made some money on the story by selling it to a website. But because the story is so salacious and sexy, as soon as one person read it they would retell it and it would go out on the Internet for free.
Wouldn’t government intervention just lead to the government controlling the industry?
What we learned from studying other countries is that many European countries have long traditions of powerful public broadcasting systems and networks, like the BBC, that are government-financed and -sustained. These subsidized media companies remain extremely independent, and are often at odds with their governments. Even here, with the constrained financing of PBS, in the run-up to the Iraq war PBS was more questioning of the Bush administration than other media.… Countries with the largest level of press subsidies, like the Scandinavian nations, rate the highest on measures of public freedom. We can also look to our own history. At the founding of our country, postal subsidies were implemented. The Founding Fathers knew that for a young republic to have any discourse or democratic system, it needed a free and robust press.
Is there anywhere I should move outside the United States to find paid work?
There are some countries where newspapers still have high circulation, such as Japan and Germany. The crisis is arguably most severe in the United States. Other places are doing better, though, and we can borrow ideas from them. By the same token, this problem of the flight of advertisers and the collapse of the traditional newspaper model is a global one.
Well, I’m busy slaving away at WW as an unpaid intern—any final advice to give me?
Keep slaving away. We all started with jobs that didn’t necessarily pay well or let us do the most exciting things. Journalism is still a wonderful endeavor and probably the most exciting and engaging way to make a living. Start someplace, learn a lot and if you’re lucky, you get to do it for your whole life. The future is bright for young people wanting to go into journalism. The job of journalists is not only to do the work, but to think of ways to help journalism make the transition to new, creative not-for-profit or low-profit models. And also to transition from old models to the Internet. I think it’s gonna happen, but we’re not going to do it by clinging to the recent past.
GO: Nichols and Robert McChesney discuss The Death and Life of American Journalism at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Jan. 20. Free.