Print journalism in a digital age

Above: Lead type, photo by saax/DepositPhotos.

Originally published in Sunday Newsday, December 09, 2018

Most people reading my work in 2018 might be inclined to think that I am a reflexively digital journalist. 

My mother, who long bemoaned my fixation with newsprint, was certain that I’d drunk something I was supposed to rub in an ink-stained pressroom.

That attraction to the page has evolved, but never disappeared over the four-plus decades that my work has appeared in print. Because I loved words on paper, I eventually learned how to assemble them, never terribly well, but always with enthusiasm. 

Words led me both to photography, my significant creative other and to typography, which remained a flirtatious crush, never succumbing to my enthusiasms.  I did better sweating in darkroom than I ever did at Deltex Art Shop, riffling through sheets of Letraset and Geotype which conspired to defy my earnest efforts to compose eyecatching pages. 

Print is unquestionably facing its boldest challenge yet, one orders of magnitude greater than the shock that radio weathered as television matured.  For one, changes in technology and customer tastes now become normal in months and weeks, not years, leaving little time for graceful repositioning and considered market strategy. 

Some weeks, it’s as if the producers of a successful radio play in the 1930s woke up one morning to find Star Trek on a television screen, so severe and disorienting are the changes.

Print news, I can comfortably argue, is not going away, but the technology that challenges it will also reshape and refocus it, providing the capabilities it will need to metamorphose. 

There’s been a lot of discussion and analysis of the nature of online journalism and the ways it changes customer consumption of the news product. 

A news outlet in 2018 cannot proceed without a competitive Internet presence, but it must also wrestle with that medium’s considerable vagaries and revenue challenges, while working to embrace its advantages.

Online publication finds its greatest strengths in immediacy, ease of global distribution and accessibility. 

Print remains strongest for its design and shaping of the news product, which can be an unassailable presentation of information as artifact at its apex.

In both incarnations of the news, a core of independent, public-interest driven journalism remains the unique selling point of professional media curation. That work finds its apex in the independent newsroom, operating unfettered by corporate intervention, answerable to no-one but it’s readership. 

When the most important stakeholder is the news consumer, independent journalism flourishes. When it is compromised by commercial concerns, everyone working in the field suffers from the attendant loss in confidence. 

But good journalism does not come cheap and the greater its independence, the more critical the connection with its audience becomes. The future of this work will demand journalists willing to engage with their customers without the old buffers of advertising support that provided a bulwark against personal engagement. 

The news business as recently as five years ago could deliver on a production line manned by largely interchangeable participants. The broadcast or publication was the product and advertising paid for the process. 

The next generation of journalists will drive the product and market success will be driven by quality work produced by identifiable creators. 

Cultivating a relationship with our audiences will demand multiple levels of engagement and accountability from editor to reporter. 

Being invited to the breakfast table to occupy premium real estate next to morning coffee and warm sada roti will demand the articulation of a news personality that blends perspective with craft and style. In every possible way, that relationship will transcend price in favor of perceived customer valuation of the reward for reading. 

The ultimate shape of paper-based journalism is likely to take the form of a deep-read keeper rather than today’s disposable product, a publication that benefits from advances in print technology to deliver sharp, valuable analyses and perspectives that enrich understanding (battleplan here).

The challenges facing independent journalism are not exclusive to traditional media. 

As I write this, the big story in journalism is the crash of after a costly but failed pivot to video on Facebook Watch. That closely followed the collapse of Civil’s cryprocurrency token offering, part of a strategy to create an alternative economy to support independent newsrooms.

The future of journalism is increasingly beginning to look like its beginnings in pamphleteering, when information was shared on sheets of paper posted to walls one post at a time, and designed to encourage a relationship of trust and engagement between author and audience.

Layered into such a strategy must be a clear focus on the unifying power of independent journalism, which doesn’t just bring clarity to issues, it provides a basis for common understanding and sensible conversation and disagreement in our shared communities.

More thoughts about journalism are here and here.