Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Object lesson: Save a journalist

When my daughters were younger, perhaps in middle school, I used to paint for them a grim picture of what would happen if they didn't read a newspaper.

Never mind offering pearls of wisdom on the importance of being an informed and involved citizen in a democracy. No, I had a more object lesson: "If you don't read newspapers, I won't have a job."

Well, now the joke's on me as I and many other newsroom orphans form a long unemployment line. My kids' failure to pick up the newspaper-reading habit has cost some 15,000 journalists their jobs this year.

To be fair, it wasn't solely their fault nor their generation's. I remember being in college, yearning to be a journalist, and a friend telling me she had no use for newspapers. I was appalled then, too.

But like their Boomer parents, Millennials are a demographic force to be reckoned with. Newspapers just haven't figured out how to serve them.

Part of that stems from the Millennials' belief that if something is important enough to be news, it will find them, rather than them having to seek it out.

Don't believe me? Check out this blog from Carol Phillips at Brand Amplitude, a brand research firm in Stevensville, Mich., a Lake Michigan community not far from South Bend, Ind., where Phillips is an adjunct professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame: "Social media offers a way for Millennials to control and shape their news by filtering it through friends or reporters they trust."

I used to think that was pretty self-centered and presumptuous of Millennials, believing they were so important the news would come to them. But a passage in Harper's, in a long, long ode to the San Francisco Chronicle, finally offered some perspective.

In it, a friend of the author explains how he consumes news, unfettered by a newspaper's ties to its native city and vice versa: " 'If I think of what many of my friends and I read these days, it is still a newspaper, but it is clipped and forwarded in bits and pieces on email—a story from the New York Times, a piece from Salon, a blog from the Huffington Post, something from the Times of India, from YouTube. It is like a giant newspaper being assembled at all hours, from every corner of the world, still with news but no roots in a place. Perhaps we do not need a sense of place anymore.' " (emphasis added)

And, in fact, I do that too: In addition to reading newspapers in print and online, I sign on daily to an iGoogle homepage populated with RSS feeds from journalism blogs and news sites I don't want to miss. Via email I get alerts of breaking news, new entries from favorite blogs, and daily summaries of industry trends and talk. And those daughters, who never developed the habit of daily reading a newspaper, send links to things they want me to enjoy.

But how do you create from this seemingly chaotic consumption pattern a sustainable business model that can re-employ all of us laid-off journalists? I wish I had the answer.

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