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It's time for journalism to face the music

Robert Niles
Published: July 22, 2008 at 4:26 PM (MST)
One question's been nagging me about the recent and ongoing implosion of the print journalism industry: Why isn't this bothering me more?

The crash has been spectacular: Hundreds laid off from my local Los Angeles Times newsroom. Newspaper stocks plunging. Read Romenesko and each day it seems there is some new pundit wailing about a future without print journalism in this country.

Why isn't this infuriating me, too?

The answer finally came to me this weekend, while attending a Pasadena Pops concert where my wife was playing in the violin section: I'm married to a classical musician. Professional musicians have been enduring this crap for generations. Journalism, in time, will learn to do the same.

My wife studied violin for 10 years before going to Northwestern's music school, where she studied for four more. Then she studied violin for two years while earning her master's degree in journalism from Indiana. (Indiana, for what it is worth, has the largest and perhaps best string music department in the world. They do not let just anyone take violin lessons. If you're not really, really good, don't bother asking.)

So what did six years' of university study in classical music at two of the top music schools in the world get my wife? A low-paying gig in the back of the violin section at a regional symphony. Which still put her ahead of a large percentage of her former classmates, many of whom never found full-time performance work.

Sound familiar? How many reporters busted their rear ends in j-school only to start out on the night shift at some mid-sized daily in the hinterlands? How many j-school graduates never found a full-time reporting gig? And that was *before* the industry imploded.

I'd argue that, even today, there remains more public demand for newspapers in most communities than for live, large-scale acoustic music performances. Yet the fact that orchestras do not earn 40-percent profit margins, or any profit at all, did not kill live classical music in the United States. Music schools crank out thousands of damned-good aspiring professional musicians each year. And hundreds of communities around the country continue to have professional symphony orchestras.

Somehow, the music world found a way to make all this work. A local newsroom and a local orchestra both, indisputably, provide benefit to a community. They also employ dozens of college-educated professionals, many of whom become deeply involved in education. Before they embrace the inevitability of their doom, perhaps journalists ought to take a look at their local orchestra for some guidance, and maybe some inspiration.

Does this mean that newsrooms need to adopt a non-profit model, as has become dominant in the classical music world? I don't know. What I do know, however, is that the orchestras which work best are the ones run by leaders who understand and have a passion for music -- not poseurs and sycophants who seek board memberships to promote their reputation or their business. This crisis will show journalism the same.

If a manager's commitment is to profit, then that manager will gut journalism (or the music) to save the bottom line. But if the commitment is to journalism first, then the manager will chuck the business model to protect the reporting. The new role models for journalism will come from lovers of journalism, not lovers of profit, real estate or market share.

No, orchestras do not pay their musicians nearly enough money relative to those musicians' talent and effort. Too few people in most communities appreciate the wonderful benefits that large-scale, live acoustic music -- and musicians -- bring to their community. Too many orchestras are barely hanging on. It'd be nice to live in a world where orchestras, and newsrooms, were cash cows, enriching everyone associated with them.

But we don't. If communities can come together and find a way to support an orchestra, they can come together and find a way to support a newsroom, too.

Robert Niles also can be found at http://www.themeparkinsider.com

From a reader at 12.54.15.17 on July 23, 2008 at 9:35 AM

The notion that newspapers are like orchestras shows how far the business is falling. Orchestras don't make money. They are supported by governments and charities and rich people of various kinds. There are some charities willing to put money into newspapers, but to consider charitable giving as a viable business model is ridiculous.
Newspapers have been been able to do great --and independent -- journalism because newspapers also have been great and independent businesses. Finding the right business model is the key to the future.

From Robert Niles on July 23, 2008 at 1:41 PM

Why does a newsroom have to make money?

Yes, it needs to make enough money to pay its reporters a living wage, but where in the Holy Rules of Journalism does it say that the newsroom must make a profit for someone else?

Nowhere.

Yes, the for-profit model can work well for some publications. But I'm trying to get people to consider that there are other, perfectly valid models out there worth considering.

Professional orchestras do amazing things, paid for by a mix of ticket revenue, merchandising, recording sales and, mostly, gifts. It's sustainable and proven to work... under the right leadership.

With the right leadership, journalism can find a new mix of ways to pay for its reporters, too.

From a reader at 12.9.217.229 on July 23, 2008 at 3:19 PM

The problem is that the fine arts have become largely the toys of the well-to-do. A free press requires something very different if it has a use in a democracy. It may not. I'm afraid we may be about to find out.

From Rich Gordon on July 23, 2008 at 10:21 PM

Robert, I fear you may be right.

But I would prefer a world where there is a profitable business underlying as much journalism as possible.

Because I believe that if a journalist and his/her employer can both make money by doing good journalism, more good journalism will be created.

From a reader at 69.110.43.148 on July 24, 2008 at 10:40 AM

Every young, struggling journalist already knows you have to do it for the love (money? never heard of it).

But what about people who are laid off, or new grads who can't even get a job or who, like me, work for pennies with no benefits?

Yes, I'm still doing it for love, but I may not even get the chance much longer.

Think of all those unemployed musicians...

From Robert Niles on July 24, 2008 at 10:23 PM

First, I want to reject the assertion that the arts are the toys of the well-to-do. That doesn't fit with my personal experience. I've seen plenty of middle-class and lower-income folks embrace the arts, including the violin and classical music. The stereotype doesn't hold up to my experience. (FWIW, my wife's violin website has a lower median age for its readers -- 32 -- than my theme park website has for its readers -- 36.) I hate to see journalists embrace stereotypes. I suggest that affinity for stereotypes is one of the reasons why journalism managers haven't been able to see beyond the current ad-driven, 30-percent-profit-margin business model that'd killing the field right now.

Next: Yes, there are a lot of unemployed musicians. Just like there are a lot of great basketball players that never make it to the NBA. And (here in L.A. especially) a lot of talented actors who never make it into the movies. Journalism is becoming a field like that, where many people with training and talent simply lack either the spectacular ability, or the connections, to "make it" in the field.

Yeah, that's tough. But these examples show that journalism ain't special in this regard, and that an over-supply of talent hasn't, and does not have to, kill a field.

From a reader at 169.137.45.55 on July 25, 2008 at 12:24 PM

I agree with this article and many of the points in the comments below.

As a full time journalist myself, I constantly hear from friends and family; "Why don't you go into PR where the REAL money is?" so much that it's like a mantra.

But you know what? If you got into the J-field for profit, then you are grossly misinformed to begin with.

Most of us are (and should be) in it, because we can't help it. We believe in cold fact and truth. I like believing that I am a part of some form of transparency that still exists in modern Gov't.

People will always need the news, admit it or not. There will always be a need for good writers. And no, I'm not worried that TV is stealing my job, because frankly, we sit around and laugh at most local TV stations' content, especially online articles.

Technology is changing which isn't good or bad, it just is. You either adapt, or you freak out, say the industry is dying and expire with it.

I agree, when was journalism ever supposed to be for a profit? I could live better on a salary bigger than my 25k a year, but after a life of studying journalism, the private sector seems like a selfish pursuit.

Do you want to make more money to buy a better sofa, or do you want to be a part of something amazing?

You can't put a price on that.

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Robert Niles is the author of How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online and Stories from a Theme Park Insider. You can connect with Robert via the following services:

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