It's time for journalism to face the music
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.
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
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