Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 9, 2012

On Deadline: 'A world without newspapers?'

by Jay Thorwaldson

What would it be like to exist in a world — or a community like Palo Alto — without newspapers?

That question comes from a journalist from Vienna, Austria, who is at Stanford University this year as a member of the John S. Knight Foundation Journalism Fellowship program. The journalist, Anita Zielina, spoke at Stanford in late January on "A World Without Newspapers?"

"The question mark is the most important part of the sentence for me," she said in a follow-up interview. That's because "I actually don't believe in those people who feel that in 10 years, 15 years, 20 years — put in whatever time that you like — there won't be any newspapers left."

Her talk has a subhead: "How journalists and journalism are changing and why this is not the end."

But newspapers won't be the same in a world of the Internet, electronic devices and changes in how people get their news. To survive, she warns, newspapers throughout America and elsewhere need urgently to adapt in four vitally important areas: declining revenues, changing reader/user behavior, more and new competition, and a "psychological crisis" that some say resembles panic.

As newspapers' financial losses mount, the crisis may be paralyzing managers and editors in their ability to respond creatively to the radical changes underway. The most important challenge will be how to engage the readers or viewers as habits change with technology, she says.

"The word 'newspaper' might not be absolutely true anymore, because a lot might happen, or is going to happen, online or on tablets or in X. But I don't believe that journalism or the newspaper per se is coming to an end or dying."

Yet journalists and managers have a huge challenge to overcome if good, trustworthy, vigorous journalism is to survive, she warns.

And the question mark is still hanging there. It embraces concerns about the implications for society, even democracy, if newspapers wither and die.

To those of us who have been part of major changes in news gathering and delivery over the past two or three decades, this sweeping change shouldn't be a surprise. There have been a number of journalists, editors and newspaper publishers who have thought deeply about the subject, and even embraced the brave new world of innovation. But no one yet has come up with a winning formula to make the Internet pay enough to sustain the traditional news operation as we journalists, readers and viewers have known it.

Zielina also has no magic formula, but she has some solid suggestions and one certainty. "I see the necessity to address certain challenges and to, yes, reinvent not only the profession of journalism but also think again why we do journalism and what are the important parts that we need to preserve and the important ethical questions that we have to address," she says.

"And I think there's also this bigger idea that every journalist who has enjoyed a classic journalism education or worked at classic media outlets in one way or another wants to fulfill this image of journalism as a democratic value, something that helps society move on and move forward, and that helps 'normal people' — quotation marks — control the powerful and find out about corruption and issues that otherwise no one would find out about.

"Those are values that still are important. They were important 50 years ago and still are important now and I think they still will be, and should be, important in the future.

"We should embrace them whether we do journalism on paper or on a computer screen or anywhere else." The "virtues and values" include the tradition of attempting to be as balanced and fair — even if full objectivity is an impossibility — as possible, she said.

But getting from today's changes to a stable news environment will be tricky, and there's one huge factor blocking the way.

"I think that what's happening now is a mix of certain emotions and feelings. One of them is, understandably, panic — panic of journalists and media managers who see their business models fading, who see that they will need to have to adapt but don't really have a strategy how to adapt.

"It's important that we should start a discussion and think about what makes journalism journalism, or defines journalism compared to random people — citizen journalists or whatever you might call them — just publishing things on their blogs or on Facebook." She says the discussion should include a keystone question: "What defines an 'online newspaper' compared to social media or social networks?"

Zielina, a lifelong resident of Vienna except for some education-related absences, says she became interested in the future of newspapers gradually over the past seven years, since she began her professional career as one of a first generation of online journalists, working with a half-dozen others. Starting as a reporter, she eventually became editor of the Austrian politics and education department.

"The interesting part of that job was that we were still experimenting" compared to the essentially pre-defined environment of a newspaper office.

"The difference with online is that you still had the possibility and the chance to develop what online journalism looks like — not only the stories but thinking about ways to deal with life events, thinking about multi-media, thinking about trust and truth in a time when there is so much information out there that fact-checking becomes even more important than it was before. And how do you do it in this completely stressful online environment?

"So questions like this, we just had to address them every day and were inventing new ways to do journalism."

She began to change personally: "I'm still of course a reporter with my full heart, but I had a growing interest in deciding and thinking about how journalism in this new age of the Internet, this new age of online journalism, can and should look like.

"I became, step by step without planning it, more of a thinker and developer of and about journalism than a journalist."

In 2011 she got a job teaching online journalism — "Media Convergence they called it" — at the University of Applied Sciences in Vienna. That led her (with her husband) to the Knight Fellowship and Stanford.

She says she loves the diversity and intellectual challenge of the Bay Area, and hopes to convey some of that back to Austria — unless they opt to stay in the area.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com.

Comments

Posted by Real News, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 10, 2012 at 10:21 am

Palo Alto would survive just fine without the Weekly. The key word is "news" and the Weekly provides little of that.


Posted by real news, a resident of Stanford
on Mar 10, 2012 at 11:11 am

The Kony controversy has shown us that poorly edited internet "news" can often be biased, misleading or incomplete (intentionally or not). Fox News shows us that the same is true of broadcast news.

There is a strong demand for balanced and well researched news sources. News can come from the internet or broadcast media rather than traditional print newspapers, but editors need to start pushing their value in maintaining the integrity of the reporting and presentation.


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