Memo to j-boomers: times change

Ivor ShapiroIn his final editorial, J-Source‘s outgoing editor-in-chief, Ivor Shapiro,
has a message for fellow members of his generation: Whining about the good old
days isn’t just boring; it’s blinkered. The golden age of journalism may have
just begun.

CBC is out of chairs, the Post‘s out of money, the Globe‘s out of Moscow,  the Star‘s outsourcing editors, and news veterans everywhere are out of jobs. Newspapers are toast, newscasts embarrassing, magazines fluff. The days of gumshoe reporting are over; now, it’s all about the quickest online hit. Journalism, as we know it, is over.

Heads up: the sky is falling.

Maybe.

Canada’s largest city still has four paid daily newspapers
in print in English, something like a dozen in other languages, three free
commuter papers,  several alternative weeklies,
same-day-available fine papers from world capitals in print, online access
to quality news and features in all media. Worldwide, there’s never been a time when so
much good (and, yes, poor to mediocre) journalism was available to so many
with such ease.

At least, that’s the view from the news consumer’s side of
the street. From our side, it’s certainly darker. We’ve watched terrific
journalists get pink slips, which is terrible not just for
them but for their audiences and for morale in our business as a whole. News gathering is suffering in both scope and quality, and not all executives show an urgent
awareness of the real choice facing them. Choice One: keep cutting costs,
bleeding money out of the property until it can be dumped. Choice Two: change
the business model to something that places quality reporting at its core with
a more modest expectation of return than newspapers’ historically huge profit
margins.

Given the prevalence of Choice One right now, it’s more than understandable that when members of my generation of journalists gather lately, a one-note pessimism often dominates and talk of better days abounds. But if we look around the table, we might spy the odd half-filled
glass. Has anyone noticed that even in this terrible recession, newspapers’
readership
is up and profits are steady? And that online revenues
are growing? First-rate radio features inhabit the iPods of listeners young and
old. Investigative reporters still dig
into public information to find hidden public-interest stories. Public and private broadcasters
are reinventing themselves as deliverers of news in text, stills and video on demand, rather than by
appointment. The online news site, The Tyee ensures news competition in BC; the
just-relaunched The Hill Times provides an
independent voice on the federal government. New local operations have opened
in print and on
the Web in
Nova Scotia. Meanwhile, The
Canadian Press
continues its sacred task of bringing the news
from Goose Bay to Grande Prairie and back, but faster – way faster – than ever.

Half-full is not, after all, substantially different from
half-empty. It seems at least possible that these disorienting times herald
neither apocalypse nor utopia, but merely change. There once was a time when
newspapers cost a penny and came out several times a day. Then there was a time
when families huddled around radio sets to catch the news. Times changed, but
journalism didn’t die, and it’s not dying now.

All over the world, brand new
approaches are being invented – yes, invented – using well-honed disciplines to
tell true stories for a changing world. In the US alone, journalists are being
assigned and funded by readers at Spot.us, and
aggressively delivering local journalism to Minneapolis-St Paul, San Diego and a collection of
small towns in the northeast.

What
about Canada? Along with so-called user-generated
news, momentum is building toward foundation-funded investigations.
Our Innovation
section and @jsourceinnovate
Twitter feed will continue to spotlight journalism laboratories with varying aspirations and standards. I had lunch the other day with the editor of what
looks like an especially important national start-up in gestation; I hope you
read about it on J-Source soon.

As editor-in-chief of J-Source since its foundation just
three years ago, I’ve watched with delighted surprise as journalists both young
and old came here in unanticipated numbers to engage with one another on
matters of technique
and ethics and
business,
on the law and
on management,
on covering elections
and pandemics,
and on ways to rise to new challenges. Reporters, editors, producers, digital editors,
photographers,
students,
teachers,
researchers,
critics
and even PR types
have joined the conversation.

The project is a tribute to the notion that when
a bunch of people join forces, each contributing the little they can, something
big can happen. Masthead editors have come,
gone and mostly stayed, offering their services to J-Source readers for no
compensation except the satisfaction of fostering this growing exploration of
journalists’ aspirations, achievements and challenges.

Our audience has grown
to a point where we can take almost for granted that a working journalist in
Canada knows and follows this site and probably subscribes to its Twitter, newsletter or RSS feeds. And the ranks
of J-Source writers and collaborators grow each month.

I won’t pretend to be slipping away from the EIC’s chair
without feeling a bit bereft of the child that was born
and raised under my care. I will miss leading the most selfless,
forward-looking and collegial editorial team* I’ve ever known, and the privilege of presiding over the
discussion of journalism at a time that just might eventually be recognized as
the dawn of a golden age for journalism. A time when journalists lost their
dependence on capital, built audiences out of their fields of interest and
experience, and learned new ways of tailoring media to
messages rather than the other way round. A time when decent videography can be
done by a single reporter carrying a pocket device, and edited in a coffee shop. A time when, if
you can’t find an existing publication to run your story the way it needs to be
told, you can publish it yourself.

A tough time, too? Absolutely—the economy remains shaky, and
the media revolution’s long-term prospects are freighted with uncertainty. The
puzzle of making journalism pay has not yet been
solved
, and it will be a while before anyone will define with
confidence the nature of journalists’ lasting contribution to the information
commons. No one can read J-Source‘s coverage of the changing
shape of news
with any equanimity about what the future holds or how long
it will take to get there.

Traditional approaches and tools are becoming
obsolete and the interaction between reporters and their audiences has become
both more dynamic and more perplexing; verification,
that so-called “essence” of journalism, sometimes seems to have
morphed from a standard to a question. Conventions surrounding social media and
crowdsourcing are in flux, and the relationships between payers
and pipers may be wild-westishly chaotic for a while to come. Most fearsome of
all, and most personal, is the skeletal shadow of job loss in newsrooms
everywhere.

These are devastating floods, but when floods recede they
leave fertile soil for brave farmers. Those who lack faith in journalism’s
future may not have noticed the rise of a new generation that brings aptitude,
imagination and diverse but converging skills to the task we’re handing over.
Universities and other places of formal and informal learning are graduating
a generation of journalists who stand ready to kick ass in the widest and most interesting range of
career options ever. The new era will demand their determination and
entrepreneurial imagination, and their willingness to compete for scarce resources.

As a man named Bob once sang to mothers and fathers throughout
the land, let’s get out of their road if we can’t lend a hand.

———

* Please allow me to add some personal notes of thanks to those who have made J-Source’s existence and growth possible. The Canadian Journalism Foundation has been
unstinting in its support for the project since inception, aided by generous
contributions from our
benefactorsOur
staff—associate editor Regan Ray and project manager Heather McCall—make
editors’ dreams come true on a shoestring budget. Our colleagues at
ProjetJ, led by the indomitable Colette Brin,
bring not just another language but distinct and diverse voices to the conversation.
My own school, led by its chair, Paul Knox,
has enthusiastically backed this work, along with the project’s
collaborators from
coast to coast. All this makes it possible
for me to hand over
to
Janice Neil
knowing for sure that J-Source will continue to grow and evolve in her and our amazing editorial colleagues’ imaginative, energetic and careful hands. Meanwhile, look for me over on the site’s ethics
page. Thanks for the ride.