Journalism’s age of experimentation ramps up

When I first saw that only 20 of the estimated 170 journalists at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer would carry on in the news organization’s all-online format, I was aghast.

Surely they need more newsroom people than that to keep a vibrant site updated 24/7 with fresh reporting, photography, video and other multimedia components. How are they going to be a general-interest news site in a major American city this way?

That’s still some of my old newspaper thinking getting in the way, and in moments like this it’s hard to let go of that.

But the P-I’s print demise has been long foretold. And while it’s terrible that most staffers are out of jobs with today’s last print edition, the way the P-I will be doing the news will change radically, in profound ways that likely could not have taken place had a newspaper continued to exist.

Media critic and Rupert Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff offers this cold, unsympathetic assessment of the P-I as an entity, and asserts that smaller may be better:

“In general, eight times more people at an American newspaper produce stuff that is at least eight times longer and eight times more boring than it has to be. For many years now, in any American newsroom the sound you hear—there being no typewriters or printing presses anymore—is the strangled hum of anxiety mixed with deep paralysis. Pure existential nothingness. Everybody is there filling the column inches of this odd receptacle, or ungainly format, or daily void that most people in the country have no use for—indeed, no idea how to use anymore. Or why they should want to use it.”

Quite a few journalists naturally and understandably are mourning the loss of print-oriented journalism that will disappear. Instead of lengthy investigative pieces (here are some ideas that might make it work online), the P-I will emphasize more aggregated content and citizen bloggers, for example.

And what will these 20 journalists be doing? Executive producer Michelle Nicolosi says the better question is what won’t they be doing?:

“We don’t have reporters, editors or producers—everyone will do and be everything. Everyone will write, edit, take photos and shoot video, produce multimedia and curate the home page. That’ll be a training challenge for everyone, but we’re all up for the challenge and totally ready to pick up all these skills.”

Journalists who possess those skills, or show a willingness to learn them and upgrade them for Web work, will be the ones who can move forward most confidently in this profession. While that’s no guarantee in the current newsroom environment — it wasn’t for me — for those of us on the outside it’s even more imperative to get them, use them and blend them into the journalistic practices we have long followed.

What’s happening in Seattle is one of many online news experiments that displaced journalists can learn from. This is the age of journalistic experimentation, and what the P-I is facing, as Nicolosi describes, needs to be in the mindset of every laid-off, bought-out journalist interested in staying in the profession:

“Our strategy moving forward is to experiment a lot and fail fast—that’s how we’ve been operating the Web site for years, and it’s been a very effective formula for growth.

“We will resist the urge to be sentimental about the things we’ve always done. We have to reinvent how things are done on many fronts. Everybody on the staff is excited to see what we can do with this new mission.”

Slate media critic Jack Shafer pans Nicolosi’s vision, calling it “an advertisement for embalming fluid.” But he really doesn’t elaborate.

Some former staffers at the Rocky Mountain News are planning their own news site with paid subscriptions as a model. I don’t know whether it’s feasible or not; nobody does. But Rocky alumni have quickly sprung into action on their own to see what’s possible.

Longtime Rocky baseball writer Tracy Ringolsby and colleagues set up a Colorado Rockies-oriented Web site the week after the demise of their paper. And Ringolsy’s rather matter-of-fact about it all:

I never felt the Internet was a threat. I felt in the long run it was going to be a positive for our business. I was just hoping we’d figure it out before we went through a major recession in the business. We didn’t. You know, we didn’t, so you move on.

Chris Seper and Mary Vanac, former reporters at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, another highly endangered publication, took buyouts and began their own health care-oriented site. Says Seper:

“It’s a time in our lives when you should put all the cards on the table and examine all possibilities. If you look for a life preserver you’re settling.”

As Seper recounts further in the piece, his workdays are longer and the emotional swings are wilder. None of this is easy, as I am finding out in my own post-newsroom adventures.

But amid the ashes of the printed newspaper these are just a few glimmers of hope that individual journalists are taking the responsibility for helping their profession move forward, especially since their news organizations have done little in that regard. It’s essential that we all do.


4 thoughts on “Journalism’s age of experimentation ramps up

  1. Agreed. It’s like the old saying goes, “we’re all in this together”, as in the so-called “individual journalists” stepping up, and doing their part to sustain the industry in this digital age. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of all of this experimentation.


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