Trouble with a capital “P” / to print or not to print

The amount of information cutely referred too often to be at our fingertips is overwhelming. Readers need access to information but also some measure of trust that that information is correct and unaltered. To ensure the data is valid, they need to vet the source it came from and sift the document’s history: who authored it, how was it published, etc.. To make a decision based on this research involves a great deal of care and effort.

Journalism evolved partly out of society’s need to promote this skill in dedicated individuals so the average person could spend that time on their own pursuits. Balancing this responsibility with the realities of keeping a newspaper alive has been a struggle that consumer trust in media has been a casualty of. Every aspect of major life decisions can now be Googled, but the ratio of good information to bad has yet to reach a balance. We need these individuals now more than ever.

Print media has been dying for quite some time. It’s been in decline since the mid-nineties, well before interest in the web became widespread. The Internet has become a major part of our culture in a short period of time, and online media has come a long way from the out-of-touch offerings of early news sites. Physical newspapers are putting up quite a fight to remain relevant in the digital age — a fight that worries some that meaningful journalism is falling behind the bottom line in priority at major media outlets.

Physical printed newspapers have the weight of tradition and respect behind them. They have tried and true protocols for handling sensitive issues, a system of ethics honed over centuries, and a vested interest in checking facts before they get in front of the reader. Papers grow up with their loyal followings and become a stable part of people’s lives.

Experiences such as unfolding sections over breakfast or grabbing an alternative weekly to read on the bus are powerful. A paper can be shared with a friend or left behind at a coffee shop for someone else to read. You can’t cut out and save an achievement from a website, and linking to an obituary just isn’t the same.

Print media might be “dying,” but there is hope for physical products. Vinyl record sales, for example, have been climbing since 2006, while all other music sales have dropped. Enthusiasts of the medium held on to their records for years as presses went out of business. They cited the social experience of discussing a record’s packaging and even just flipping it over and holding it in their hands as part of what made them so valuable.

The advantages of online media parallel its physical roots but have led to a reexamination of the reader’s role in journalism. Information is shared with friends and co-workers at a speed that has led to massive restructuring of the relationship between the public and everyone else. Bloggers have found critical success and respect, often enjoying rewarding careers following Internet success. The Internet has become a non-discriminating, more truly democratic frontier of possibility.

News aggregators, sites that scrape headlines from multiple online sources, are a development the industry hasn’t decided if it likes yet. On the one hand, they drive traffic toward content creators by being a reliable way for users to find articles they’re interested in. On the other, aggregation services profit from other corporations’ content by using it to encourage people to use their site, raising their ad revenue. The aggregators don’t contribute to the content’s creation but are encroaching on the business of those that make good journalism possible.

A successful website connects its content with readers at a much reduced operating cost that can be of huge value to a paper. It affords readers the ability to communicate with other interested parties via article comments and can link directly to pages that may be relevant to them. Skilled curation, picking the few good pages out of millions, is something newspapers have had an advantage in until recently. Like the user-generated content that brought blogging into the spotlight, we are now seeing user-generated curation combing the web for relevancy and talent in the same way editors comb through writers’ work.

Once the novelty wears off generating all this great content and organizing it for the benefit of fellow users, many find that working for free has its disadvantages. Creating and maintaining a successful blog increases the chance it will be seen by those who might pay them in the future, but participatory journalists lack the protection offered by an established newspaper. They have been sued, fired from their day jobs and otherwise harassed for exploring the career as a hobbyist. People have died for the right to say what they think, but the Internet has made self-expression look deceptively simple.

Freedom and stability are fundamentally at odds, but the papers who are able to evolve into the digital realm without compromising their mandates may be able to have their cake and eat it too. Newspapers brought the public an affordable access to information they could trust. They have been a key component in every major ideological shift since the printing press was invented. Social evolution like the digital marketplace is challenging, but there will never be a public that doesn’t need individuals dedicated to providing accurate reports on what’s going on in the world. They just haven’t realized those individuals need to be paid yet.