News, the Web and Journalism Online

This week at work we’ve been hearing from ad agencies as we prepare to select a new one to assist us to advertise The United Methodist Church.

The presentations were all different and creative but one theme kept surfacing–the future is online. Every agency pointed to the native online state of 18 to 34 year olds.

As a communications agency we face the same challenge that newspapers and other information providers face. Our operating model was built before wifi, the Internet, Facebook, or global gaming among the many forms of digital tools.

Until recently we weren’t organized for online information technologies. Today we’re making headway in that direction. But the challenge remains–how to communicate with digital natives.

I think about this daily, sometimes hours upon end. And I think about it more broadly than advertising alone. I think about journalism with even more concern.

While I’m as familiar with the web and other technologies as most, I’m still not a native, I’m an immigrant. So the use of digital appliances doesn’t come as second nature, it comes second hand.

It’s old hat to say that newer technologies are disrupting older models everywhere. In a blog post in the New York Times, Timothy Egan cites 1,000 jobs lost last week in the newspaper industry even as newspapers reach more people through of the web. It’s the paradox of journalism today. The old business model isn’t working but the new model isn’t viable either, despite its wider reach.

Even the most widely read blogs like Huffington Post, writes Egan, don’t pay a living wage to their stable of writers.  Web advertising revenues aren’t sufficient to support labor costs in most cases. But it’s not in the business model to pay writers anyway, he says. And then he asks, is the new journalism from “low pay to no pay?”

What will a new model look like? We had a conversation this afternoon in which we discussed the effects of these pressures on our work. It’s not just about economics though, it’s also about the kind of journalism we pursue, the quality, the staff needed, the tools, the packaging and the target audiences.

These all create a vortex that seems to move at its own momentum bouncing through the landscape towards the future leaving behind disheveled institutions with empty rooms and unoccupied chairs. What is viable? How do we sustain it?

Models will emerge but we’re in the throes of such substantial change right now that it’s too soon to see what they are. And we know they won’t be fixed and enduring as the models of the past. Technology disrupts and we’re in the midst of disruptive change unlike any I’ve known in the workplace.

Journalism is the conversation a society has with itself and this is no less true in religious communities as in the civic society that we all belong to. We need to keep the conversation going and we need competent informed communicators to help it along, reaching not only 18 to 34 year olds, but everyone who wants to participate.

That doesn’t mean there’s no less need for citizen journalists, but it does mean we also need those who apply the scientific method to the search for truth, the fact-checking, research-driven,  hard questioning journalists who illuminate the conversation and help to frame it when someone tries to smoke it up with nuance and spin. That will require bloggers and citizens and journalists plying their skills.

Whatever changes technology brings, this will be needed. It will be needed to preserve democratic society, and I believe it will be needed to preserve the integrity of religious communities as well.

And we will need to find ways to pay for it, or we will pay in other ways far more costly than dollars and cents.

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