These are tough times for the news business. With readers increasingly getting their news for free online and advertisers spending less to reach the dwindling print audiences, many publications are struggling to survive. Several major newspapers, including the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, have shut down in recent years. The owner of a couple of the biggest names in news, the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, is in bankruptcy. And since 2001, American newsrooms have lost more than a quarter of their full-time staffers, according to the American Society of News Editors.
But is journalism dying? Or is there reason to be excited about its future? For some perspective, Biola Magazine caught up with Jeremy Littau (’97), a former reporter and editor who recently earned a Ph.D. from the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism, specializing in new media. In this edited conversation, Littau — who now teaches journalism at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania — weighs in on the potential of the iPad, the possibility of paying for news online, and why Twitter is required homework for his students.
Newspapers are disappearing left and right. TV news divisions are shrinking. A lot of journalists are preaching doom and gloom. But you’ve written that journalism has a “bright future.” What do you mean?
To be completely honest, I don’t care about the future of journalism that much. But I say that with a caveat: I’m more concerned about the future of storytelling. And I think that we’re at a time unlike any other in human history where we actually have more ability to tell stories to each other than ever. When I was teaching at Biola as an adjunct back in 2000, if we were sitting around in a newsroom and something happened at Biola or in La Mirada and I wanted to put my students to work on it, we had maybe 10 ways we could tell that story: the print version; something radio or TV oriented; an online story; photojournalism. Now I can think of something like 35 to 40 ways that we could tell that story. So we’ve got an explosion of tools that give us more ways to do this stuff than ever. What’s dying in journalism is scarcity. When we didn’t have a lot of ways to tell a story, there weren’t a lot of ways to get that story as a consumer. And so there was a lot more emphasis on singular businesses that would make a killing because they were the only game in town. What’s going on in journalism isn’t the deconstruction of journalism; it’s the deconstruction of scarcity. The ability to share news is much more widespread and easier to do, and it can be done by common people. So [news organizations] are having to compete with everybody, not just compete with fellow journalists anymore.
But are there some stories that won’t get told unless they’re told by a professional journalist who has the resources, the time and the connections to do the necessary investigation?
Yeah. I think what you’re describing there is the doomsday scenario. If we were to lose newspapers tomorrow, we wouldn’t have ways to replace them right away. But I think we would eventually [create replacements], because we would have a need for it. Right now, a lot of what newspapers are providing that does have value is some of that investigative stuff. Local community newspapers that have a focus on rigorous investigative journalism are actually doing OK. But a lot of places, to cut costs, have cut the most important thing, which is reporters or investigative journalists. And so the thing that people are willing to pay for is the first thing that goes when a newsroom has to make cuts.
At some point, publications are going to have to reverse that trend. If they don’t do that, if they go under, I do think that people will do it themselves. We’ve seen some good examples of people who have taken it upon themselves to become reporter/blogger journalists. They’re not making a killing, but they’re providing something that has filled a void in some communities.
You say that there are people still willing to pay for their news — but do you think that we’ll get to the point where people are going to be willing to pay for their news online?
Directly? Maybe, maybe not. Indirectly, I think they will. We’re going to figure out a way to do advertising online in a way that makes sense. Right now, we don’t have an online site in the United States making money. Nobody is, not even The New York Times. We’re going to see an interesting experiment in the next few months. Rupert Murdoch is going to take most of News Corp’s products and put them behind a paywall, much like The Wall Street Journal functions right now, where if you want to access their stories you have to have a subscription. I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think that we’re almost fighting human nature in some sense when we’re asking people to pay a broad-based subscription for something. What we have to do instead is focus on providing value; the news has to offer something that you can’t get anywhere else, and it’s just so amazing and wonderful that you want to have it.
How do you think the iPad and other tablets will impact the news business in the years ahead?
It’s hard to say early on. If a news site just makes itself optimized for the browser, I don’t think it’s going to do very much for them. I’m intrigued by the idea of Time magazine’s model, which is to put themselves out as an app. The app can auto-renew, or you can cancel it. You can choose to buy it every week or not. But they’ve actually created a closed-system browsing experience where you’re not on a browser anymore. I’ve come to believe that the future, in some ways, is about applications and not about content. Figuring out ways to deliver news and information in a way that creates an experience, I think that there’s money in that — on these kinds of devices especially.
Do you think that social media like Twitter and Facebook are giving us shorter attention spans? Are they impacting the way that we consume information?
There are probably two ways to look at it: It could very well be creating a shorter attention span. But it could also just be a sign of a culture with a short attention span. I see Twitter as a natural evolution for a society that has become so busy, so on-the-go and so inundated with media that we need something that can deliver to us in short bursts. [One] function that social media plays is what we call “Web curation.” I follow a lot of journalists and journalism academics and people like that [on Twitter]. If something is important, enough of them will post that link several times and it will be my cue that I should probably pay attention to it. So in that sense, actually, I think it gives me a longer attention span, because rather than being like that user attracted to a random shiny object every time he sees a new link, I can depend on my audience to tell me what’s important.
With all of the options out there for places to get news, do you worry that people gravitate toward news sites that tend to reinforce their own partisan opinions?
Absolutely. We’re seeing a pretty strong rise again in the partisan press that we saw in the middle of the 19th century. During the days of the penny press in the 1830s, for example, there were something like 40 or 50 newspapers in New York City, and they were all partisan. People would subscribe to a newspaper based on “I like that candidate” or “I like that point of view.” It was a very fractured time. We are actually getting back to that again. CNN, which is probably the most centrist of the three cable networks, is the one that’s suffering right now. You have MSNBC on the left and Fox News on the right, and they talk to an audience that agrees. At some point, where are we getting an alternate view? How often are we tripping into a viewpoint that doesn’t agree with me? And really actually sitting down, listening to it and considering it? One of the beauties of the world that we’re in right now is that anybody who wants to be super informed can be. But the question is whether we have the will in ourselves or the intellectual capacity that we’ve built for ourselves to allow ourselves to consume in that way.
With all the changes in the industry, what kinds of things are you doing with your students now that were unthought-of when you were an undergraduate?
In my classes at Lehigh, we use a lot of social media to talk and listen to the audience. One of the first things I did this semester in my multimedia class was require them to add 10 people from the local community to the list of people they follow on Twitter every day for two weeks, with the idea that those people would follow them back. So, for each student, we created within two weeks an audience of 140 or 150 local followers. Now they’re using that audience to solicit story ideas and angles, and talk to them about it. For the final project, they’re going to produce a converged Web site with several different types of stories and all kinds of media forms. When they finish, they’re going to use this audience to spread the word. They’re going to post links that say “please retweet,” and those followers are going to look at it and pass it along to their followers. So it’s a lesson in how you can use social media in all stages of the process.
As someone who spent many years working at newspapers, what would you say about the need for trained Christian journalists?
Christians cannot afford to not be in any space. Period. Not just journalism. I don’t think we can ever afford to abandon anything. So in that sense, there’s always a need that flows out of that. I think the one thing I would say: When I graduated from Biola, one of the reasons I went into journalism was that I felt there was a need for Christians in the field. I discovered that the so-called “liberal media” has a lot of Christians in it — I mean, really, a lot of Christians. The statistics aren’t very high, but they’re skewed by the big metro dailies. But at community newspapers around America, you have Christians who are working in this field, so it’s not like they’re not shaping it.
I try to cultivate within the classroom experience students who are Christians who want to go into the field, but also try to help them understand that there is a wider world out there and it’s not wrong to tell people’s stories even if you don’t agree with their choices or beliefs or whatever. We all benefit from a robust discussion of an issue, even if it’s pulling in things that we don’t agree with, because ultimately truth emerges from a wide discussion rather than a limited, narrow one.
Jeremy Littau (’97) is an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. Find his blog at jlittau.net.