Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Allyson Bird's "Why I left news"

Allyson Bird, one of the best students I've ever had, writes at length about why she left journalism. You should read it.

I think there's a lot to chew on here:

I don’t think the Internet killed newspapers. Newspapers killed newspapers.

People like to say that print media didn’t adapt to online demand, but that’s only part of it. The corporate folks who manage newspapers tried to comply with the whims of a thankless audience with a microscopic attention span. And newspaper staffers tried to comply with the demands of a thankless establishment that often didn’t even read their work. Everyone lost.

People came to demand CNN’s 24-hour news format from every news outlet, including local newspapers. And the news outlets nodded their heads in response, scrambling into action without offering anything to the employees who were now expected to check their emails after hours and to stay connected with readers through social media in between stories.

There was never such a thing as an eight-hour workday at newspapers, but overtime became the stuff of legend. You knew better than to demand fair compensation. If any agency that a newspaper covered had refused to pay employees for their time, the front-page headlines wouldn’t cease. But when it came to watching out for themselves, the watchdogs kept their heads down.

Combine it with the latest from the State of the Media report and it's observation that "nearly one-third of the respondents (31%) have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to," and I think it's time to reassess.

 One of the things I'm going to suggest to the S.C. Press Association this weekend: Do Less With Less - but do it better.

I think our audience is telling us very simply: We can get the "more" if we want it very easily. But if you want our loyalty and engagement, the formula isn't more, but better - do what you do well. Show us you care -- about us and about your own profession. And while you're at it, show us you're having some fun, because to read most news sites and papers these days is no-fun city.

(There's an interesting debate about some of this at Slate between author Matthew Yglesias and the reaction by the commenters on his article that argues journalism has never been in better shape.)

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At 3/20/13, 12:12 PM, Blogger A Sunflower Life said...

Nice to have someone voice what I've been thinking for a long time. The quality of stories found in newspapers today are seriously lacking from even just 10 years ago. I miss good, in-depth reporting.

At 3/20/13, 3:55 PM, Blogger Doug said...

Well, I'm still trying to teach it (depth reporting, that is). I have this stubborn belief that it can be done even better in the digital age.

At 3/21/13, 6:01 PM, Anonymous Barbara Iverson said...

I read this before I knew she'd been your student and it sure rings true to me. My own kid studied journalism. The kids I know that are reporting, making at least decent money, and enjoying it, are freelancing or working in comic journalism, new online news sites that aren't corporate. Just like the in the music business, the internet cuts out the middleman, and in journalism the news organization is the middleman.

At 3/22/13, 5:30 AM, Blogger Ryan said...

There really is a positive middle ground between the information overload of 24/7 cable news and the growing irrelevance of daily newspapers.

Successful, hyperlocal news websites are proliferating after years of struggling to find the right formula for turning a profit. The right formula, it turns out, depends on the community being served.

The catch is that hyperlocals are small and none have been able to scale. I don't know if they ever will or need to because their success is generated by a steadfast dedication to the communities they serve, not the whims of a thankless audience. is just one example.

Why does news coverage have to be either 24/7 drama or a snooze-fest printed only once a day?

Hyperlocal news is the future of journalism.

At 3/22/13, 7:55 AM, Blogger Doug said...


While I agree conceptually -- I was a founder of one of those hyperlocal sites with an original J-lab grant -- the jury is still out on how viable they will be.

Some will do well, but so far it seems to take a certain community mix to make it happen.

If we consider that journalism may have aspects of a public good and not exclusively be a private one, then we are faced with the problem the nation faced with rural electrification and rural telephone in the 1920s and '30s. Some areas simply can't support it on their own.

At 3/22/13, 7:56 AM, Blogger Doug said...


Agreed. Just think what that means for higher education. Right now, the way we do it in this country, can you think of a bigger middleman?

At 3/22/13, 4:49 PM, Blogger Ryan said...


I mostly agree with your assessment. The viability of hyperlocal sites is a function of the communities they serve and many can't yet succeed for lack of supportive businesses, markets and residents.

But when the paper in your small town folds, a Web startup is one of the only options for keeping the community informed.

A printing press is quite a significant investment for a media entrepreneur and would require outside capital or independent wealth.

On the other hand, digital journalism requires only a few tools accessible to any serious journalist these days: a computer, a camera with the ability to upload, a smartphone and the fees required for server space, Web development software, hosting and bandwidth.

The only real currency journalists have is trust and loyalty anyway; the playing field is now level and the role of entrenched media as Gatekeeper is quickly vanishing.

The purpose and core values of local journalism make it entirely a public good in my opinion, at least in principle.

The organic and personal nature of local news makes it much different than the power or telecommunications infrastructure and impractical to subsidize, though there's no reason a hyperlocal site can't operate as a nonprofit given the right mix of supporters.

Digital journalism is an industry still being developed and will at some point become entrenched, I'm sure.

Thanks for the feedback. I'm very interested in how journalism is developing in the digital age.

At 3/25/13, 9:10 AM, Blogger Doug said...


Fully agree. If you're going to do it, it has to at least start as digital.

Whether there are reverse-publishing ops than has to be seen. (And if done, for most properties (as I've written before) it will be through publishing houses. The costs of owning a printing press and distribution system are such now that in most cases they will have to be spread across multiple users. That's why five years ago I was telling papers they should ditch their physical print operations unless they were willing to invest to become true specialists. Many have gone that way.


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