Journalism, an industry in upheaval : WSJ fascinating read

41 years ago Paul Steiger began his career in journalism with the WSJ and LA Times in ‘an industry of family-owned newspapers… setting off on a momentous period of growing power and profit.’ Next Thursday he leaves the WSJ, including 16 years at its managing editor, and an ‘industry in upheaval, with slumping revenues and stocks, layoffs, and takeovers of publishers that a decade ago seemed impregnable.’

The Journal’s editors asked him to retrace his experiences of the past four decades in search of insights into how all this happened, what may happen next and the implications of all this change for readers, the nation and society at large.

Read All About It‘ is Steiger’s story chronicling the days of Camelot, where investigative reporting had no bounds, including first class air travel, to today, where newspapers have been ‘shredded by the Internet.’ It’s a lengthy and great read on how newspapers may have returned to their past where ‘less than 50 years ago, American newspapers were in the main relatively small, narrowly profitable, family-owned, locally focused and hotly competitive.’

Take aways for me are the contrasts of feast and famine Steiger draws:

The cornucopia of national, international and business news, sports, and especially opinion available free on the Web is rich beyond historical parallel. Anyone with a fact, a comment, a snapshot or a video clip can self-publish and instantly compete with the professionals.

At the same time, the vast array of investigative reporting and foreign correspondence assembled at American newspapers over the past several decades is being cut back at all but a few publications, as papers succumb to the pressure to cut costs.

Many journalists and academics see in these cutbacks a threat to the democratic ideal of a well-informed public. Some urge turning to philanthropy or an expansion of public television as a way to fill the gap. Others have begun to argue for a government subsidy for newspapers — an unlikely prospect for now.

And the struggles faced in the industry’s transformation:

Many papers are seeking to leap ahead in adapting to the movement of readers and advertisers to the Internet. This means tightly holding down costs of print publications while leveraging metro papers’ principal unique assets: local reporting staffs and local ad-sales teams.

Cash from newspapers’ own Web offerings has grown fast but needs to grow faster, because at current rates it will be years before it makes up for the slumping inflow from the still-much-larger print side. As Google, Yahoo and similar Internet enterprises suck away ad dollars, many newspaper companies hope to gain new revenue by forming once-unthinkable partnerships with each other and some of these same rivals, particularly Yahoo.

Positive for us is where Steiger is headed. To a nonprofit called Pro Publica as president and editor-in-chief.

When fully staffed, we will be a team of 24 journalists dedicated to reporting on abuses of power by anyone with power: government, business, unions, universities, school systems, doctors, hospitals, lawyers, courts, nonprofits, media. We’ll publish through our Web site and also possibly through newspapers, magazines or TV programs, offering our material free if they provide wide distribution.

Pro Publica is funded by philanthropists providing $10 million a year in funding. As Steiger eludes to, it may be that philanthropy will be one business model protecting investigative reporting so important in a democratic society.

Empowering hundreds of bloggers with LexBlog, I can’t help believing that lawyers blogging on niches using their examination skills will also play a role in investigative reporting. Such blog content may not only be read on the blogs themselves but be syndicated to the likes of the Wall Street Journal.

Tapping into such free editorially controlled syndicated content gives newspapers local and niche legal content, perhaps better than they ever had. Opportunities lie ahead.

Trial lawyer turned legal tech entrepreneur, I am the founder and CEO of LexBlog, a legal blog community of over 30,000 blog publishers, worldwide. LexBlog’s publishing platform is used on a subscription basis by over 18,000 legal professionals, including the largest law firm in each India, China and the United States.

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