I had intended to close out this series but, after some encouragement, I decided to do one more. Change is inevitable. Change comes, like it or not in one of three forms; revolution, evolution or extinction. The question that hangs in the air in the news business is which one is happening to us?
It seems there was a change, subtle to be sure, in the management structure of newspapers over the years. Hometown newspapers were often owned by people with ink under their fingernails. They had worked their way up from throwing papers as a child to working in the mail room or writing stories or selling ads and into upper management. Whatever they did coming up in the business they were connected, not only to the business, but also to the community. That began changing when large news corporations began buying up those smaller papers and sending in people from all over the place to run them. The community connection in the ownership of the papers was broken. That disconnect proved to be the beginning of the end.
It was, as a single event, not enough to sink a business that was so incredibly profitable. The advent of digital technology added fuel to the fire. I have no idea which was the first news organization to give their content away online but whoever they were, they certainly did us no favors. From a purely business standpoint, that was simply insane. The revolution-evolution-extinction was now in high gear. Those years of extraordinary profit were long in the rear view mirror. Managers were struggling to maintain even a semblance of the high profits that drew large, publicly owned companies into the news business. And they were failing. The jobs started to vanish. Two newspaper cities found the two papers merging their production facilities and eventually their staffs closing down one or the other of the papers.
Even that failed to stem the tide. The internet monster had taken over. What to do? And that is still the question. What to do? The news business failed to heed the old adage, “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” We now sit here wondering, are we evolving or are we dying? The idea of revolution seems so ridiculous it has been dropped from the discussion.
Now the stage is set for the real question; what do I do as a working member of this evolving, or dying, business. I think there will be a news organization where the newspaper used to be. It will almost certainly be internet based. It will almost certainly not be anything like the current newspaper. Judging by the pace at which society is now moving and changing, it will have to be very flexible and nearly continuously updated. But, and this is where I think there is hope for people like me, the internet also provides a format for in-depth news like we have not had in print for many years with the added bonus that we can incorporate audio and video in a true multi-media form.
What kind of person will be able to thrive in this new environment? Well, if you are reading this blog, a person like you. You are online. You are seeking knowledge. You are flexible. All those things will drive the new news business and the people who work in it. “Hey,” you may be saying, “newsrooms are full of those kinds of people right now.” Yes, yes they are. The person reporting the news, visually or on screen or in writing is exactly the person who will do well. Think about what drew you into the business to start with. Was it the thrill of seeing your pictures in print? Was it your passion for people? Was it your passion for storytelling? Yeah, you see, you are already here, already doing what you love to do and your passion will help you evolve.
The truth of the matter is there is a tremendous need, especially in the internet era, for accurate information delivered in a timely manner. If anything, there is a greater need now than there has ever been. The concept of the citizen journalists will quickly fade into more of a background thing with the first major lawsuit for defamation or invasion of privacy filed against a news organization for use of unscrupulously gained material. People will figure out the business side of this thing. I am sure of that because there is money to be made in information. The key for journalists is to evolve. If you look at nature, creatures that adapt well to changing environments are the ones who survive. Creatures who cannot adapt become extinct. I am no evolutionist in the Darwinian sense, but there are some points to evolution theory that are not completely absurd. Adaptability is a key component in survival. That much is clear.
That means we have to roll with the punches, stay current on technology, learn how to use the various social media to communicate the news, even, God forbid, tweet. It causes me to shudder even to write such a thing. Within this period of evolution, (lets be optimistic!), we have a chance to affect change and we should make sure the visual voices are heard. We may have to do some pretty insane things because the bosses say so but in doing them we may be able to show them a better way, to make suggestions to push this change in a positive direction for visual journalists. What suggestions you may ask? I don’t know. Be creative. See the situation and see how to make it better, how to shape it and move it in a positive direction. Most of all, don’t follow the pack. We can all see how that is working.
We are not alone you know. Almost every business and every facet of life is undergoing major change right now. Everyone is figuring out how to survive and thrive in this new world. I think back to the social upheaval in the country during the Vietnam era. There was tremendous change wrought by the Great Depression, by the World Wars. Was any of that easy? I don’t think so. Times of upheaval and change seldom are easy. I have heard it said, each generation has its war. I suppose that most generations have their times of change and upheaval as well. It is easy to give up and fall away during those times of change. It is a bit more difficult to move that change in the right direction but that effort will be important. You and I have a great opportunity in the midst of all this mess. We can be the agents of positive change. What more could anyone ask in this life than to be an agent of positive change?