Like a person with a quill learning to operate a typewriter


On his recent visit to EJC’s Media NGO Fair 2010 in Maastricht, Netherlands, Josh Friedman, professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University shared his thoughts on the future of journalism in the United States.

What in your opinion is the future of journalism in the United States?

The future of journalism in the United States is not clear and it’s not very bright, because the media companies have lost a tremendous amount of professional talent. They have had to lay people off, and they don’t hire new people with talent. There is a huge loss to the country because there are fewer investigations, and the coverage is just much weaker, much thinner. The problem is that there was a mania of media institutions being bought by other media companies; they would borrow the money in the 1990s and early 2000s, as if they didn’t anticipate having a problem paying off their loans. And then when the economy went sour, they couldn’t pay off their loans, so the first thing they did was cut the quality by getting rid of journalists. We don’t in the long term know what it [the future of journalism] is going to be, because of the technological changes in the future. It may be that years from now, digital journalism will be great and much better than print journalism, but at the moment no one has figured out how to pay for it.

Do you know what might be the most viable business model in the States?

There’s a lot of flailing around and a lot of desperation. Basically, Murdoch, who has figured out a way to make a lot of money during this period is talking about charging for access for the news that his company produces; the New York Times say they are going to try something like that too. If it worked I suppose that would be one way to survive and pay the journalists, but I have the impression that most younger people don’t understand that they would have to pay for it, and they won’t pay for it. They won’t use it, they will get the news elsewhere so I’m not sure that’s going to work. In fact it it probably won’t work.

Where do you envisage journalism being in 10 years time in the United States?

It will be very different. Newspaper and print media will be much smaller. They will have core staffs and buy a lot of material produced by outside organisations. Some of those organisations will be supported by philanthropists, like ProPublica which does investigations. There will be consortia of groups specialising in investigations, business reporting and sports and they will sell to these processing companies that have newspapers, and they will also have digital media. Where the money’s going to come from I’m not sure. Obviously in a country like the United States, which has a huge amount of merchandising, there’s going to be advertising income. But so far the advertisers seem to want to pay a lot less when they are in digital than in print. So I think there will be two tiers: the local and semi-regional papers in print and digital platforms will probably be making money because they don’t have competition, but at the national level there won’t be as many really good publications. There will be a few web companies like Google and Yahoo which have created their own news and they will be selling it to others at a reduced price; it will be like AP [Associated Press] but AP is a cooperative and they [Google,Yahoo] will be more for profit.

What new media skills/tools are you trying to learn?

It’s sort of like a person with a quill trying to learn how to operate a typewriter! Younger people grow up with it and it’s natural to use it; for older people digital media is unfamiliar, but it’s the only thing that’s going to last. You have to know how to do it. My advice to a mid-career journalist would be to invest some money, to take a course for a few weeks and learn how to do Flash and all the different programs that are necessary to work on a digital platform.

What is the one thing from ‘old journalism’ that you would keep?

Old journalism can be new journalism, it is just produced and delivered differently. It is only in the last 40-50 years in the US that we have had this high level of objective journalism where journalists have been paid enough to live and they don’t have to take money corruputly from others. I would hate to see this lost because we would just go back to the bad old days.