Friday, August 15, 2008

Who, in fact, is the problem?

In a recent Esquire article, Newark mayor Cory Booker paraphrases Martin Luther King:
"The problems of today are not the vitriolic words and the evil actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good people."
These words could apply to the news business as well.

The problems that the news business faces today are not solely the responsibility of the Sam Zells and others who are slashing and burning journalism staffs. The Sam Zells are not the only villains in our current drama. The problems are the responsibility of every person in the industry, from the top muckety mucks to the lowly scribes. And so, as the old saying goes, if you're not working on the solution, you're part of the problem.

The past does not exist anymore. The future has to be created. This is a scary reality to face. It means we're all bobbing out at sea, with no map to guide us. We all have to help the business find its way.

If you're a reporter, and all you want to do is to do the same old job you always did--get up in the morning, pound out a story or two, and go home--you're part of the problem. Every person needs to devote some portion of their waking hours to teasing out the answer to the question: "How, going forward, can we attract and retain readers?"

I know this is not a comfortable thought. I know it's not what most journalists want to do. But it is the reality. If you're not comfortable with it, for whatever reason, consider leaving the business. If you need job security, you need to find another job. If you have no interest in experimentation, find a job where you can do whatever part of this job it is that you love to do. There are many jobs out there where you can exercise your writing skills, your reporting skills, your love of art, sports, politics, or business. But the bottom line is this: If you're not willing to pick up an oar and help row, you're just dead weight and you need to get out.

On the other hand, if you love the business, then you need to strap on some courage and take some risks. The business is in a crisis. And crises require good men and women to extend themselves, to take risks, to try things they never thought they could do. It's going to be a rocky period, one full of uncertainty, and you might not survive it. For all you do, you still might get the ax. But that is a risk one takes to save something one loves. And it's the responsiblity of every single one of us. It would be nice if this were a simple problem that the higher ups could fix with a little spread-sheet rejiggering. But it's not. It requires a complete re-invention of the business. The ideas on how to do that will not come from the boardroom. They will come from this odd corner or that. From this experiment that succeeded, and even from that one that failed.

The problems that the news business faces today are not solely the responsibility of the "evil business people" tearing newsrooms to shreds. They are the responsibility of every person working in the business. And so are the solutions.


Photo courtesy of Bombardier. Creative Commons license.

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