Print Journalism is Changing, Not Dying

Chris Jones speaks to delegates at NASH75 in Toronto.
(Brady Knight / The Quill)

Print journalism?  Not for me – or so I thought.

While I have had ambitions of becoming a journalist for a long time, I never really gave much thought to print. I thought it was a dying medium. Before I came to Brandon University, I worked (and still do) at the local radio station in my hometown. I hope to continue in radio, and eventually make the switch to television. For me, broadcast journalism is where I want to work.

I started writing for The Quill in my first month at BU. While I was not an aspiring newspaper writer, I needed experience, and it represented an opportunity to develop much-needed skills. Needless to say, I have quite enjoyed writing for The Quill, while working with some fantastic people.

However, it was not until earlier this month that I started to believe print journalism was not dying a slow and drawn-out death.

From January 9th to 13th, I had the privilege of going to NASH, the annual national student journalism conference hosted by the Canadian University Press (CUP). For those of you who haven’t been so lucky as to attend this event, it is filled with incredible speakers, seminars, a plenary, and different social events every evening – essentially student journalists “nerding out” for five days.

Throughout the conference I heard many different opinions on the direction of print journalism. When talking to younger people like myself, many believe it is on a permanent decline. And until I arrived at NASH, I would have agreed.

But over the course of the conference, I came to the realization that while print journalism may be on the dying in the traditional sense, it is actually adapting and transforming into a unique new medium.

Today, more and more people – especially the younger generation – are getting their news online. Over the past five years in particular, there have been tremendous gains in the world of online journalism. Breaking news stories now spread worldwide in minutes. Just think of how the Twitterverse exploded in activity during the tragic shootings in Newtown last month. This swiftly flowing river of information, combined with the burning desire of citizens to obtain as many details as possible, has revolutionized news organizations.

Consumers expect to have immediate and complete coverage of breaking news events. Because of this, news organizations must find the balance between being first, and taking the risk of being wrong, or risking the wait for verification to preserve their reputation. That is part of the reason why during the above-mentioned crisis, the shooter was incorrectly identified in original reports.

This speedy flow of information has long been present in television. The world is filled with news coverage that has been reduced to a formula. Watch any newscast and you can see it – breaking news at the top of the hour, summing up with a “feel-good” story, and a variety of 90-second pieces in between. The nature of this instantaneous, emotion-based, sound-bite journalism has allowed newspapers to step in and fill an important gap. The rest of the story.

In his keynote address to NASH delegates on Friday night, Brian Stelter of the New York Times talked about the importance of less breaking news coverage, and more “why did it break?” stories. Most newscasts are pretty much identical – footage of the same locations, the same people, and the same media scrums. Everything is then edited down to the all-important 90 seconds.

However, this leaves a gap between the basic information and in-depth coverage. This is where print publications get their chance to shine.

Think about the last time you heard something on the news that piqued your interest. Perhaps it was the “Idle No More” movement, a story about your city increasing taxes, or maybe allegations of corruption brought forth against government officials. How did you go about finding more information? Which media sources did you use? Chances are, if you are looking for details, you will find them in print.

The articles you found when searching were probably longer. But they had the specifics – in-depth interviews with many of the parties involved, detailed analysis, and answers to those questions left untouched by television reporters.

Print publications have the time to produce captivating stories, and the space to allow for extensive information. During a session at NASH, it was standing room only when Chris Jones from Esquire spoke about interviewing for feature articles. As a case study, he used his piece “Animals” about the tragic events that unfolded in Zanesville, Ohio in October 2011. When you read the article (which you should, if you haven’t already – the incredible details are what sets it apart from other news coverage. You can picture the entire scene in your mind, and once you begin reading, it is impossible to stop. While it wasn’t published until nearly five months after the incident, Jones told the most compelling story, unveiling a side many had never heard.

Journalism is about informing citizens, providing information, and telling the stories of the day – the primary goal of all media outlets. But you will never see such a compelling story as Jones’s on a supper-hour newscast.

There is no doubt the world of print journalism is changing. Today, reporters must have many of the same skills as a television videographer – the ability to write, report, and make use of multimedia. Reporters are using video, pictures, and creating interactive features for their websites. The web also gives them greater ability to cover breaking news, along with the various social media platforms, particularly Twitter.

The print industry is diversifying, and coming to grips with the fact many people no longer read papers to get their daily dose of information. Newsrooms are cutting jobs as budgets shrink in an incredibly competitive market. But at the same time, slowly but surely, they are changing how they deliver content.

At NASH there were multiple sessions each day dealing with web content and social media. From growing your online audience and tips for working with WordPress, to apps for mobile platforms, the journalists who presented these sessions demonstrated the print world is adapting to the new online culture. With paper subscriptions falling, and the demand for online content constantly growing, there is little choice for papers. They must keep up if they want to remain competitive. So far, many are holding their own – still firmly entrenched in their respective niches – and stand to be around for countless years to come.

While print publications might not be the first place people go for breaking news, they are still incredibly relevant. They have, and must continue to adapt to the ever-changing world of journalism. They may not look like a “traditional” newspaper anymore, but print journalism plays a vital role in media coverage, and will continue to do so in one way or another well into the foreseeable future. The presentation may be changing, but the power of the written word still remains.

Republished from The Quill print edition, Volume 103, Issue 19, January 29, 2013.