Newsrooms, not newspapers, are the asset that needs to be saved

I worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 20 years, and every time this one thing happened, I hated it.

At regular intervals, a magazine writer or a reporter for one of the alternative weeklies would decide it was time to trot out that hardy perennial theme, the Inquirer in decline.

Then, as if on cue, former colleagues who’d left the Inky after a great run would serve up quotes on how sad it was that the paper had lost its fastball – and how great the paper used to be (in other words: when they were still there). I hated that.

So during this painful time for my friends at 400 North Broad — layoffs, meddling from on high with the threat of more to come, a tawdry auction of their papers, the Inquirer and Daily News — I’m trying not to do that.

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So let’s be clear on this point: The papers’ woes are mostly not the journalists’ fault. The business side there has been run badly for decades, first by a distant corporation, then by local owners, lastly by hedge fund honchos.

But now the problems have gotten so public and so extreme that many in the community are appalled. Inky alum Buzz Bissinger wonders out loud on the pages of the New York Times, “Who will tell Philadelphia’s story?”

Niches alive with possibility

Here’s an answer: The rest of us.

The city is full of journalists, young and old, who’ve fashioned new perches where they’re doing the kind of in-depth work that people used to look to newspapers to do. Some of these experimenting journalists used to work in the big white tower; some of them are just a few years out of college, full of fire, ideas and digital savvy.

Really good reporting is being done all around this forming network. But it does not yet come close to matching the scale or scope of what the papers did in their primes.

But, please, don’t waste too much breath asking the wrong question: What will happen to the ink-on-paper artifact called a newspaper? That one’s settled: Newspapers will shrink into a graying niche.

Your real worry should not be whether newspapers survive. What you should worry about is the future of newsrooms, those buzzing, resourceful dens of collaboration that make everyone who works in them better than they could be alone.

Great newsrooms used to be supported by gushers of newspaper ad revenue.

But no more. And that’s the great loss, the threatening void, not the loss of a product that leaves black smudges on your fingers.

It is newsrooms that produce great work.

Journalism lore offers lots of romance about the lone wolf stalking the story. But, fact is, it takes a village to win a Pulitzer. Great journalism is collaborative.

And the days when one company could support a great newsroom by itself are gone.

The new, great newsrooms of the 21st century are more likely to be virtual networks linking smaller pods of journalists, who do their own thing in their expert niche some of the time, then band together to do bigger, enterprising work at other times. How those linkages will work, how they’ll be sustained – those are the pressing, intriguing questions.

That’s what we’re trying to work on here at WHYY with NewsWorks, our online site that is fueled by partnerships with smart, smaller outfits such as the Public School Notebook, Technically Philly, PlanPhilly and NJ Spotlight.

It’s about people, not apps

These efforts share one trait: They are driven by driven people, people who exemplify that odd mixture of idealism, skepticism, smarts, passion and cranky obsessiveness called a journalist.

Journalism happens because such people make it happen. And only when they make it happen. It it not the product of a thousand monkey typists. It’s not about cool computer code, or neat web widgets.

Great digital newsrooms will blossom only if the other people who repeatedly claim to care about saving journalism – the foundation heads, the digital sages, the earnest advocates – stop fooling themselves with dreams that salvation can be bought on the cheap.

If journalism in this digital age is going to keep doing the craft’s job of upholding democracy and helping communities find and tell their stories, it will require serious but strategic investment in building up the virtual, networked newsroom. It will take investments not in flashy apps, but in people, the very people who are now being sent scurrying, battered, disillusioned and heartbroken, out of the profession.

I’d like to see less energy spent on nostalgia or laments, and more spent on building up new revenue streams to make those investments in those cranky, indispensable skeptics known as journalists.

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