Traditional journalists have been progressing fairly predictably over the past few years through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' infamous Five Stages of Grief, and it looks like a few of them have finally reached the final stage. Just to review, here's how things have gone over the previous four stages, more or less:
- Denial–"This Internet thing is just a fad," or "Craig who?"
- Anger–"Bloggers are NOT journalists," or "Stop linking to our site!"
- Bargaining–"But wait, maybe we can figure out how to get people to pay for news on the Web."
- Depression–"Another buyout/layoff? We're all gonna lose our jobs."
Which brings us to Stage Five: Acceptance. While there are still many journalists and newspaper executives still trapped somewhere in the first four stages, all of a sudden we're seeing several prominent thinkers come to the realization that newspapers, as we know them, may be going away–soon. And they're starting to realize that the world won't end at the same time. (Sudden thought: How dare the world end if there are no newspapers to cover it? Discuss.)
Moreover, they're understanding just why this is happening–that much of the damage was actually self-inflicted, by newspaper managements who failed to understand and properly react to the threats they faced. And they're starting to think about the future.
Impending doom does tend to clarify the mind. As some of us have been predicting for a while, the one-two-three punch of the newspaper industry's structural changes (thanks to the Internet, mostly), the rotten economy and, in some cases, foolish financial risk, has put many papers on the brink. It's no longer radical to say that major papers are going to die or be significantly cut back over the next few months. In fact, the challenge is guessing which one topples over first. Not a happy game to play, but journalists always did have a thing for gallows humor.
Just this week, there have been three examples of forward-thinking traditional journalists accepting that the end may be nigh, and, more importantly, understanding why and What It All Means:
Former San Francisco Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein writes on his blog:
The notion that we old media institutions are still the big boys, so much more important and, well, HEFTIER than these pesky digital newcomers sounds familiar: we had the exact same view of things when CraigsList started cranking up at the beginning of the 2000s.
We were up to important things then, too important to worry about this quirky little community, sell-your-bicycle site. Weren't we? Hundreds of millions of dollars in lost classified revenues later, newspapers no longer feel that way. Too late for crying.
Next up, Slate's excellent press critic, Jack Shafer:
From the beginning, newspapers sought to invent the Web in their own image by repurposing the copy, values, and temperament found in their ink-and-paper editions. Despite being early arrivals, despite having spent millions on manpower and hardware, despite all the animations, links, videos, databases, and other software tricks found on their sites, every newspaper Web site is instantly identifiable as a newspaper Web site. By succeeding, they failed to invent the Web.
And finally, Michael Hirschorn, writing in The Atlantic about the potential demise of, gasp, the New York Times:
Ultimately, the death of The New York Times—or at least its print edition—would be a sentimental moment, and a severe blow to American journalism. But a disaster? In the long run, maybe not.
This is a very different tenor than most previous writings about the newspaper business, by traditional journalists, have had until now. In other words, there's now acceptance of what's happening, why it's happening, and what it means.
What's needed now is a next stage of grief over the newspaper business: How to reinvent it. It will look radically different than what we know now, and it will be much more about "news" than "paper." Some of us are already working on it, and have been for some time. But now that the traditionalists are starting to understand and accept what's happening, it's time to move very quickly to figure out what comes next–and to stop mourning what will soon be gone.