Out-of-work journalists ten years late to the Web party

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This has not been the newspaper industry's finest month. Almost every day there's news of layoffs, bankruptcies and doors being shut on venerable old news institutions like the Denver, Colorado-based Rocky Mountain News. It published its last edition a few weeks ago after 150 years in business.

Here in Canada, the Kingston Whig-Standard has lost 25 per cent of its newsroom since the beginning of the year and the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and other Canadian papers are shucking staff as well. In many cases, as my friend James Compton, a professor at the University of Western Ontario points out, the closures and constrictions have more to do with overzealous and overextended corporate investing than poor news judgement, rising costs and shrinking local revenues.

And, it would be a jaded soul who would blame individual reporters or editors for the rapid and, I think, irreversible decline in their business, or at least their business-as-usual. But, the death spiral of newspapers is leaving many of those same journalists in search of new work, in new media. Some will consider moving their craft online, onto blogs, websites or new news projects self-published not on the familiar tree pulp, but to the large and small screens that are becoming the new home to journalism -- citizen, social and mainstream.

As blogger and still-standing Kingston-Whig Standard reporter, Robert Tripp recently pointed out on the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) listserve, starting a fresh journalism venture online isn't exactly an easy task for someone who's just been given a pink slip. "People mid-career can't afford to run a news website with no income. If you have a severance package, you can quickly drain it funding a startup business," Tripp wrote. He went on to suggest that out-of-work journalists take up "blogging, Twittering and Facebooking" to build up their personal online brands.

To which, I say, good idea, ten years ago.

I agree with Compton that frontline journalists are pretty blameless for a demise that is the responsibility of their corporate overlords. But, they have to take personal responsibility for their general disinterest in of social media, online community and the Web in general. That attitude ranges from disdain, grumpiness and mocking to ignorance, bitterness and jubilant Ludditeism. At first that newsroom attitude was just jaded recalcitrance, now it verges on an archaic cargo-cultism that still believes that if newspapers keep doing what they've always done, the readers will return like U.S. airmen circling above island runways strewn with bamboo bombers and coconut landing lights.

Of course, I'm generalizing here, but generalizing from years of experience in newsrooms where, as an early proponent of online communities and news, I saw the attitude first hand. And, generalizing from the talk and attitudes I see in journalism schools and newsrooms today. Sure, there are journalists, like Matthew Ingram at the Globe and Mail and others, who have embraced the Web, but they are the outliers and always have been. Many journalists I know were hoping the whole "online fad" would either fizzle out or at least not catch fire until their retirement. Which, ironically, is now forced.

Sadly, that stand has prevented many journalists from building their online social capital over the past decade. Now, with no options left, they hope to stake a claim, not on an open prairie, but in a bustling suburbia. Unfortunately, many of the niches newspaper folks might have successfully mined: wine writing, travel, food, fashion etc. have already been taken by bloggers and online writers who have large and loyal followings. Going up against Gary Vanyerchuk on wine, after he's being doing Wine Library TV coming on eight years is a bit of a mug's game.

The social media community is inclusive, but it can also spot an opportunist a mile away. And, together, social media communities have built themselves and the common good up slowly over a decade. Journalists can't show up late to the party and expect to slide right in. They need to have contributed, to have proven themselves and to have been willing to give as well as take. There's a big difference between joining an online social network because you want to and joining because you have to.

Journalists could have been part of the community building and conversation long ago. They may need to show up now because of someone else's bad choices. The fact they didn't participate sooner is an error all their own.

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