On April 20, the death of Life magazine will resurrect anxieties surrounding print journalism's future. Once a powerful producer of what Walter Lippman called "the pictures inside of our heads," Life spent over 70 years interpreting the unseen world through stunning photographs and analytical articles. What was once a pillar of strength holding up the journalistic institution has fallen to what Time says is, "the decline of the newspaper industry."
Life's death adds fuel to the fire that printed media is no longer viable in today's digital public sphere. Free news sources online--sponsored or blogged--have pushed traditional newspapers to the margins economically and demographically. Newspapers have either surrendered to market forces through mergers and financial collapse, or have become so consumed by them that journalism becomes indistinguishable from advertising. Special inserts or supplements are purchased by companies, infusing the papers with some badly needed cash.
It is not that the writers and editors themselves are immoral, but slashed budgets and limited writing staff have made filling a daily newspaper exceedingly difficult.
Newspaper barons like the recently indicted Lord Conrad Black made fortunes by 'streamlining' newspaper budgets and cutting staff. As a result, the ethical boundary between marketing and news writing has been blurred and a media-savvy audience has become disenfranchised.
Moreover, universities--the supposed training grounds for aspiring journalists--have all but eliminated their journalism curriculums. The Western Social Science Association has organized a panel on the future of media at their University of Calgary conference April 7--11, to discuss journalism's disappearance from university curriculums and its replacement with, "communications studies, convergence, public relations, advertising and an assortment of other specialized courses." The panel, entitled "Is Journalism Dead?" welcomes academics from across Western North America and attempts to provide insight.
These 'new' courses do not offer instruction on writing leads, interviewing or balancing an article- the staples of journalism. The art of storytelling has been abandoned for proficient essay writing and lecture-style presentations, neither of which proves very useful in building the necessary portfolio that any would-be writer needs. It is difficult to see where journalism fits in a society that doesn't find it important enough to teach in the highest levels of its education system.
But despite rampant market corruption and ivory tower disinterest in the journalist profession, there is still hope. People still like paper, and there is little reason to believe this will change. Urban hipsters reading the news from a Starbucks-fed laptop, or environmentalists preaching the virtues of the paperless future cannot deny the wire-free comfort of a simple broadsheet whilst waiting for... well anything, anywhere. In this sense, journalism will stay alive, even if it is on life support.
Is it though? Overall, newspapers and broadcast newscasters still competently report accurate stories which resonate with the public. Admittedly, the industry is far from healthy--clearly illustrated by publication closures and educational indifference--but there is not enough evidence to warrant a proclamation of the industry's demise. Although 'advertorials' have escalated in recent years, there is reason to believe that a media-saturated audience has the sophistication and critical thinking skills to sniff out the phonies.