A forecast for journalism many years from now

Published 10:23 am Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I know, I know, not everyone goes online. I field an occasional complaint from readers of the print edition, saying they cannot view the items the Tribune puts online and not in the newspaper.

These are the times we live in. We are in an age of journalism transition. Some readers like printed paper. Some readers prefer the Internet. Some like both.

Here’s the deal: The items we put online often wouldn’t be in the paper anyway.

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For instance, in the old days, we would print photos from the state wrestling tournament, and the rest would never see the light of day because there wasn’t room in the paper for them. But now, we can place all the photos, even the extra ones, online. We never run out of space on the Internet. Thanks to technology, more people see photos of their kids. That’s a good thing, right?

Also, we can’t print videos. But people like to see the videos we make. They are a very popular part of our Web site. You can expect we will make more and make them more often. If you don’t have the Internet at home or at work, you can see the videos at your local library, which usually offers computer terminals connected to the Internet.

If you ran a company, wouldn’t you want to be thinking about the future? Wouldn’t you want to be ready today for tomorrow? Videos are part of being a multimedia news provider, and multimedia is the future of journalism.

The classic business analogy is this: The railroads thought of themselves as railroad companies when perhaps they should have thought of themselves as transportation companies.

OK, here is my forecast for journalism:

Someday, 10, 15, 20 years from now, the paper won’t be on paper. It will be on super-thin, flexible LCD technology. Finally, the Internet will be as almost as thin and mobile as paper. You can take it camping or to your easy chair. Wireless Internet will be as universal and accessible as city streets. (Like USA Today in the movie “Minority Report.”)

News providers won’t have to pay for presses, pressmen and paper anymore either. But producing news for the Web will be more universal. No presses or broadcast licenses needed. Just software, cameras, creativity and skills. There will be upstarts and great competition for good journalists with tech skills who can draw an audience and build communities. 

Community will be key.

News providers will be based on communities they build. Providers with strong connections to their community — such as Albert Lea, Fairmont, Owatonna and cities of that size — will fare better than ones without deep ties — the big cities.

Metro markets will end up divided among many communities. Thus, they will end up with many news providers, where before they had the paper and TV stations. One news provider leans left. One is center. One is right. One is more geared to people who love prep sports. One is geared toward the gay community. One is geared toward Christian audiences. They have staff journalists, some trained more than others. In a way, news might become like the old days of newspapering, when a city had many newspapers. 

Or maybe someday online-community-building-leaders Facebook or Google will hire journalists in each major city. Yahoo already has some journalists on staff. It’s all about online community. If you have it, you survive.

Ah, what about paying for all this? Monetizing the Web will come around as the technology replaces paper — trust me, it’ll happen — and as advertising decisions are handed over to a digital-forward generation.

By the way, I said 10, 15, 20 years from now, but I find the future arrives faster than we predict.

The sad part is between then and now many journalists, particularly at big papers, will lose their jobs, which isn’t good for the health of democracy. We are in the tough transition period caused by market changes but not for a lack of demand for news. More people are consuming news than ever before. That’s not going away.

I’m sure there were railroad workers who became truckers. Unlike the rail industry, there will be jobs in journalism again, but old-school notepad reporters won’t get back in the market. Employers will seek the tech-savvy journalists.

Interview question: Can you build a Web site from scratch?

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.