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Monday, February 1, 2010
From the President

Rather than watch the future unfold, help SPJ make it happen

By Kevin Z. Smith

“When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.” — American scholar John M. Richardson Jr.

Nothing comes closer to the truth when applying this quote to the future of journalism. First, let’s accept that the future is going to happen. Second, let’s understand that we have three options as outlined by Richardson.

So, the remaining variable is what will the Society of Professional Journalists do: Let it happen, wonder what happened or make it happen?

It’s an understatement to say a lot has been written and even more verbalized about the future of journalism over the past year. It’s also safe to say that this topic has occupied more time and been given more scrutiny by our peers than any other, and justifiably so.

Since becoming president of SPJ in August, I’ve made it one of my missions (along with increased membership) to get us an answer. In fact, I’ve been working to see that SPJ is actually one of the voices people pay attention to when it comes to seeking an answer to the question that haunts all of us: What is the future of our profession?

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t have an answer as I sit writing this column in mid-January. But, I’m closer to one than I was five months ago when I took office. In that time I’ve done a lot of reading and attended meaningful conferences on this topic in November and December. I plan on attending more meetings in March and April.

What I’ve learned so far is not surprising. Depending on who has the microphone at the moment, you get varied views. Here are some basic positions I’ve heard:

• Let traditional media die and the new era of convergence journalism take over. Legacy media deserves to vanish because it created its own problems by refusing to adapt.

• Traditional media will survive so long as owners learn to adapt, and there are ways to do that without slashing hundreds of jobs.

• There really isn’t a problem in the industry. Newspapers and radio and TV stations are making money. Granted their profit margins are not in the 20 percent range, but newspapers, particularly community papers, are thriving.

• This problem is more about economics than technology. When the economy gains footing, the industry will adjust again.

• The problem is more about technology. Forget the recession; legacy media will never be what it was because it is being replaced by social media.

• Once people learn that news is no longer a free commodity, even online, revenue streams will develop and the crisis will be averted. News can no longer be free.

• Legal adjustments have to be made to protect original content so aggregators can no longer feast on other news agencies.

• Citizen journalists, hyper local content and social networks are where the future is.

Of course, somewhere in the middle of this mental mayhem lies an answer. Or, it may be a little bit of everything. If we polled our own membership, I’m certain the views, and therefore the solutions to our industry problems, would be as vast as those of the panelists I’ve spent a lot of time listening to and talking with.

In the coming months, SPJ will continue to evaluate and participate in these discussions. We are planning our own versions of these “Future of Journalism” workshops at our national convention in October.

In the meantime, there is no time like the present to make this a primary topic of conversation at our spring conferences and our local chapter meetings. And, as always, every member has a direct line to me. So, I’m open to your thoughts.

While the answer to journalism’s future hasn’t been decided, be confident that SPJ will be an organization that makes the future happen rather than watches and wonders.

Kevin Z. Smith is the 2009-10 SPJ President. He is an assistant professor of journalism at Fairmont State University and spent 20 years in newspapers as a reporter and editor.

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