Two things have cheered me up recently about the state of print journalism: Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post was one. The other was a newly-published book titled, "The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age."
I had ordered this excellent little book on Amazon, and it got me thinking. As a publisher in this so-called post-newspaper era, why don’t I create an Amazon reading list for my newest colleague in the industry?
I’ve heard reports that the Amazon senior leadership team reads books together for group discussion, so perhaps one of these titles will make the cut. While The Washington Post is Jeff's personal investment, Amazon clearly needs to grok the print news industry a little better now that the big boss has taken such an interest.
No doubt, Jeff did his due diligence prior to purchasing the Post, so the excellent biographies of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee have already been consumed and enjoyed (not to mention "All The President's Men"). But, as Kay Graham’s son Donald painfully learned, print journalism has changed dramatically over the past generation. And Dan Kennedy's "Wired City" is an excellent account of the brave new world of online, community news.
“Professional journalism plays a unique and vital role in our society as an independent watchdog over government and large institutions,” writes Kennedy. “And newspapers have been the source of most of that public-interest journalism — as much as 85 percent, writes media scholar Alex Jones. The problem is that newspapers as we have known them are fading away.
“What I have found is that journalism, if not newspapers, is already being saved — not everywhere, and not perfectly. But in city after city, region by region, dedicated visionaries are moving beyond the traditional model of print newspapers supported mainly by advertising.”
Author Kennedy is optimistic. It will not be the same. It will not be worse. It will be different.
I’ve written and spoken extensively on the challenges faced by publishers of written journalism (print and online). In doing so — and over the course of a career and discussions with friends here at Crosscut — I’ve compiled the reading list below. It is a mix of crucial journalism history, lessons learned, experimentation, innovation and (at times) inspiration.
- "The Powers That Be" by David Halberstam. This masterftul narrative of media's rise in America is an essential history of publishing and broadcasting. Pulitzer Prize winner Halberstam tells the story of the Post, the LA Times, Time magazine, CBS and The New York Times.
- "The Death and Life of American Journalism" by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols. The authors have an engaging way of putting today's news crisis into perspective, and offer very interesting solutions for how to preserve and grow quality journalism.
- "Exit Interview" by David Westin. The former ABC News chief from 1997 to 2010, I read Westin's lessons as I was preparing to become publisher at Crosscut.
- "Sustainable Business Models for Journalism". Not likely to be on anyone else's reading list, this handy report concludes that “across the world, money to support journalism startups comes from a variety of sources. An analysis of 69 journalism startups in 10 countries finds no Holy Grail, but a lot of revenue ideas in action.”
- "Breaking the News" by James Fallows. Published in 1996, Fallow's indictment of how the press does its job is still essential reading.
- "Off the Record" by Norman Pearlstine. In a hugely controversial decision, the former Time, Inc. editor-in-chief agreed to turn over the notes of a Time reporter's conversations with a confidential source to the federal special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame case. Pearlstine explains why, and places his decision in the context of a number of First Amendment cases, including the Pentagon Papers. He also argues convincingly for a federal shield law for journalists.
- "The Press" by A.J. Liebling. This collection of Liebling's articles on newspapers and journalism appeared in The New Yorker some sixty years ago. The writing is often hilarious and some of the topics, such as the decline of the multi-newspaper town, are as relevant today as they were in the 1940s.
- "Losing the News" by Alex Jones. A Pulitzer Prize winner on the stakes: What "stands to be lost is the fact-based reporting that serves as a watchdog."
- "We the Media" by Dan Gillmor. Many of the authors on my list write from the perspective of East Coast news. Gilmore looks through the lens of Silicon Valley and the Internet.
Compiling a news publishing reading list for Jeff is an endless task. Where to fit the book I am currently reading, a thoroughly engrossing history of the news business in Chicago, as told through the life of columnist Mike Royko? Should I include the daily online bonus reading: Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, Poynter and Jim Romanesko.
And what about the movies and documentaries Jeff could watch on his Kindle Fire? Both the epics in which reporters and reporting play central roles ("Reds", "Gandhi," "The Killing Fields," just to name just a few) and the documentaries, such as "Page One: Inside the New York Times."
These are difficult times for print and online news. But they are also exciting times with new entrants, experiments and innovations. I, for one, am pulling for Jeff Bezos and his Washington Post just as I applaud the brave approach the Orange County Register is taking (more news content, not less), and the investment Red Sox owner John Henry has made with his recent purchase of the Boston Globe.
A lot is at stake.