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Risk & Reward

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, in its fifth annual report on the state of the business, says that journalism—the newspaper, the newscast, the Website—is no longer a destination. It's just a pathway.

While veteran media companies tend to remain the places most people go for their news, either in their traditional forms or on the Web, they are no longer the gatekeepers of information. If they are to survive, they must be guides to that information's relevance and gateways to other sources.

It all sounds rather Zen, but it also rings true.

We see it as the Miracle on 34th Street model. If your news organization doesn't have the information consumers seek, tell them where they can get it. In the online information age, that is more than a marketing strategy to build goodwill. It is imperative to retaining news customers who already have so many places to go.

As the new PEJ study on the state of journalism points out, the days when publications are put to bed, at least in the broader sense, are gone. The news never sleeps, and now neither do the organizations reporting it.

The bad news, or at least the “challenging” news, is that media companies are not quite sure how to monetize this new model. PEJ argues that rather than losing audience, consumers of traditional media like ABC, CBS and CNN are increasingly moving to the Internet brands of those same companies.

Big deal! Getting the advertisers to move there in sufficient numbers to counter the loss in traditional viewership is the “crisis” in journalism.

There will be upheaval and hard times ahead. Heck, they're already here. Tribune Co. is rethinking and retrenching at the same time. So are many other media companies. Local stations, without much fanfare, have used technology to replace people. We'd like to say that while they've started Websites, they've also staffed them. But we suspect at most stations, the Website is still understaffed and underutilized.

If there is to be an upside, it's that all this change demands a new sense of mission and a new connection by stations to their audiences. That apparently is happening. The PEJ report notes, “News organizations, or at least some, have become places of risk and innovation, and they feel a growing connection with audiences, something we could not have said a few years ago.”

As few people in this business need to be told, the opportunities the Web has opened have also created demands. The decline in viewership of TV as attention spans are subdivided has meant that most companies are reinventing their business, including trying some things that don't work, while at the same time owners are cutting back on reporting and resources.

For those left to carry on the art and craft of journalism, the chances for risk and innovation have never been as plentiful, and the consequences of failure have never been as instantly measurable. But if PEJ is right, and there is a sense of mission among journalists to prove that their “calling” is still relevant and can be profitable, electronic journalism has the tools to carry on and build on its proud heritage. They need management willing to match that commitment.