Review: “Deadlines and Disruption” Explores Journalism’s Past, Present and Future

So I’m chatting with a colleague recently about how to save our local newspapers. My formula:

  • Renewing an insanely passionate reporting focus on local politics, arts and college and high school sports.
  • Saving big-time on production costs by printing and delivering the paper fewer days while overhauling the digital platform.
  • Radically expanding the digital platform to become recognized as “the” local portal for information, advocacy and advertising.
  • Engaging the community through collaboration, and eliminating barriers to publishing for bloggers, gadflies and other opinion leaders.

Finishing Stephen Shepard’s excellent book, “Deadlines and Disruption: My Turbulent Path from Print to Digital,” the author might just as well have been channeling our newspaper conversation from his book’s final chapter, “Will the Daily Bugle Survive?”  There he offers his prescription for print journalism’s future.

“With the traditional business model collapsing, several things become urgent if quality journalism is to survive,” he writes. “For the sake of simplicity, I’ll focus on newspapers because they still do most of the original reporting in America and because they are the most endangered of the journalism species.”

In a “virtual interview” he notes the imperatives of newspapers, along with other media, to raise the bar on local and unique news coverage that readers can’t get anywhere else; link to all the rest, as new media maven Jeff Jarvis would say; collaborate, collaborate, collaborate; expand the online products and services beyond journalism and advertising; capitalize on apps for mobile devices and tablets; offer a hybrid of print and digital services that are highly valued by readers and advertisers alike.

Shepard’s digital solutions aren’t altogether novel, but they seem more feasible and less altruistic given the context he provides in the rest of the book. His suggestions rely heavily on his experience in the media — chiefly as editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek during its glory days — and as dean of the upstart Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, where students are putting the ideas from his book into practice.

As a journalism instructor, I found the final third of the book most compelling as he detailed the founding of the new graduate program just up the road from the venerable Columbia J-school. In starting CUNY’s program, he and others recognize the profound challenges facing journalism in the digital age, from the heightened demand for quality journalism in a democratic society to the crumbling business foundations that once made media among the most profitable industries of the 20th century.

Shepard outlines the school’s “entrepreneurial journalism” focus, led by Jarvis and others who recognize that journalism’s future cannot be rooted in the ways of the past.

It’s that past that Shepard eloquently chronicles in the first two-thirds of the book, from his modest upbringing in New York City and attendance at City College, to his work in the magazine industry, culminating in his rise to the top during his heralded tenure at BusinessWeek. He describes the magazine’s spectacular ascension to the top of the business press, before exiting to academia. And he mourns the media’s equally spectacular crash at the start of the new millennium, setting the stage for a new model of teaching and building journalism enterprises.

As you might expect from a former business writer and editor, Shepard’s style is direct. He’s also insightful and entertaining, as when he reflects on writing what legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee liked to call “Holy Shit Stories”:

“You’d read them with excitement and couldn’t wait to tell a friend. Such enterprise stories are even more important these days, when anyone can be a journalist, when aggregation has replaced reporting as the coin of the realm, and when everyone seems to have an opinion based on someone else’s facts.”

“Deadlines and Disruption” offers an inside look at the world of magazine publishing and journalism during its heyday and into the 21st century. It’s also an instructive guide and reminder about doing journalism right. As Shepard noted upon his departure from BusinessWeek:

“Opinion is not the same as reporting. Information is not the same as analysis. Generic news is not the same as enterprise journalism. I’m talking about in-depth reporting, synthesis, insight, context, deep understanding — and on our best days something approaching wisdom. This is the stuff of great journalism.”


Update: The Emerald, the student newspaper at the University of Oregon, is putting some of these ideas into practice. Here’s a progress report by Ken Doctor of Nieman Journalism Lab: The Newsonomics of College News Innovation.



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4 Comments on “Review: “Deadlines and Disruption” Explores Journalism’s Past, Present and Future
  1. Growing up in my teeny little hometown in Michigan, we had a weekly paper that printed several columns from various non-journalist locals, and many people in town made sure to buy the paper every week just to hear what they had to say. Topics ranged from national politics to religion to gossip to my next door neighbor’s regular column, where she wished happy birthdays to everyone who had one that week, by name, mentioned awards local kids had won in school, summer activities, or 4H, etc, and things like that. I’m pretty sure columns like that are the reason that Gladwin, MI, still has a local weekly.

    Reaching out to people like that and giving them a voice and a platform is a fantastic idea. That along with good reporting can generate a lot of readership for a paper.

    • Sadly, too much of the media forget that it is precisely these “little things” in daily life that most connect them to their readers/customers/audience. Thanks, Marci, for the reminder.

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