In my review of Robert S. Boynton’s 2005 book “The New New Journalism” last week, I ended on a question I was left with after finishing the book: “In today’s changing media environment, how does a young writer who aspires to do this kind of journalism find a viable outlet for his or her work?”
Much to my delight, after I shared the post on my Facebook page, Boynton himself responded with something that – at least in part – answers that question and also offers his views on where journalism is headed.
This month, Boynton published an essay on Byliner.com titled, “The New New Journalism, circa 2011,” in which he addresses many of the Chicken Little-esque pronouncements about the future of journalism, particularly long-form journalism.
He writes (in words with which I couldn’t agree more strongly):
“It is important to remember that, however imperiled journalists feel, the big story is the fact that never before have so many people had so much access to such a diverse and enormous supply of information. And never before have they consumed so much of it. This is undeniably true, and of great benefit to mankind. The audience for journalism has never been larger.”
Boynton writes that it was the “laziness of the business model” of journalism that has created many of the problems the industry faces today. Because advertising revenue was rolling in so steadily for most of the 20th century, newspapers and broadcast news outlets allowed their actual product – their journalism – to be devalued.
After telling readers that he cautions his New York University students about trusting those who believe they can foresee the future of industry, he shares his own prediction: “In the future, journalism will be either very short, or very long. Nothing in the middle will survive.”
The survival of both short- and long-form journalism will depend not on building the largest possible audience, but on engaging loyal readers more deeply by providing them with an experience that is designed around their needs and that they will be willing to pay for.
He writes: “Short, disengaged readers need to get their basic news as efficiently as possible, and they will pay for that privilege. Long, engaged readers must be made as comfortable as possible so that they might luxuriate in the journalism they love. And they, too, will pay for the privilege.”
Aside from his theories about the future, Boynton also shares a message he gives to his new NYU students each year:
“… the first thing I do is welcome them to the house of journalism. It is a big house, I explain, with many differently shaped and designed rooms. The rooms have names like ‘blog post,’ ‘feature,’ ‘essay,’ ‘foreign report’ and ‘book,’ and seems to add a room or two every year. In order to have a long and enjoyable career, I continue, they must find one room they truly love, and decorate and design it so that it reflects their very best attributes. In addition, they need to find a few other rooms where they feel comfortable, since one can’t live in a single room forever.
In his own work, he explains, he did several types of reporting and writing for various reasons and at various levels of pay to help sustain himself and further his career. He writes:
“My wanderings through the house of journalism was made easier by my inexpensive, tiny apartment. But it was made possible by the fact that I paid each room its due. I didn’t expect to live off of book reviews and essays, and I didn’t take on only the best-paying assignments. I mixed it up as much as I could, and I would argue that those trying to meet the economic challenges to journalism must try to as well.”
While Boynton offers this as a way to address the challenges facing the journalism industry, I also found it to be a comforting piece of career advice.
As someone who aspires to do the kind of in-depth reporting and writing highlighted in “The New New Journalism,” I’ve indentified the “one room [I] truly love.” And while I haven’t been able to spend as much time as I’d like in that room thus far in my career, I’ve also found a few other rooms I’m quite comfortable in through my newspaper experience, work for CU-CitizenAccess.org, freelance writing for Illinois Alumni and other magazines, and my various multimedia projects, including online mapping, videos and audio stories.
While I sometimes worry that my career has lacked a narrow focus or direction, Boynton’s essay gives me the confidence that my eclectic interior decorating will help me continue to make my home in journalism.