The Columns

Richardson Discusses Newspaper’s Decision to Abandon Print

— by on October 31st, 2008

The announcement this week that the Christian Science Monitor was ceasing publication of a daily print edition and would appear online only did not surprise Brian Richardson, head of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Washington and Lee University.

The question all along, Richardson said, was which newspaper would be the first to abandon print. In hindsight, he added, the Monitor was probably the likeliest candidate because the paper did not depend on local advertising.

“Changing the economic model is the big hurdle right now,” said Richardson, a former print and broadcast journalist. “Print publications are destined to become niche publications. For newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Roanoke Times, the primary product is going to be the Web one of these days, because the delivery system is much more efficient and cheaper and accessible.”

Richardson believes that the shift to Internet-only newspapers has the potential to make journalism better by improving the free flow of reliable information to the public. That is not to say, however, that there are no potential pitfalls.

“On one level, where we have conversations about what journalism is, this has the potential to improve our ability to make this critical information available. We are talking about the potential for more access, a much quicker feedback loop and more interactivity,” he said. “All of those things that, frankly, scare us to death but have wonderful potential for increasing citizen participation and re-engaging them in civic debate.”

But Richardson does worry that the speed with which the news is now gathered and disseminated can pose problems.

“It’s already a cliché, but we say that we are all working for wire services now, because everybody is on deadline all the time,” he said. “When these competitive concerns get factored in, you have to answer such questions as ‘Is it still “get it first but first get it right”? ’ Or ‘Is it “get it first, and we’ll clean it up later when we know more”?’ That’s a real concern.”

Washington and Lee’s journalism department began preparing for the shift to electronic-only publications more than a decade ago, adopting a curriculum that emphasized what Richardson calls a “convergence” model in which journalists collect information in multiple formats.

Getting students to be comfortable with the new tools was the easiest part of the process, said Richardson.

“When it comes to rolling up your sleeves and playing with the technology and exploring its possibilities, students don’t need prodding. Every once in a while you have to rein them in,” he said.

The more difficult part of the transition, he said, was changing the culture in which the print and electronic media operated in very different arenas.

“In the old days, the farmer and the cowboy couldn’t be friends,” said Richardson. “Print journalists didn’t take broadcast journalists seriously; broadcast journalists thought print journalists were elitists. That’s a broad characterization, but I think there is some truth in it.

“What we had to do as the first mission was tell people that this is about providing audiences with reliable information by using the strengths of whatever medium you’re working in and playing to the strengths of that medium and empowering audiences.”