As I write this, the market capitalization of America's publicly held newspaper companies is a shade more than $6 billion. Together, Apple and Google, free of the debt that is helping to sink the newspaper industry, have cash in the bank amounting to about six times the total market value of all of those newspaper outfits.
Several of the newspaper companies are trading on the “pink sheet” exchanges, and have negligible values. Others are a shadow of their former worth. A safe prediction: By this time next year, one or more of these companies will be in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, or will have been liquidated entirely. And in the next two or three years, more than one metropolitan newspaper will have shut down or sharply curtailed publishing schedules and missions.
The appalling collapse of the newspaper industry – perhaps foolishly, I still hold stock in several companies (ones that I hope will survive this mess) – is not a surprise. Competitive and demographic trends have been running hard against the business for more than a decade.
Journalism will not disappear, however, even if newspaper companies and even some papers do. The new entrants are already making their mark, and in many cases, doing so with style and high quality. Still, we'll lose, at least temporarily, some of the journalism we need because we don't know how to pay for it in a world where certain kinds of journalism can no longer be supported by advertising.
What's clear enough is that journalism will be a much more diffuse activity in the future. It will spread more widely among more people who are creators, not just consumers. But as the boundaries increasingly blur, we will need to become activists in our consumption of media in order to find the things that are accurate and trustworthy.
This is not just a challenge for people looking for quality information. It is an opportunity for the people who create and provide information, because we'll be making it available in a variety of places and formats, most notably social networks.
The PR business, in a general sense, is far ahead of the journalism pros in understanding the shift in media. I hope PR pros will use this opportunity to guide clients toward transparency and truth telling. This is not just because the consequences of being caught deceiving people are so high – even though the old kinds of deceptions might still work in many cases – but also because it's the right thing to do.
This is my last column for PRWeek. It's been an honor to share some thoughts with you, and to hear yours in return, about the incredible changes we've seen in media and its persuasive powers. Remember: We're only at the beginning of this time of radical evolution, and it's up to all of us to get it right.
Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org.