Apr 1, 2008

Survey says

Shell shocked by incessant cutting, disdainful owners and the jargonization of journalism, reporters and editors have understandably hunkered down. Rather than get mixed up in ideology, which more often leads to trouble than a promotion, they increasingly give themselves over to the inevitable: Produce a product that sells, or die.

At least that's how I read the results of the
2008 PRWeek/PR Newswire Media Survey. Here's the telling stat:
When asked to identify the most important aspect of their work, 91% of respondents say "make my publication successful by creating appealing content for its audiences" -- ahead of "educate and inform the masses," "break news," and "chronicle events as they happen." This finding, says the survey, suggests a significant level of commercial awareness on the part of journalists.
The re-education of the newsroom is nearly complete, it seems.

For years, such brainless think tanks as the Readership Institute and Newspaper Next have attempted to convince reporters that they are part of a sales force. All we had to do was shed our ivory tower thinking, and our arrogant aversion to commoners, and we'd discover that people walking the sidewalks or shopping at grocery stores would provide the wisdom to save our industry.

Apparently, our cloistered ways were the reason people weren't reading the paper anymore. It wasn't that a new class of newspaper owners didn't believe in their products and openly predicted the newspaper's death. It wasn't that having fewer reporters left us chained to our desks in a daily desperate act of filling the paper. It wasn't the call for constant online updates that made that chain even shorter. It wasn't lowered pay and lowered standards giving us lowered quality. It wasn't the death of institutional knowledge, the disappearance of locally owned publications, or the increasingly fragmented community the Internet was supposed to bring together. It was us. Our original sin was idealism and it somehow had to be cleansed from our souls - preferably in conjunction with a baptism in the church of business.

So, where do we find this appealing content? Apparently there is a dark hole in which we've failed to look:
Empty the newsrooms for a week or a month, and have reporters and editors - and even ad sales people - connect with people in the community and talk with them about their lives and what they say they want and need.

Civic journalism has already been tried. It was a whole movement. It didn't save newspapers. Turns out the same people who aren't reading papers don't participating in civic life, unless prompted to do so by some specific event.

The thing is, very few journalists in this country work in giant buildings cut off from the community. They attend local events, they go to city council meetings, they walk down local streets and eat in local restaurants. They have conversations with local people on the phone and in person; their office phone numbers and email addresses are printed at the end of their stories.

I'm not arguing things can't be done better. I'm arguing that we're being asked to start a car that's been stripped of its engine. And if this survey is to be believed, newsrooms are suffering a blood-borne disease that no amount of quackery can cure.


Shintzer said...

Apparently, 91 percent of journalists are tools.

Shintzer said...

Apparently, 91 percent of journalists are tools.

Elaine said...

Greetings from the brainless think tank, and thanks for the shout-out.

You've made a key point about Newspaper Next right here -- "Turns out the same people who aren't reading papers don't participate in civic life, unless prompted to do so by some specific event." -- but I think you might have misunderstood N2's recommendations.

There will always be people who read the newspaper, and there will always be a critical need for the core mission that newspaper newsrooms perform. BUT, as you point out, that's only good for approximately 50% of any market; the other 50% has no interest, and no matter how hard we try we aren't going to make them interested. There's really no unmet "job" in terms of news: We're reaching the people who want the news we publish, and nothing we can do in the paper will reach the rest.

What N2 discusses is what newspaper organizations must do to generate growth outside the newspaper if they are to survive given this reality. The alternative is to circle our own drain, not an attractive option. The newspaper will always be part of the product portfolio, but it will be only one part of it, which is what's so different for most newspaper organizations. N2 offers methods for discerning where opportunities are for profitable additional products outside the newspaper, and that's what the survey results are reflecting: a broader view of demand for information. Not sure how a loss of tunnel vision is bad, and many newsroom staff members seem genuinely excited to be part of something innovative and interesting, as well as something critical to civic life.

But resources have to be found in order to invest in growth, and much as many journalists don't want to admit it, there's a tremendous amount of oversupply and inefficiency in the way many newsrooms do their jobs. That's the constriction against which journalists are rebelling, but the most successful newspapers are the ones that have made hard decisions about what they can stop doing in order to invest in new growth. There are many journalists who still hold a romanticized view of the profession, and this streamlining is clearly not what they signed on for. And, as you say, it's not always executed well. But it's going to be necessary as long as people want to get paid.

And why is new product development so important? Why, to protect the core mission of the newspaper, and to generate sustainable growth so the newsroom can continue to fulfill that core mission. Brainless, I know, but there you have it.


Elaine Clisham
American Press Institute

Anonymous said...

I agree this sounds gimmicky.