Dec 1, 2008

Which way, O'Shea?

There are at least three questions to consider in the debate over the future of journalism. 1. How should existing news organizations adapt to ensure they remain viable businesses? 2. How should new newsrooms be organized to ensure they both tell the stories that aren't being told and utilize advances in technology to tell them? 3. What should be the foundational principles of good journalism in these changing times?

The issues are related, but they are distinct. Ignoring any one of them would be shortsighted and conflating them foolhardy. Frustratingly, many of the loudest media voices make either the first mistake or the second. The Sam Zells and Dean Singletons focus almost exclusively on question 1, keep an eye on 2 and claim 3 is an indulgence. Innovation gurus like Jeff Jarvis focus mainly on 2, keep an eye on 1 and seem to expect 3 will follow naturally from 2.

In any case, question 3 is going to get answered - whether or not it's asked.

In some ways this blog is an ongoing argument that question 3 must control. Answering it first does not pay off debts or write a successful business plan, nor does it lessen the immediacy of the other two questions. Answering it does, however, provide guidance on how we deal with them. Before you rescue a business, or start one, you need to define how it differs from other businesses. After all, if you're making red widgets and you learn making blue widgets would be more profitable, why not make the switch if they're the same to you?

Jim O'Shea, immediate past editor of the Los Angeles Times, offers his thoughts about what has gone wrong with newspapers and why the medicine prescribed by his former boss, Sam Zell, is not working. For Zell, question 3 is merely byproduct of question 1. Here's what O'Shea had to say about the recent redesign of Zell's Chicago Tribune:
Accompanying the redesign were all-but-mandatory staff meetings run by a newly-minted masthead editor in which the paper’s journalists received lectures on how to reach their “target audiences” from a marketing department employee who long has tried to downplay serious, in-depth journalism in favor of softer stories that she insists readers really want. Write about disease, she told Tribune journalists, because that’s what “frenzied families” want to read about, not some bomb going off in Beirut.

What the Tribune is doing is like trying to improve education by replacing the teachers and giving the students only the books they want to read.
Zell, as his recent interview in Portfolio made clear, sees little value journalism as a mission. It's an attitude that trickles down to readers. Once they've concluded you're less interested in being a watchdog than in catering to taste, they stop expecting you to uncover wrongdoing and start demanding you give them what they want. They begin value news the way the company values the news; any highfalutin mission statements start to sound silly.

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