May 16, 2009

The service industry

As newsroom budgets suffer blow after blow, it seems logical to conclude that shrinking revenues are partly a result of shrinking demand for the product newsrooms provide - namely, the news. And isn't it logical then to consider altering the product to stoke demand?

But there's a reason that response feels so wrong. It's because newsrooms are not creating a product - not in the traditional sense. They're providing a service, much in the way doctors and teachers do. If education were a product to be sold, none of us would know a thing about algebra. When doctors "give them what they want" people end up addicted to Oxycontin.

Edward Wasserman at Washington and Lee University helps explain why the temptation to spice up the news to match the consumers' appetite is bad for the news and the consumer:
...for journalists the hitch has always been that news, if done honestly, is routinely unwelcome and, more to the point, that it isn't just another consumer product. It's kind of civic good.

Sure, it must be bought, but if success were measured solely by marketability journalists could safely ignore vast areas of coverage that help keep leaders honest and the public conscious of significant realities.

Hence, the paradox: If all you do is give the public what it thinks it wants, you aren't doing your job. But if you ignore those wishes, you won't have a job. ...

I've long argued that news is best understood not as a consumer product, but as a professional service. People buy a paper or go to website not to consume a good, but to renew a relationship with an informant they trust.

That's not to say readers don't want to be amused or don't like reading the comics and hearing about celebrity bust-ups or money-saving recipes. And they aren't passive receptacles: They'll make vigorous use of new media feedback channels to dispute, correct, redirect and enrich the news they get.

But what this suggests is that ultimately, people look to journalists for a special service -- keeping them on top of what they need to know. They can't say exactly what that is, any more than journalists know in the morning what they'll report that day. But they trust the news source to tell them.

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