Friday, August 29, 2008


Newspaper meltdown 10: How newspapers can earn their way back

by Larry Geller

Business as usual for the daily news may come to no business at all. They need to do something different or tomorrow will be pretty much the same as today. Actually, worse. A failing business model means that change of some kind will/must come.

If they would like to give a try at becoming essential parts of our lives again, there’s no shortage of suggestions out there. Here’s one, a snippet from an article that arrived in my inbox today from Media Matters for America, An Olympic-sized opportunity missed. The entire article is worth reading, but here’s the snippet:

On Thursday, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus provided a perfect example of journalists' obsession with analyzing campaign strategy at the expense of actually providing their readers and viewers with useful information. Marcus wrote:

As issues become increasingly complex -- voters can't be expected to parse the technical differences between the candidates' cap-and-trade emissions plans or the distributional effects of their tax cuts -- biography, especially biography laced with conflict and resolution, becomes a proxy for providing assurance that the candidate can be counted on to get it right on the more difficult matters.

Voters can't be expected to parse the differences between the candidates' policies, according to Marcus -- and in many cases, she's right. But news organizations can be expected to do so: They have the time, and the resources, and they can hire reporters with the necessary expertise or the ability to obtain it. They can clearly and consistently explain what the candidates' policy proposals mean, how they would work, and how they differ. That would provide actual value to their customers, giving readers and viewers something that, as Marcus notes, they cannot get on their own.

Instead, they too often spend their airtime and column inches offering "analysis" of things like whether the candidates are "connecting" with voters. This provides absolutely no value to their customers. A reader doesn't need The Washington Post to tell her whether she feels a "connection" with Barack Obama or John McCain. If the reader cares about "connections" with candidates, the reader knows far better than the Post whether she feels one. The "analysis" is perhaps marginally interesting as cocktail party chatter; as journalism, it is pointless vanity and role-playing -- if reporters want to be campaign managers, they should go do that. But if they want to be journalists, they should start by giving their customers important information they can't get on their own -- like helping them "parse the technical differences" between the candidates' plans.

I would add one more thing: editors should assure that there is no bias in the analysis. Probably it’s often the opposite—journalists told to conform to the paper’s party line. Even if it’s not explicit, reporters can figure out what they need to do to keep their jobs at a particular newspaper.

Publishers needn’t keep shooting themselves in the foot (even if they are prominent NRA members) by firing key staff. They can be visionary and try to attract and retain subscribers by improving the quality of the product.

Of course, they know and understand this argument. The problem is that if they adopt this philosophy, they’ll get the axe themselves.

The long struggle at the Los Angeles times may be the best illustration of this:

After Editor James E. O’Shea refused to throw any more writers or editors off the roof of the Times’ offices, the publishers tossed O’Shea and appointed the guy who ran the Times’ Website, Russ Stanton, certain that a guy who’d worked Web media would know how to run a sweatshop correctly. [ok, this was the first Google hit, Cynics Party, 2/14/2008]

For the Honolulu Advertiser, Gannett calls the shots. Gannett seems to be in love with the web even more than the LA Times.

Yeah, it’s a bloodbath. I’m not prone to use the language of violence, but when good reporters or hard-working staff members lose their jobs, medical coverage and the chance to send their kids to good schools, that sounds like carnage to me.

Mediamatters for America is worth subscribing to. Their email signup is here.


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