December 04, 2002

Quality Manifesto: Good Enough is Not

I worked in newspapers for more than 20 years, first as a photographer, then as a reporter and editor, eventually rising – or falling, depending on your view of editors – to the upper ranks of middle management, where I first became involved in discussions about readership – more specifically, about declining readership.

Over the course of a dozen years as a department head or higher, I listened – in newspaper conference rooms, at executive retreats and at various industry conferences -- to a parade of experts lecture on the importance of demographic quintiles, the changing habits of the American family and the ascendancy of television news. They presented impressively thick, slickly-bound reports stuffed with bar charts, quotes from readers and non-readers, results of intercept surveys and, of course, recommendations for change.

All delivered the same, simple message: A generational meteor had crashed into our industry and we editorial dinosaurs needed to evolve or perish.

A parallel group of newspaper healers arose from academia and newsrooms themselves offering remedies to our ailments and prescriptions for a more vigorous future.

We mixed the medicine in the kool-aid and drank. We redesigned, we zoned, we diversified our staffs, we discarded the pyramid and embraced the narrative, we redesigned some more.

Despite these efforts – some might argue because of them – newspapers lost readers and America lost newspapers. Between 1980, a couple of years after I started reporting, and 2000, the number of daily newspapers in the United States declined 15 percent -- from 1,745 to 1,480.

The decline has continued since then. Even though the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington rekindled public interest in some forms of news -- for example, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported in June 2002 that after 9/11 the decline in viewership of TV news stabilized for the first time in years and the New York Times reported significant circulation gains that are widely attributed to its benchmark-setting covering of the attacks and their aftermath -- newspapers in general failed to benefit.

The Pew study found that readership marched steadily downward. Only 41 percent of Americans stated they had read a newspaper the previous day compared to 47 percent who did so in 2000. In 1994, the number was 60 percent.

The intervening maturation of the Internet accounts for some of that decline, but even online news consumption seems to be plateauing, according to Pew, whose study found only slight growth in the use of Internet news sites between 2000 and 2002, a “sharp contrast” to the spike of readership in the late 1990s, when the medium was new.

Media Life, an online magazine, quoted Karroll Doherty, editor at the Pew Research Center: “Internet news, while emerging as a major source, hasn’t really filled the void. It hasn’t caught all those people who are clicking off the television or putting down their newspapers.”

Indeed, a study conducted in the summer of 2002 by Belden Associates, a newspaper consulting firm, found that the online operations of newspapers do not cannibalize readers from the core print edition. In fact, the study concluded, online readers can actually lead to increased single-copy sales.

So, what can be done? If the Internet is not killing newspapers (at least editorially), if television news is no longer the convenient scapegoat for circulation declines, if older readers are dying off and younger would-be readers don’t, well, read, if all this is true, then what hope is there for the average American newspaper as a civic institution?

The answer lies in a redefinition of the issue. Simply: Newspapers are not the victims of homicide but of suicide. They are not dying at the hands of demographic changes or emergent technologies. They are killing themselves with clichéd writing, formulaic stories, hackneyed photographs and adherence to a self-destructive, journalistic form that emphasizes breadth of news coverage over depth.

Newspapers don’t have a societal problem; they have a quality problem.

In an age of increasing public sophistication – and diversification – about media consumption, newspapers, for the most part, continue to produce a bland mixture of agenda and event coverage, he-said-she-said government news and an established array of feature stories focused on predictable characters who no longer elicit sympathy nor surprise from readers.

Whether editors plaster this daily spackle on paper or spread it on the Internet, the public is not buying. It is no longer good enough.

Consider a newspaper whose circulation is not declining – the New York Times. On Nov. 30, in an event broadcast on C-SPAN, Orville Schell and Mark Danner of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism interviewed Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Howell Raines of the Times. In a series of questions about the Times’ post-Sept. 11 coverage, Sulzberger said the newspaper committed to publishing its Portraits of Grief section without advertising support for as long as the Times' editors felt it was warranted.

Schlesinger added, however, that the coverage resulted in enough of a circulation increase to offset the cost of the additional coverage. The point is clear: By investing journalistically, the Times also improved financially.

A 2002 report from the Aspen Institute exploring the relationship between quality journalism and commercial success begins with this question: “Is great journalism compatible with great business in the context of the current media marketplace?”

The reported concluded, cautiously, that "substantive reporting" and "corporate performance" can co-exist, but it warned also that the news industry's ingrained toxins of greed and complacency would poison efforts to nurture this relationship were they not neutralized.

Among the most worrisome negative conditions, the report cited this:

The culture of news organizations tends to be defensive and change-averse. Relative to other industries, journalism is slow to implement internal reform in its own processes or respond to changes in consumer taste. Recent research by Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, for example, has found not that the public is uninterested in news but rather it is dissatisfied with many of the staples that editors typically provide (e.g., #1 on the audience preference list was stories about ordinary people, #2 was ‘how I fit into my community’; # 3 was national and international news; crime ranked #8 and sports #9, strongly suggesting that interest doesn’t justify the amount of coverage).”

My intent in this journal is to spur discussion about quality journalism, to point to places we can learn from – either through example or avoidance – to provide resources for debate and to counter the pervasive belief in many newsrooms that “good enough” is good enough.

It is not.

Posted by Tim Porter at December 4, 2002 10:43 AM


Upon reflection, I respectfully and reluctantly (because I would actually prefer to believe your reasoning) disagree.

The reasons print newspapers readership is declining are, IMHO, these:

(1) it takes too long to read and digest the print newspaper's news;
(2) much/some of the print newspaper's news is too quickly out-of-date; and,
(3) more, sometimes better, often cheaper alternatives are emerging.

Some have suggested that print newspapers would do well to shift their focus back to their roots in local news coverage. It is certainly true that smaller communities have tended to support news monopolies. However, over time, deeper adoption of news services based on technologies such as the Internet, low-power broadcasting and local cable channels will surely erode this opportunity as well.

So, in my view, print newspapers aren't, as you say, "commiting suicide." Rather they are likely experiencing the effects of obsolescence (which is less dramatic but more inevitable). Thus, sadly to many of us, the only thing that the print operations of a newspaper can hope to accomplish is to slow (rather than stop) the decline.


Terry Steichen

Posted by: Terry Steichen on December 11, 2003 09:52 AM

I have worked on newspapers for more than 30 years and have heard all the arguments about why newspaper readership has declined. Its my opinion that a segment of the population has lost interest in reading their daily news because newspapers have lost their mission: accurately reporting the news. There once was a time when newspaper staffs spread out and beat the bushes and came back with the very best and deepest reporting possible. Basic beat reporting resulted in fine reading. If you didn't, you were replaced.
But in today's journalism, everyone has tried to take shortcuts. They have tried to compete with the flash of electronic media (unsuccessfully); they have ambitiously tried to compete with magazine reporting (with somewhat success but doomed due to shrinking news holes ); and they have attempted, through graphics and color, to brighten up pages (also with some success.) But in some cases, editors have also slotted out their news sections, coverage and display with such predictability that readers' eyes glaze over a product with such consistent, numbing sameness that pages and editions all blend together. No surprises. Little originality. Forget fire.
There once was a common agenda on a news staff: reporting the news and putting advocacy and personal conflicts aside, including a publication's business interests. Today that has been replaced with a multitude of personal and political agendas. In some cases, such efforts are not only sanctioned and rewarded -- but mandated.
Is it any wonder that ill-conceived concepts -- often by editors who have never been on the street with pencil and pad -- have served to chill and even kill the creative impulses and instincts of the youngest of reporters?

Posted by: Mike Martindale on February 7, 2004 06:06 AM
Post a comment