February 19, 2003

Shutting Down the News Factory

Dressed in his trademark bow tie, striped shirt and tweedy jacket, Philip Meyer wears the image of college professor well, not offering a sartorial clue that beneath the academician's exterior beats the heart of a man on a mission.

Meyer is alarmed. And if you're in the newspaper business he wants you to be alarmed, too.

Speaking to a recent Poynter Institute conference on Journalism and Business Values, Meyer preached his gospel of "quality equals credibility equals profits" and reminded the gathering that daily newspaper readership has been declining about 1 percent annually since the 1960s. "By my calculations," Meyer said, "the last daily reader will disappear in September 2043."

So far, though, Meyer, who directs The Quality Project at the University of North Carolina, has been unable to create a metric linking quality and profit that could wean Wall Street and industry executives off their quarterly suckling of the bottom line. And, as Poynter reporter Robin Sloan points out, without a "causal link between quality or influence and business performance quality will continue to be a tough sell." [See Does Quality Matter?]

The problem is one of perspective. The prevailing discussion in the business right now is about how to make money in spite of putting out a newspaper. A proposal for a new journalism business model put forth last year by New Directions for News suggested: "The real alternative to the current situation is not a business that values profits AND good journalism, but a business where good journalism IS the business."

This proposal, crafted by Dan Sullivan, a media economist at the University of Minnesota, suggests that a journalism-based business must be a "service-based business, not a manufacturing one" that "must measure impact, not just products sold, but benefits provided."

Sullivan's characterization of the current manufacturing mindset both in newspaper boardrooms and newsrooms is key to understanding the barriers to change in the industry.

On the business side, publishers have huge investments in printing, information and distribution technology designed to do one thing - lower per unit (i.e., per newspaper) production cost. Changes in this system would be disruptive and expensive.

On the content side, the technology transfer of the last two decades that brought the backshop into the newsroom created an assembly-line environment on news and production desks that emphasizes speed over quality, and the development of secondary news products such as zoned editions means these news-hole beasts must be fed, resulting in demand for breadth (quantity) over depth (quality).

To produce newspapers in this manner requires efficient, repetitive action - papers are scripted in advance, before the news happens; reporters are told how long to write, before they cover the stories; photographers are given dimensions of an illustration, before they take the pictures. This way of working discourages innovation and encourages rote behavior. At a time when journalists are better educated than ever before, it is ironic how many of them still work on the factory floor.

Links
 The Quality Project
 New Directions for News
 Dan Sullivan Business Models for News

Posted by Tim Porter at February 19, 2003 08:11 AM