October 09, 2003

Shouting into the Wind

Tony Ridder, CEO of Knight Ridder and current chairman of the Newspaper Association of America, tells the National Press Club that newspapers are "alive and well" and, according to a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "have enormous influence on public discourse."

"No medium is more critical to setting the national agenda as newspapers," says Ridder, citing, among other public events, the California recall election.

Eric Deggans, the media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, disagrees. Newspapers, and the news media in general, says Deggans, were largely irrelevant in the California recall, shut out by Schwarzenegger in favor of softer media outlets like Larry King and Oprah.

Who's right?

Unfortunately, it's not the guy who runs a newspaper company.

The L.A. Times dropped the heaviest news media bomb it had on Schwarzenegger with its groping story and it hardly broke the actor's stride in his march toward Sacramento.

The exit poll story today in the S.F. Chronicle show how out of touch the state's newspapers, influenced by their own polls that predicted a close election, are with the electorate. Latinos and women voted for Schwarzenegger, despite his support of anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and the groping allegations. Younger men, predicted to be overwhelming pro-Arnold, were only moderately so. Poor people, traditionally Democratic, jumped from the party.

I thought the state's big papers covered the election well. But were they "critical to setting the (California) agenda?" Hardly.

Ridder is wrong. The pole position of public discourse, once newspapers' by tradition, is up for grabs.

UPDATE: Orville Schell, dean of UC-Berkeley's journalism school, knows good quote. Here he is in the L.A. Times speaking about Schwarzenegger's use of the "entertainment" media for "serious" purposes:

"Last night, what we saw was the test-tube baby born of the media and entertainment, the final genetically engineered creature where currency in one realm has become irrevocable currency in the other."

UPDATE II: More journalism professors are upset about the collision of news, entertainment and politics. From the Washington Post story about Jay Leno introducing Schwarzenegger at a post-election celebration:

 Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the of University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication: "What Leno's presence did is give legitimacy to the notion that it wasn't a partisan event, it wasn't a political event, it was somehow an American cultural event."

 Todd Gitlin, a journalism and sociology professor at Columbia University: "This seems another step in the same muddy ruin of politics that we're trekking through. It's the same part played by Oprah in the process of sanitizing and normalizing Schwarzenegger as a legitimate politician."

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Politics and culture have always been intertwined and have become more so as the influence of traditional news providers -- newspapers and the networks -- over public opinion has waned.

A legitimate politician? What is that? Who is that? In a democracy, aren't we all "legitimate" politicians. It is the worst sort of ivory tower, monopolistic arrogance to intimate that political legitimacy must somehow be conveyed upon a candidate by the news media.

The Arnold Revolution in California reflects the global media evolution , which changed the news structure from a top-down hierarchy dominated by a few national newspapers and broadcasters into one that is much flatter and through which "news" flows in all directions.

 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Ridder finds journalists frustrated with Bush administration
 Eric Deggans News media lost the most in Calif. race

Posted by Tim Porter at October 9, 2003 07:43 AM

Tim: could you do something for me? Like, maybe ponder the possibility that reading for entertainment is simply going out of style and perhaps *that* is the reason why papers' circulations keep falling? I mean, I'm with you on papers being largely clueless but some part of me still suspects that clueful papers would be in the same boat. Heck, I read in the New Yorker today that only one out of seven Americans will *ever* enter a bookstore. Would better stories and smarter management really save us, or just stave off the inevitable?

Posted by: tom on October 9, 2003 01:08 PM

Tom, my gut tells me you're right about the non-reading public, athough this booksellers' trade group report suggests books seem to be holding their own, but I'm no expert in that area (and, for that matter, neither am I in newspaper readership).

And, I confess to perhaps ringing the same bell too many times. Your comments made me think that maybe I'm trying to make one solution fit a problem whose components come in many different configurations. That I need to think about more.

However, I do believe, even given declining literacy -- or at least accelerating visual literacy at the expense of print -- that newspapers can stanch the readership loss by embracing the principles set out by the Readership Institute. Here they are, taken from the RI's web site:

* Push service into the "excellence zone"

Editorial & Advertising Content
* Improve high-potential content areas
* Focus on a particular type of local news
* Make the newspaper easier to read & more navigable
* Improve advertising content
* Promote content more effectively in the newspaper

* Build a positive brand that's relevant to readers

Organizational Culture
* Develop an adaptive, constructive culture that is attuned to readers

These are actionable goals that do not require additional capital or operational investment. They do, howeverk, require an attitude change.

I have been interviewing executives from large companies and law firms about organizational culture and staff training as they relate to their companies' ability to adapt and succeed in competitive environments. To a person, they stress the importance of the connection between customer (in our case, the reader), culture and staff. This connection is missing not only in most newsrooms, but in the business-side operations of most newspaper companies as well.

I know doing good, or better, journalism is not enough to reverse readership trends. But it is certainly a start and a key ingredient to any remedy. As is a dry newspaper that arrives on my doorstep before I leave for the office, flexible formatting for different audiences, acceptance by the newsroom that many readers prefer data over narrative, and more and more and more.

As you said, the inevitable may be that newspapers (and when I use that term I mean print and electronic) fade into irrelevance. I hope not. But if they do, I don't want the quality or the journalism or the rigidity of the journalists to be the reason.

Posted by: Tim on October 9, 2003 01:52 PM

I think we build an incredibly rich product every day but never tell anybody about it -- remember, our public is the same one that sees no problem with Arnie as gov; they are not all that sophisticated about the deeper issues of journalism. Buying the paper should be second nature to people like asking for "Coke..." after all it's really cheap in light of how much stuff is in it. But we do nothing to build the brand ... we spend millions on editorial product and expect it to sell itself. And it does to a remarkable degree considering how little we promote it. I think the greatest resistance is from the business side and it stems from a reluctance to give money to perceived competitors. The history of advertising is replete with stories of people buying things they don't need, how hard could be to sell them something that is quite useful?

Posted by: tom on October 9, 2003 04:47 PM

Let me elaborate a bit on the need for promotion and marketing. Not only do we need to do more promotion and marketing of newspapers, what we DO do has got to be better. Much better. I spent about seven years in radio in small and medium-sized markets (verging on large), and I'm exaggerating only slightly when I say that the most podunk 1,000-watt AM radio station in America might well be promoting itself better than ANY American daily newspaper.

And THAT goes back to knowing your customers/readers.

Posted by: Lex on October 10, 2003 06:31 AM

I think a cheap but effective way of marketing newspapers to young and engaged readers would be for stodgy, mired-in-the-20th-century editors to drop their opposition to reporters' personal blogs. Here's an idea: let reporters who have blogs include the URL in their taglines, where most papers now print email addresses and phone numbers of an article's author. Then readers can decide for themselves whether a writer's blog has influenced how they cover the issues. Papers should encourage reporters to link the paper's web site on their blogs, and link to their own articles. That will bring a host of new readers to the paper. And it will show that the paper embraces new technology, rather than runs from it.

Posted by: Jonathan Potts on October 10, 2003 09:04 AM
Post a comment