In the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Evan Cornog, a professor at Columbia's J-school, explores in a thoughtful essay the connection between the decline of cultural commons and the 40-year plunge in newspaper readership.
Cornog cites the usual demons - the dominance of television as the nation's medium of choice; the growing cult of celebrity; fragmentation of the household - but, interestingly, avoids others, such as the attraction of the Internet and the incursions it has made into TV-viewing as well as its magnetic ability to engage users and offer them the very type of experiential activity newspapers are being urged to pursue.
Ultimately, Cornog arrives at this point: That interest in civic life, the grist of newspaper reporting, has waned to the point of near collapse, leaving newspapers not as chroniclers of the community but as curators of a civic museum without patrons. In other words, to paraphrase the title of Cornog's piece: "It's the fault of the readers." He writes:
"… perhaps the problem, and therefore the solution, has broader and deeper roots. Perhaps we should, to an extent, blame the readers. Perhaps the old notions of an engaged and virtuous citizenry, upon which the founding fathers' hopes for the republic were based, are archaic concepts. (Emphasis added.)
Jay Currie takes that paragraph and runs with it in a rebuttal of Cornog's thinking. Writing at Tech Central Station, Currie, who blogs here, fault's Cornog for not mentioning "the elephant in the middle of the room." Currie identifies the beast as:
"In America the news media's politics have remained mired in the '60's fixations of their boomer cohort. The public, meanwhile, has moved on -- not necessarily to a more conservative position; rather to one which is far less tolerant of the official cant which passes for analysis and news coverage in MSM." (Emphasis added.)
This is essentially correct. Even though Currie bolsters his argument with jabs at "political correctness" and the "nanny state," I think his point holds regardless of the political stripe of the reader (or non-reader). It is not only conservatives and moderates who have left newspapers. The citizens of the liberal bastions of San Francisco and Boston are as equally uninterested in the daily paper as their redder counterparts in Dallas or Houston.
Blame the readers? Blame the editors? This is not a zero-sum exercise, but it is the editors (and their staffs) who have the responsibility of making the connection so my sympathies are more with a public trying to find new communities amid the fragments of the old one than with editors who decry a decline in literacy as the cause for their ills.
Currie hits the mark again with his call for newspapers to respond with uncharacteristic innovation and boldness (even the Readership Institute wants revolution, not evolution.). Writes Currie:
" … legacy media seems to believe that luring readers means dumbing down the product. In the CJR article there is considerable discussion of just how far it is possible to go with celebrity journalism before some invisible line is crossed. The editors quoted, more in sorrow than anger, suggest that celebrity journalism is one of the few things that brings in new readers.
"Here's a hint -- hire some writers. You know, people who don't give a damn about Paris Hilton's underwear malfunctions, but really are willing to call Maureen Dowd on dumb ideas and make fun of The Rush's pretensions; people who will fisk Tom Friedman and mock George Will." (Emphasis added.)
Somewhat lost in Cornog's lengthy exploration of civic literacy is a paragraph that mentions a report given at last year's APME convention by Robin Seymour, director of research and readership at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Writes Cornog:
Seymour "revealed the results of her research into the top items of interest for younger, so-called 'light' readers. In order, they are: health/fitness, investigative reports on important issues, the environment, natural disasters/accidents, and education." (Emphasis added.)
To me, those topics sound like opportunities for serious journalism. It seems at least a kernel of interest remains within the coming generations for substantive news. The challenge is to convert that interest into readership. But, and here is the question, readership of what?
The newspaper in its traditional form is fast on its way to becoming a niche product, driven as much by the factors Cornog cites as by the changing economics of advertising. In some recent posts I've argued that focus, quality and distinction of content are more important to news organizations of the future than form of delivery. [Read: The Times Buys Another Container]. I also suggested some raw ideas addressing how newspapers conceive and package themselves. [Read: Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System]. Cornog's essay reminded me of an equally important consideration: The leadership newspapers can play in defining, supporting and engaging new communities - communities of interest. Writes Cornog:
"The diminishment of the commons has become a topic for some journalists in recent years. … By covering this ongoing effort to define - or redefine - American citizenship, journalists can move the debate beyond their own profession, heeding (the) admonition that journalists "can't do it alone." Fortunately, journalism does have the power to examine any aspect of society, and can in this way set in motion a debate that may help it put its own house in better order." (Emphasis added.)
Can American newspapers find the vision - and courage - to break stride from current habits and take the initiative to lead this debate? If so, it will be a difficult transition. By nature, newspapers, and all traditional news organizations, are followers. Something happens, they report it - a reactionary role that carries over to the risk-adverse reflexes newspapers exercise when presented with challenges. To morph from a position in which newspapers no longer simply observe their communities but actively participate in them requires a shift of mindset from detachment to involvement.
If interactivity was the keyword of Internet growth of the '90s, then involvement is the media driver of today. Blogging, photo galleries, citizen journalism, political organizing - all are Internet-enabled involvement at work and at play. As I wrote the other day, newspapers do not have to discard the principles of journalism to take advantage of these shifts, they merely need to reinvent how those principles are put into practice. Newspapers can begin by applying this Chinese proverb to how they approach the people they want to reach: "Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand."
(Thanks to Simon Waldman for pointing out the Jay Currie piece.)Posted by Tim Porter at January 21, 2005 10:44 AM