January 21, 2005

Should We Blame the Readers? Not If We Want to Survive

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

I've written extensively for the Internet, as well as for local print publications. The obvious criterion that I kept running across was MAJOR length restrictions in the online pieces, versus those articles I had printed elsewhere. Short attention span. It is so aggravating!

Posted by: Marjo M. on January 23, 2005 01:55 AM

Mr. Porter:

I am glad to see that while appreciating some of the truth to what Mr. Cornog has to say, that there is a veteran newsman taking him to task for some of his misguided reasoning.

By way of comment, here is what I wrote on my blog (http://smudgedink.org/blog/2005/01/provocative-though-slightly-misguided.html) about Cornog's piece:

A provocative, though slightly misguided, antidote for journalism's future The Columbia Journalism Review has a good article this issue: "Let's Blame the Reader: Is it possible to do great journalism if the public does not care?" Parts of the story are misguided. The author, Evan Cornog, CJR's publisher, is surprised that the readers that attended the Associated Press Managing Editors conference were intelligent and engaged: "The embedded readers, who came across as an unusually thoughtful, engaged group..." Could this arrogant, I know better than you attitude partly be responsible for the audiences' alienation from the media?

The AMPE conference also exhibited another achilles heel for the industry, which is that aging out of touch editors think that more entertainment and sex scandal coverage is the best way to attract younger readers. As I've preached before, why doesn't journalism just abandoned its antiquated, detached styles and tell compelling stories?

Those two points aside, however, the article makes the very important and excellent connection between newspaper readership and the public square:

"Gourmet's editor, Ruth Reichl, when she was still the restaurant critic of The New York Times, once launched a review of Thomas Keller's Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry, with the observation, "The secret of the French Laundry is that Mr. Keller is the first American chef to understand that it takes more than great food and a great location to make a great restaurant: it also takes great customers." The greatest danger to American journalism in the coming decades is not commercial pressures or government regulation but the decline of public interest in public life, a serious disengagement of citizens from one of the primary duties of citizenship to know what is happening in their government and society. Americans know a lot about a lot of things, but when only 41 percent of te*nagers (note:this blog thinks this is a naughty word) polled can name the three branches of government while 59 percent can name the Three Stooges, something is seriously amiss."

Mainly that to ensure the health of journalism, we also need to revitalize civic engagement. Some citizen journalism efforts are a first good step. But we also need to look at legacy newsrooms and weed out, as CNN is trying to do, the partisan attacks, cynicism and conflict frames, which turn people away from civic participation. As Cornog's provocative essay title suggests, readers are in part responsible for the present state of civic affairs and the media, but newspapers have a lot more sway over their communities than any individual, and they, not readers, are in the best position to revitalize our democracy and help themselves at the same time.

Posted by: Brendan Watson on January 23, 2005 04:30 PM

To suggest that media is going to lead a return to civic engagement doesn't seem realistic, and recent history doesn't support it. You can't coerce people into being involved and neither can journalism create community, or drive engagement, anymore. What it can do, by rebuilding on its strengths and by working with others to bootstrap the strengths of the 'net, is enable readers to create their own community or communities.

Posted by: Mark on January 24, 2005 10:41 PM

I think you have missed the point: Whether readers like it or not, I think our goal may be to entertain but must be to inform and to educate. We cannot forget this, just as we cannot confuse facts with fluffs.

Posted by: Leon B on January 25, 2005 04:54 AM

No question that journalism's first duty is to inform. But we also have to engage the reader. If we don't we run the risk of newspapers losing credibility, readership falling away, young readers not buying into newspaper journalism....oh wait, isn't that where we're at?

I love newspapers and I'm convinced they are the single best medium for news in all its facets. But throwing news at an increasingly diverse and "niched" readership isn't working as well as it used to. We have to engage the communities where they are, not keep thinking that we can create community and involvement merely by doing what we've always done.

Posted by: Mark on January 25, 2005 10:24 AM

Engage the reader? Yes, Mark, we also have to engage the reader. To do this I think we have, first of all, to go out from the newsrooms. I believe the worst thing in modern journalism is to remain sat in front of computer screens all day, surfing the net or making the newspaper pages. Many untold stories are waiting for us in the streets. We have to return to see places and talk with people. We have to wear out the soles of our shoes.

Posted by: Leon B on January 25, 2005 11:25 AM


I couldn't agree with this statement more:

"We have to engage the communities where they are, not keep thinking that we can create community and involvement merely by doing what we've always done."

I do, however, believe that the media can create civic engagement. But NOT by doing what we've always done. I advocate for a very different agenda on my blog (http://smudgedink.org/blog/). Among other things, I think that newspapers need to integrate citizen-produced media (blogs, citizen-submitted content, etc.) into their operations. If the media couldn't do something to reverse the current situation, we should all give up now.

Again, I have a drawn out theory about why this will be successful and I am doing some academic research on these subjects. For now, though, I will just clarify that I am in NO way suggesting that newspapers continue with business as usual.

Posted by: Brendan Watson on January 25, 2005 08:50 PM
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