February 09, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 4: Credibility and Influence

Doing journalism - or as a colleague says, committing journalism - is quite different than understanding journalism. As obvious as that may sound, I didn't see the difference, or even seek it out, during my years working in and running newspapers. [Read: Eliminating the Bimbo Factor.]

Philip Meyer, after a lifetime of seeking the journalistic grail, continues that quest still. In the fourth chapter of "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," Meyer rides out, statistics and studies and software at the ready, in search of the elusive element (he calls it the "X factor") that gives some newspapers credibility, thus earning them the trust of their communities and granting them the influence Meyer endeavors to connect to readership and profitability. [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, I: The Influence Model.]

Editors, says Meyer, prefer instinct over inquiry (or, critics might say, olds habit over innovation) and dismiss efforts to delve deeper with a disinterested "I know it when I see it." Journalists are great at "doing," but not so good at thinking about what they're doing.

Meyer fills that gap. He asks and attempts to answer three questions: What is credibility? What causes a newspaper to have it? And, finally, one of those chicken-and-the-egg mind benders that give journalists dyspepsia and tickles academics with delight:

"Are newspapers believed because they are read, or are they read because they are believed?"

My answer for that is the latter. The people who still read newspapers today do so because they believe what's in them (or they still have the "habit" of believing what's in them). The non-believers have moved on - to cable, to magazines, to bloggers. Ask that question in 1960 and the answer would be the reverse.

If this were a movie review you would hate me now because I've just given away the ending. The "what came first?" question is Meyer's chapter closer, the coda on a good number of pages filled trying stitch together credibility, civic journalism and circulation. While the chapter overall unraveled more like an unruly ball of yarn than a neatly knit-and-purled wrapper for Meyer's core thesis (good journalism = credibility = readership = influence = profit), a tug at a few of its loose threads provides some ideas that wear well.

Among them:

Credibility: A community's trust in its local newspaper varies with time and circumstance. This is good news for today's journalists, who have once again declined in public confidence to somewhere between ambulance chasers and Nigerian con artists. Tough reporting that attacks a sacred community cow, consistent errors or pigheaded journalism that disregards local needs or values can all diminish credibility. However, time heals. Meyer cites the example of the Akron Beacon Journal's reporting on deadly Firestone tires and the paper's subsequent drop in public perception (people thought it irresponsible). A few years later, however, another survey found that view reversed.

The lesson says Meyer (all emphasis is mine throughout):

"Think of credibility as having two components. One is a solid inner core that doesn't change from day to day or even year to year. The other is the variable outer shell that is subject to the shifting winds of public mood as the news changes."

Meyer concludes that trust is binary, that is, it is something the newspaper cannot earn on its own. Instead, it derives from the "interaction between a newspaper and a community."

I like this idea and I wish Meyer had explored it further in the context of today's new media and the affordability it offers both newspapers and the members of the community to remove the wall between publisher and consumer. He doesn't, though, choosing to use civic journalism to exemplify an attempt, albeit a failed one, to convert the newspaper from an institution that covers the community to one that is the community. [Read: Don't Reflect the Community, Be the Community.]

Civic Journalism: This journalism movement of the 1990s was killed partly by the defensive culture of newsrooms in which the only thing worse than change is change sponsored by management. Says Meyer:

"The concept was introduced into newspaper companies from the top down. In a business so conservative that anything new can set off alarm bells, top down innovation can create a problem."

Civic journalism, says Meyers, was also "denounced by critics as a ploy by publishers to make more money." Meyer is no defender of publishers' gluttonous appetite for double-digit profit margins [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 2: How Newspapers Make Money], yet he still can't resist a dig at the economic na´vetÚ prevalent in many newsrooms:

"One unintended effect of the historic separation of news and business sides has been to give some news people the odd notion that making money is bad."

The bottom line and the public good can be compatible. Meyers describes a study of newspaper companies so thorough that I only can wish for my own team of research serfs. Meyer's crew harvested the language newspaper CEOs used in their annual reports and sorted it into wheat and chaff - one set of words referred to social responsibility (celebration, charity, service, quality, etc.) and the other to profit (assets, efficiencies, return, revenue, etc.).

Meyers found that those CEOs whose language had the smallest profit-to-social-responsibility ratios ran companies whose newspapers were most open to embracing the concepts of civic journalism. Writes Meyers:

"The X factor is real. It is something in the corporate culture of a newspaper company that lets it think about other matters than corporate profit at least part of the time."

Circulation: Meyer is heartened by the work done at the Readership Institute to find news ways of measuring reader involvement with newspapers. He points to the development of the Reader Behavior Score, a term most top editors are familiar with but one that is probably still not discussed in newsrooms where Readership Institute research is not shared (as it should be). Reporters and editors should read in on it. RBS helps reframe the conception of a newspaper from a static product to one that can activate experiences in readers. Here is a good primer on reader experiences.

Some Reservations: Something is nagging at me as I read this book and that is this: As Meyer works to build his case that quality journalism can increase readership and eventually drive the bottom line, he relies on a lot of data and research that were compiled before the explosion of the Internet.

For example, his studies and those of others on credibility, while ongoing, are rooted in surveys that are now five to 10 years old. In that half-decade-plus, media has fragmented exponentially further than it did in the 1990s, fueled by political divisions, moral shifts, generational transition and, of course, the advent of personal publishing software that has negated newspapers' most hard-wired defense against irrelevancy: They owned the printing presses.

What does this mean for the credibility of Meyer's book? I'm not sure, but maybe I will be in a week or two when I've finished it. Certainly, Meyer's observations on the business of the industry, his sharp dissection of past efforts at change and his belief (unwavering, it seems, but as yet unproven) that good journalism can survive the current model are valuable and, to me, thought provoking. And, in an industry where thinking is not as valued as doing, that in and of itself is a good thing.

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Posted by Tim Porter at February 9, 2005 06:03 PM

Dear Tim Porter
This series of pieces has been very interesting. From my own regional newspaper experience in the UK your point under Some Reservations is key. Many newspapers have failed to use the internet to interact with their readership and allow a flow of information to develop.
Readers are aware that every letter, story idea or press release will not make the paper.
But with the ease of email communication and the 'space' a website has to produce material seperate to the newspaper, few have taken this on board.
Ignoring your readers is the easiest way to lose them.
And so people have turned away from the press, which cuts the number of ads appearing in the newspaper, which means fewer pages for editorial and even less chance of readers views being heard.
From chicken-and-egg to a viscous circle.
Many thanks for your article.

Posted by: Craig McGinty on February 10, 2005 01:04 AM
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