February 14, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 7: Do Editors Matter?

One of the challenges I've encountered in this serial dissection of Philip Meyer's latest book, "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," is attempting to summarize and at times criticize his conclusions without appearing pretentious (my opinions are just that; Meyer's observations are based on actually working the problems). Neither do I desire to over-display the considerable gaps in my education, which did not hinder my newspaper career, but are a disadvantage when trying to find deeper meaning about media in the work of an expert like Meyer.

The preamble is necessary because once again I'm about to condense Meyer's detailed analysis into a clipped declaration: The content of a newspaper may not mean a thing when it comes to circulation.

Let's back away from that statement a bit, and walk the path Meyer took to reach it. He begins with a study done in 1977 by Leo Bogart that "surveyed editors on their definition of a quality newspaper." Meyer continues (all emphasis is mine throughout):

"Then he compared the responses from editors of successful papers with editors whose papers were slipping, expecting to find the secret of success. But the winning editors and the losing editors, to his surprise, gave the same answers!"

Later, in his book "Preserving the Press," Bogart said:

" editors of successful and unsuccessful newspapers seemed to be operating by identical editorial philosophies. The inevitable conclusion seemed to be that forces that made a newspaper lose circulation were largely independent of content. Success or failure had more to do with pricing, distribution, and population changes than with the character of the editorial mix "

Ouch. That's an ego buster. Meyer elaborates:

"The editors were not ready to hear this. Rather than rejoicing that the readership decline was not their fault, they attacked Bogart's survey and his conclusions. Any outcome was better than facing the possibility that they were powerless."

VanishingNewspaperRoll forward a quarter century. Meyer took another run at editors in 2003, asking members of ASNE to rate the importance couple of dozen criteria. "The basic values had not changed" since Bogart asked a similar question in 1997, Meyer found, although the editors had rearranged the list (see accompanying table).

Is there any meaning in how editors weighted these values? The only interesting shift I see is the down-grading of the importance of "news interpretation and backgrounders." This seems counter-intuitive in a time when the Internet has diluted the value newspapers have in delivering of breaking news and readership research calls for more context, not less. (Also interesting is what's missing: Interactive, for example, or participation by citizens.)

Meyer groups these values in five clusters - localism, interpretation, editorial vigor, quantity of news, and ease of use - and attempts to gauge their impact on the success of a newspaper (defined by market penetration.) He looked at 32 newspapers and found:

 Localism: On average, 46 percent of stories in these papers were staff-written. Up to a point, larger newspapers had more local copy than smaller ones, which Meyer attributes to staff size. However, the smaller papers generally had greater market penetration. Bottom line: The amount of local news had no effect on circulation.
 Interpretation and Illustration (ease of use): There was no relationship between these characteristics and the market penetration.
 Editorial vigor: This measured a newspaper's voice and engagement with the community, taking into account the percentage of local editorials, how controversial and pointed there were and how often a newspaper offered readers the information they needed to get involved in an issue. Again, market size mattered: Larger papers had more vigorous editorial pages. But also again: This quality didn't effect circulation.
 Quantity of news: Meyer found more bad news for editors when laying the amount or percentage of news hole over circulation success. "When we do, the result is discouraging. Size of the news hole adjusted for market size, has no visible effect on penetration, robustness, circulation, or readership."

Let me recap: The amount of news (local or not), how well the news is interpreted and illustrated and the robustness of a newspaper's voice have no measurable effect on circulation. As Meyer says: "This is not welcome news."

Since I was an editor, I share the bias Meyer pointed out earlier that no editor wants to believe he or she is "powerless," but after the news, the photographs and the opinions in a newspaper what's left? Not much more than comics and advertising. This is disheartening for anyone seeking traditional solutions to newspapers' problems because so many of those cures are rooted in changing or rearranging content.

Now that he has depressed every newspaper editor in America, Meyer proffers a bit of palliative hope: The quality of the journalism may matter, but only if it varies greatly from the norm. But, he adds:

"If true, this requirement would be bad news for editors who are hoping to make a difference with small, low-cost changes in quality."

I agree: Tinkering with the paper doesn't matter and rearranging the furniture in the newsroom or the typefaces on the pages is nothing more than busy work that makes editors feel like they're making progress when in fact newspaper readership has been declining for 40-plus years despite all efforts to the contrary. Meyer explains why:

" this is an important possibility to consider, perhaps Bogart was right in 1977 when he tried to tell ASNE members that they were off the hook. Maybe the readership decline was not then, and is not now, the fault of the editors."

Having given editors a pass they may or may not deserve, Meyer counterpunches with a final blow to their egos:

"People in newsrooms - and I have been one - tend to overestimate the effects of their work."

I - an ex-editor, too - am less generous than Meyer. Editors may not be guilty of causing readership decline, but they should bear the burden of their timid responses. Media was exploding and editors were patching up gaping body wounds with band-aids when triage was required.

What's needed are big changes - revolution, not evolution, says the Readership Institute - that match the revolutionary shifts in media tectonics that have occurred in the last 15 years (the rise of cable and Internet).

Here's where editors can make a difference if they do one thing: Throw out all the rules (not of journalism, but of newspapering) and rebuild your news organizations from zero. [Read: Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System for some ideas.]

At one point, Meyer suggests the decline in head-to-head newspaper competition led to a lack of editorial and marketing aggressiveness by the surviving papers. Newspapers must resurrect that urgency. There is more competition than ever, not less. And news organizations who survive this wave of change will do so because they are adaptable and because they concentrated on what is possible for the future and not on what was lost from the past.

Editors are good, but for that type of change the industry also needs leaders.

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Posted by Tim Porter at February 14, 2005 06:41 AM

"Editorial vigor: This measured a newspaper's voice and engagement with the community, taking into account the percentage of local editorials, how controversial and pointed..."

Does Meyer provide a "yellow journalism" metric?

Does he measure what % of the local editorials were essentially conduits for the paper's advertisers, aimed at furthering their business interests?

These would be more important metrics than "pointedness".

Posted by: Anna on February 15, 2005 12:45 PM

What would also be interesting is to compare the number of 'points of sale' that newspapers have today with that of the past. You can be producing a great newspaper but you have to get it in front of people. Bringing newspaper marketing into the modern era is as important as using the internet to engage readers.

Posted by: Craig McGinty on February 17, 2005 10:58 AM
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