February 19, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 12: What We Can Do

Philip Meyer should have stopped when he was ahead.

That spot was in Chapter 11 of "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," which he finished with, if not a flourish of trumpets heralding the arrival new media forms upon which journalism can thrive, at least a farewell reveille to journalism's latest dying host, the newspaper. [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 11: Saving Journalism]

In this, the final chapter, Meyer says "the time has come to think about the things that we on the ground can do while traditional news media struggle for survival."

Notice he chooses to make the chapter title declarative (What We Can Do) rather than questioning (What Can We Do?). Had been chosen to conclude the book with a question, planting it as a seed that could sprout many answers from others, perhaps he would not been compelled to provide such an unsatisfactory answer himself.

And how does Meyer think journalists can prepare for the transitional future? By becoming more professional.

I find that answer underwhelming, even though part of Meyer's reasoning is rooted in a belief I also share: That as the continued collapse of mass media produces narrower and narrower niches - much of them populated by pseudo-journalists, yammering egoists and celebrations of celebrity - quality, community-oriented journalism can be a differentiator.

A year ago I wrote:

"Quality sells. Relevance matters The real lesson both the newsroom and the boardroom need to learn is that, in the age of the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer's attention by everyone from the New York Times to yours truly, all that's left is the journalism." [Read: There's Nothing Left but the Journalism]

Meyer makes a similar point, approaching from the concept of audience as an increasingly valuable commodity. (An interesting turnaround: When media were few, audience there was plenty of audience to go around. Now that media are plentiful, audience is rare and therefore more valuable.) Meyer writes (all emphasis is mine):

"In the cluttered information marketplace, where information itself is no longer scarce and therefore less valued, the attention of the public has become the scarce good.

"In order to gain that sparse attention, professional communicators are trying a number of things that, while not performed by real journalists, are not always distinguishable from journalism in the public mind."

"… journalism's response to these demands will slowly but irreversibly force it to move from craft to profession. It is time to band together for self-protection and for clearer identification."

Meyer then expends a great many words explaining what "professional" means - having a body of knowledge, recognizable standards, a code of ethics and organizations to catalog, develop and enforce those things. Far less attention is devoted to explaining why those characteristics are good for journalism, much less helpful in saving it.

In Meyer's version of a professional world of journalism, reporters might become certified in specific fields like medical reporting or database analysis. He points to similar certifications for computer professionals and, in what I consider a truly unfortunate example, TV weathermen. It is a poor choice on which to build a case for certification as a contributor to better journalism. No amount of certified meteorological expertise can add gravitas to the prancing airiness that characterizes local weather reporting.

Certainly, it might be beneficial, as Meyer points out, for an editor to know that a potential reporter had the computer skills or analytical chops to parse data, but how does a news organization use that to gain credibility with readers or viewers? Do television newscasts gain higher ratings because their weatherman holds a degree in meteorology? Maybe. I don't know. Is a newspaper going to be more credible simply because its business reporter has an MBA or its courts reporter made it through law school? That I doubt.

(I am suddenly intrigued, though, with the idea of newspapers displaying the credentials of their staffs. It's common for all sorts of people who use the Internet for work or personal interests to put up our resumes - mine is here - but most the background of most journalists, even those who work online, are kept in a black box. How about some more transparency? Maybe that would partly answer my question above about how a newspaper might use the certifications of its staff to gain credibility.)

Today's journalists already the most educated in history. Meyer cites statistics from the University of Georgia's annual hiring surveys: In 2000, 78 percent of new hires at newspapers were journalism school graduates; at TV stations, the number was 94 percent.

Yet, newspaper readership continues to decline and newspaper content in all but the best papers is blander than ever, heavily dependent on coverage of institutional process, courts and crime, sports and celebrity. TV news, of course, is even worse.

My point is this: More education is fine and professional development for journalists is critically lacking, but more important than having knowledge is what's done with it. Becoming better at producing the same agenda-driven news menu is a waste of a good education. (There is a separate, but connected issue worth considering: It could be that the current components of journalism education ill prepare someone for actually doing quality journalism in today's complex mélange of changing markets and emerging media.)

If I sound disappointed with the Meyer's conclusion, I am. I wanted something bolder, something more than urging that we prepare "the next generation of journalists (to) be ready to work when the process of natural selection chooses the new media forms where trust and social responsibility prevail."

Now is a good time for you to ask: How would I have ended Meyer's book?

My ending lies in Meyer's beginning of this chapter, words spoken by John S. Knight to "summarize the essential mission of traditional reporting." They are: "Get the truth and print it."

I believe the path to journalism's future lies through its past, its roots, its "essential mission" of speaking truth to power, of being a champion for the community, of enabling conversation, of airing differences in society in order encourage commonality.

Sadly, I believe it is the very professionalism Meyer urges journalists to embrace further that has diminished newspapers' capacity to fulfill those core purposes. Most newspapers bred the spirit and the fire and the spit out of themselves as they attempted to become all things to all readers and in the process became necessary to very few of them.

Professionalism, as Meyer points out, is a "conservative force against innovation," which journalists need more of, not less.

If there is an "ism" journalists should embrace to ensure they have future vehicles to support John Knight's "essential mission, then it is entrepreneurism. Don't wait for new forms of media to emerge - build them yourselves.

That's what David Talbot did when he left a newspaper to create Salon.

That's what Larry Kramer did when he left a newspaper to start MarketWatch.

That's what former newspaperman Mark Potts is doing building Backfence.

And, that's why Dan Gillmor left the San Jose Mercury News to found a new business for grassroots journalism.

There are examples, as well, of newspapers attempting to rebuild themselves. Some, like the Chicago Tribune with RedEye or the Dallas Morning News with Al Dia, are using traditional methods (newspapers) to reach niche audiences (young people and Spanish speakers.). Others, like the Bakersfield Californian with Northwest Voice, are breaking with tradition altogether and allowing the community to help create the news product.

I wish Meyer had ended with a call for action instead of a call to prepare for action. He could have paraphrased Scoop Nisker and made this his last sentence: If you don't like the newspaper, go out and make your own.

That's better.

Posted by Tim Porter at February 19, 2005 09:12 PM


Great series. I held off reading it until I'd finished the book and had some time to absorb it. Today I finally sat down and read your 12-parter.

Based on my own career, I'm not sure the quality argument wins in the end. I spent the last dozen years as editor of a suburban TMC twice-weekly in a competitive market. By all the "traditional" measures, our paper was the better of the two -- better photographers, more adventurous and talented reporters, more reader-friendly content (info graphics, etc.). The competition covered the basis about as well as we did, but they also ran press releases unedited and skimped on local entertainment and features. We won the industry awards for photography, writing and overall design.

Yet often when I spoke to residents in the community, they couldn't see much difference between the two papers. We generally had an edge in advertising and classifieds, but it was slight and major swings in "big buys" between the two newspapers seemed to be based solely on price.

I don't like to concede, given two freely distributed newspapers covering the same stories in the same area, that they will be seen as the "same" despite differences in quality, but I think this has implications for media as it moves online, where equal local access is almost a given.

Mr. Meyer (the book was excellent) couldn't provide substantial evidence that quality can drive influence/readership/profitability. If the new model for journalism is online, that may mean that the local winner will be the one that's there first, not best. If traditional media comes on without a commitment to rethinking and rebuilding journalism (exploding the newsroom), we may be stuck with more pallid "winners," who will suck up the revenue that could have financed truly innovative journalism.

The task of maintaining or building quality, civically-involved journalism may rest where it always has: on individuals.

Posted by: Mark Hamilton on February 22, 2005 04:47 PM

Not to mention the readers who are making their own.

See a Wikipedia article about citizen journalism:
and the front page of Wikinews:

Posted by: Maurreen Skowran on February 23, 2005 10:47 PM
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