February 22, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide

Vanishing NewspaperPhilip Meyer, a University of North Carolina journalism professor, wrote "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," as "an attempt to isolate and describe the factors that made journalism work as a business in the past and that might also make it work with the changing technologies in the present and the future."

In other words, Meyer sought connections between components of newspaper journalism -- quality, credibility, accuracy, size of staffs and newshole -- and the finanical success of newspapers.

I read the book and dissected it chapter by chapter. The list is below:

 Chapter 1: The Influence Model

Meyer begins by reprising much his earlier work on the theory that newspapers are "in the influence business," not the news or information business. He relies on a business argument called the Influence Model (conceived by former Knight Ridder executive Hans Jurgensmeyer) that posits: Quality journalism increases social influence and credibility, which in turn drive circulation and profitability.

 Chapter 2: How Newspapers Make Money

Much has been written about the risk-averse culture of newspapers and how it locks newsrooms into a losing cycle of defensive decision-making. Philip Meyer tells us how that culture came to be: Newspapers are the victims of a "history of easy money." In the second chapter of the Vanishing Newspaper, Meyer's explication of the "easy-money culture" is both telling and indicting.

 Chapter 3: How Advertisers Make Decisions

In the third chapter of Philip Meyer's new book, the Vanishing Newspaper, the University of North Carolina journalism professor uses Poynter's "acquisition" of Romenesko in 2000 to illustrate how content that is powerful - in this case meaning attractive to a target audience of journalists - can create influence. (Remember, it is influence that Meyer argues can save good journalism and, possibly, newspapers.)

 Chapter 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.

 Chapter 5: Accuracy in Reporting

The sad news contained in the fourth chapter of Philip Meyer's new book, of "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," is not that newspapers are error prone - that's been acknowledged for some time - but that sources of news stories believe the most common reason for mistakes is that reporters don't understand the subject they are reporting on.

 Chapter 6: Readability

In the last chapter of the "Vanishing Newspaper," I learned that reporters too dumb for sources. In Chapter 6 of Philip Meyer's new book, I find out that newspapers are too smart for their readers. Talk about a conundrum of the damned.

 Chapter 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). ... 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.

 Chapter 8: The Last Line of Defense

There is a "foul air" in newspaper newsrooms and it is emanating from the copy desk. sIn order to determine if attention to spelling and grammar have any affect on a newspaper's quality, and thus its success in the marketplace, Philip Meyer helped design a survey that measured the attitude of copy editors at 169 U.S. newspapers.

 Chapter 9: Capacity Measures

All editors and reporters want to believe that putting more bodies in the newsroom means doing better journalism for the readers. Sadly, that's not the case.

Chapter 10: How Newspapers Were Captured by Wall Street

The explanatory title of this chapter of "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age" is a bit of a tease (Tell me, tell me, how did it happen?) because Wall Street didn't capture newspapers - in fact, it was barely interested in chasing them. A more accurate heading would be: How Newspaper Owners Surrendered Their Souls to Wall Street in Order to Preserve Capital.

 Chapter 11: Saving Journalism

Philip Meyer hasn't killed off newspapers yet, but in this chapter of "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age" he digs the grave, orders the flours and all but cues the choir to sound the opening bars of Amazing Grace.

 Chapter 12: What We Can Do

Philip Meyer should have stopped when he was ahead. ... 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."

Posted by Tim Porter at February 22, 2005 04:19 AM

Tim, you'll want to change that homonym "flours" in the graf on Chapter 11.

You've done nice work critiquing Meyer's book. I've been sharing your insights by having my journalism students visit your site.

As always, you're thoughtful and perceptive.

Posted by: Roger Karraker on February 22, 2005 01:16 PM

Roger ...

Thanks. That's what happens when you write on an airplane.

Posted by: Tim on February 22, 2005 06:20 PM

Might be of interest Tim,

From Wired, a critique of the Wall Street Journals' adherence to a fee based subscription strategy that prevents search engine indexing of their extensive, authoritative, and highly regarded content. This in turn results in very limited linking to their articles by a ever expanding community of bloggers and website publishers. The debate should and will continue about fee vs. free content, but what really resonates is the bigger picture: Fee or Free ;

Posted by: Jozef Imrich on March 2, 2005 04:33 AM

Fee or Free - link

Posted by: Jozef Imrich on March 2, 2005 04:35 AM

I have to admit a great deal of skepticism with regard to the premise that "quality matters". (I mean, two word...Rupert Murdoch).

What I would like to know is this.... what do you consider to have been the "Golden Age of Newspapers", and was that "Golden Age" dependent upon societal factors that no longer exist?

Posted by: p.lukasiak on March 3, 2005 07:28 AM
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