April 05, 2005

The Abandoned Newspaper

Newspaper editors who take the time to read Merrill Brown's new report for the Carnegie Corporation on the changing nature of the news audience should stay away from open windows. It's that depressing.

Not only does the report, using hard data from a Frank N. Magid survey (see a Powerpoint of the conclusions), reconfirm that the ascending generation of 18-to-34-year-olds prefers the Internet and local television to newspapers, it finds that newspapers are failing the worst in areas in which they have tried the hardest to improve: Trust, utility, and educational capacity.

These are the very qualities the Readership Institute urges newspapers to pursue in order to provide readers with "experiences" that deepen their relationship with newspapers. Indeed, when the Magid study asked 18-to-34-year-olds what elements are important to them in choosing a news source, the answers could have com directly from the Readership Institute's study on key newspaper experiences:

 Critically important: Being trustworthy; Being up-to-date; Alerting me to damaging or harmful situations.
 Very important: Getting news quickly; Getting news when I want it; Making news easy to understand; Having few advertisements; Making me think.
 Moderately important: Getting only the news I want; Making me feel smarter; Being entertaining.

Unfortunately, despite more than a decade of involvement with the web, a half-dozen years responding to a call for more credibility and five years Abandoning the News chartof exhortation by the Readership Institute to change their ways, newspapers come in last in all of the above qualities. (See chart, left.) Moreover, says the report, "although ranked as the third most important news source, newspapers have no clear strengths and are the least preferred choice for local, national and international news."

Here's the good news: This is a crisis - and "as the Stanford economist Paul Romer so rightly says, 'A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.'" (Thanks to Tom Friedman for the quote.)

In other words, within crisis lies opportunity. In this case, for newspapers, which still have the largest newsgathering capacity of all traditional news organizations, the opportunity is to remake their newsrooms, re-form their journalism and refocus their efforts on the Web.

The public is increasingly Web-bound - the Magid survey found that "Internet portals … such as Yahoo.com and MSN.com … have emerged in the survey as the most frequently cited daily news source" among 18-to-34-year-olds - and journalists must follow or be left behind.

 Newspapers need to reverse the Web-print equation. Start with the 10 percent solution - adding 10 percent more budget and staff each year to multi-media journalism. This is a conservative figure. [Read: ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda.]

 Newspapers need to invest in product development and new forms of journalism. Note the launch of Bluffton Today, premiering first on the web and then in print, powered by citizens and journalists; and, of course, the early success of Northwest Voice, a venture of the Bakersfield Californian. [Read: Learning from Others: Good Advice from Northwest Voice.]

 Newspapers need to take off the blinders and recognize, as Brown wrote, that "the future of the U.S. news industry is seriously threatened by the seemingly irrevocable move by young people away from traditional sources of news."

Sadly, change in defensive industries like the newspaper business is glacial. Someone needs to turn up the heat. Rusty Coats, new media director at Mori research, identifies the problem in the Brown report:

"By and large, the major news companies are still turning a blind eye to what is happening because it's challenging and they need to consider radical change. [Change is] way too incremental at this point. Major newspaper companies are embracing the Internet but are still using it as a supplement or as a means to sell print subscriptions and not seeing its unique value. … I wish there was more thought devoted to developing new products. Does a newspaper publishing a youth-oriented web site once a month or once a week really think this will cause fundamental change? The real issue is how are we going to [compete with] Yahoo?" (Emphasis added.)

This type of thinking is not front and center among the top editors of newspapers and therefore doesn't get the attention necessary to convert it from a "some day" idea into a budgeted newspaper-wide priority. As I pointed out yesterday, the American Society of Newspaper Editors' convention, which begins next week, only devotes one hour to the future of newspapers. It should be the entire four days.

Sandra Rowe, editor of the Oregonian in Portland and former president of ASNE, talks to Brown about the concept of a newspaper as a "mother ship" that feeds journalism in multiple formats to its offspring - an "alternative weekly, community papers, the leading regional portal and a network of sites."

Rowe also mentions the need to rethink the traditional beat and content silo systems that force newspapers to narrowly categorize every event and every person. "Arts, business, commerce and education…these areas are no longer discrete and what's most interesting are the places where they intersect," she says. [Dismantling the beat system is one way to explode the newsroom. Read: Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System.]

Earlier today, just after I started putting this post together, I heard from Bill Densmore, founder of Clickshare, who was calling to tell me about his new Media Giraffe Project. When I told him I was writing on Merrill Brown's report he asked if I found any optimism in it.

I do, and that's because a real opportunity exists for newspaper journalists who are willing to cast aside their constrictive physical, economic and intellectual traditions and embrace a future, that while uncertain, will most assuredly bear little resemblance to the present.

The goal is to save journalism. What matters are the principles of journalism (the elements), not the form in which it is published.

Let's give Merrill Brown the last word:

"The news industry should recognize the importance of what's going on in places like Bakersfield and work hand-in-hand with bloggers and other independent journalists and citizens to experiment with the formation of new alliances and the development of new products." (Emphasis added.)

End Notes

 Jay Rosen includes Brown's report in his buffet of comments on citizen journalism. He calls the report "truthtelling" and concludes: " … there's an ambiguity in that title (Abandoning the News). Young people are abandoning the news. But so is Big Media if it cannot invent a better connection to a live, twenty-first century public."

 For more on how newspapers are committing suicide by failing to build for the future, read the Project for Excellence in Journalism's report on The State of the News Media 2005. It identifies as one of the five major trends this conclusion: "Despite the new demands, there is more evidence than ever that the mainstream media are investing only cautiously in building new audiences."

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Posted by Tim Porter at April 5, 2005 02:04 PM