November 02, 2005

The Rise of the Norgs

I started this blog 35 months ago with a post I called the Quality Manifesto: Good Enough is Not. My thinking on the root causes of newspapers' problems and what can be done to address has evolved since then, but one thing remains unchanged: Most daily newspaper journalism - not the projects, not the investigations, not the big stuff we save for Sundays, but the routine weekday grist - is a bland, stenographic mix of meeting and crime stories that have little to do with the everyday lives of the people in our communities.

Here's what I wrote then:

"Newspapers don't have a societal problem; they have a quality problem.

"In an age of increasing public sophistication - and diversification - about media consumption, newspapers, for the most part, continue to produce a bland mixture of agenda and event coverage, he-said-she-said government news and an established array of feature stories focused on predictable characters who no longer elicit sympathy nor surprise from readers.

"Whether editors plaster this daily spackle on paper or spread it on the Internet, the public is not buying. It is no longer good enough."

Will Bunch, the Philadelphia Daily News reporter who writes the highly readable Attytood blog, once tore me a new one over that line of thought, calling it "risibly pompous" and contributing evidence of my "loathing and contempt" for the ideals of "the newspaper business that he claims to love." We exchanged emails, acknowledged our differences, made promises for beers to be consumed and moved on.

Since then, Knight Ridder, which owns the Daily News and its larger sister paper, the Inquirer, has hammered both newsrooms with budget cuts. The Daily News is losing 25 journalists - 19 percent of its staff - and, as Will wrote the other day, "will attempt to publish a big-city newspaper with just 110 or so people."

Here's what Will wrote the other day about his own paper's troubles (my emphasis):

"… much of the blame really lies with us, as journalists. We have, for the most part, allowed our product to become humorless and dull. In an era when it seems most people truly will be famous for 15 minutes, newspapers have stubbornly avoided creating personalities...or having a personality, for that matter. In a pathologically obsessive quest for two false goddesses - named Objectivity and Balance - we have completely ceded the great American political debate to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet, where people have learned that politics is actually interesting and even fun when people are allowed to take sides.

"We prefer to talk down to the public rather than talk to them. Even at our very best - and there are many, many talented newspaper journalists in America - we are more likely to aim at wooing contest judges than at wooing new readers. And we have a knee-jerk tendency to defend our narrow world of messy ink printed on dead trees, when instead the time is here to redefine who we are and what we do."

Not risible. Not pompous. But serious and important because it signals a growing acceptance by journalists that, again as Will writes, "assigning blame" to "corporate greed" won't save the Daily News or other newspapers because "billionaire trust fund babies with a net worth based upon exorbitant promises to Wall Street will not simply go quietly into the night."

This is exactly right. In The Mood of the Newsroom I wrote:

"… I am sorry, my friends in the newsroom, much of the rest is your fault. The journalism, the leadership, the mandate to reflect and engage your community, the necessity to make tough, but creative decisions in the face of conflict, as all industries must do from time to time - those are all your responsibilities and you have abdicated them.

"The obdurance and avoidance endemic in newsrooms rests on a bedrock belief that the 'problems' at their newspapers are best solved with more bodies or a return to a more 'traditional' form of journalism."

I asked: "What if we stopped writing about things even journalists don't read? Let's be honest: Many journalists don't read their own newspapers because they find them boring. Why continue feeding that stuff to the public?"

Columbia Journalism Review, in its current issues, explores a similar vein in an editorial. It writes (my emphasis):

"Take a look at the front page of your newspaper today. How many stories are on events that the average reader has already heard something about? The Metro section, is it riveting and creative? Or incremental and cramped? Does the paper have strong voices? Does it provide the kind of context that cuts through the fog of information? Does it have any fun? Does the photography speak volumes? Does the Web site offer more than digital newsprint? Can a reader get into the conversation? Do you want to read this newspaper?"

What's interesting to me is that, increasingly, the people asking these questions are inside the newsroom, like Will Bunch, instead of outside it, like Jay Rosen or me.

In scraping the newsroom clouds for a silver lining, I could argue that this year of cutbacks and layoffs, as institutionally disruptive and personally damaging as they have been and will continue to be to so many journalists, can be seen as the catalyst so desperately needed to awaken a slumbering industry.

Will Bunch's blogging colleague at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dan Rubin, lays out the challenge in a post in his blog, Blinq: "The Inquirer knows it has to take the opportunity to re-invent itself. We must figure out who we are and what we do best, and do it now."

It's good to see the Inquirer pulling local bloggers into that conversation. Dan writes about a gathering between journalists and bloggers at the paper. One blogger, Susie Madrak of Suburban Guerrilla, asked her readers how to remake the Inquirer. The responses, as Dan says, "make brutal reading for reporters at the Inquirer. But they should be read."

The bloggers are speaking truth to a fading power.

From the carnage at hand and the confusion about the road ahead, Will Bunch sees hope and coins a term - Norg. He writes (my emphasis):

"'Norg' because we need to lose our old identity with one dying medium, newspapers, and stress our most valuable commodity, the one that we truly own, and that is news…without the paper. Thus, we must now be news organizations, or 'norgs.'

" … Yes, it's a cheap gimmick. … But it's a cheap gimmick aimed at starting a valuable conversation that should have begun years ago. With all the gloom and doom in the newspaper business these days, the focus here in Philly has been on Nov. 4, the day that 100 journalists (25 here, and 75 at the Inquirer) will mostly leave the profession, or leave town. I want the focus now to be on Nov. 5, the first day of the rest of our lives for those of us staying put."

Journalism is a verb. It is what we do. I like the way Jacqui Banaszynski puts it: We commit journalism. Print, web and broadcast are means of delivering journalism from Point A - those who commit it - to Point B - those who read it, watch it and interact with it. [Read: Journalism is a Verb, Not a Platform.]

A couple of months ago, in a testy post, I wrote that newspapers must "change or die." [Read: Journalism by Every Means Necessary.] That's still true - both literally and metaphorically, meaning that the death by irrelevance or the death by mediocrity brought on by budget cuts is just as destructive to journalism as the literal shuttering of a newspaper. (Knight Ridder is already jettisoning non-core products.)

Will Bunch issues his own grim ultimatum. Go read the rest of his piece (and the followup), especially his comments on the need for more personality in newspapers. Here's a final word from him (my emphasis):

"We are, and can continue to be, the front-line warriors of information -- serving up the most valuable commodity in a media-driven era. But that means we must be the message, not the medium, and so we must adjust to give consumers news in the high-tech ways that they are asking for, not the old-tech way that we are confortable with.

"If we don't change, we will die - and it will be our fault."

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Posted by Tim Porter at November 2, 2005 07:34 AM

Excellent, Tim. "Mood of the Newsroom," I said at the time, was your greatest post. (Click my name to read what I wrote about it.)

I had the same thoughts you did here when I read Will Bunch and Dan Rubin: the message is coming from them now, the people inside. That's very different.

It's also significant that it's coming from Philadelphia, where the 17-Pulitzer run of legendary editor Gene Roberts (Inquirer) bred in some newsroom people an extreme version of "journalism for journalists."

I don't think many of them noticed this moment from Matthew Klam's summer of '04 portrait of bloggers during campaign season:

"A pizza-stained paper plate sat between Moulitsas and Atrios. Together, they have more readers than The Philadelphia Inquirer." —- Matthew Klam, New York Times Magazine, Sep. 26.

Posted by: Jay Rosen on November 2, 2005 08:46 AM

Can I ask you something? Do you think a lot of newsrooms do "all those meeting stories" out of a sense of obligation?

In thinly staffed local and regional newsrooms, once you cover all the meetings, is there time left for doing anything more interesting?

Is it permissible to skip a city council meeting?

One of the things I think people are buying when they buy the newspaper is a sense that once they're done with it, they're well-informed; they want to feel, for example, that when they're done reading the NYT, there's nothing really important going on in the nation that they simply missed.

That's admirable, but I suspect when this goal of comprehensiveness is copied by thinly-staffed regional or local dailies it adds up to a "cover the bases" mentality.

This question is important to me because I run a local news and community weblog. I'm coming to the point where I see that I could easily fill the whole thing with meeting stories and still have meetings left over. I want to have an end result that adds up to some cohesive whole, but I'm not sure where I'll end up drawing the line between coverage of stuff that would appear in our local weekly (meetings) and stuff that wouldn't.

Posted by: Lisa Williams on November 3, 2005 05:59 AM

Thanks for giving us (journalists) stuff to chew on. It helps clarify the foggy future of our business.

Posted by: Jesse Tinsley on November 3, 2005 01:20 PM

Oh, and I love "norgs" if only for the reason that it will give people who hate the word "blog" on aesthetic grounds apoplexy.

Posted by: Lisa Williams on November 3, 2005 09:40 PM
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