I am off to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a couple of weeks to celebrate the holidays with friends and family -- and far from phone and Internet. Feliz Navidad y un prospero año nuevo a todos! See you in January.
This is a good opportunity for you to catch up on some of the Best of First Draft:
The Quality Manifesto: What started it all.
Journalists Overpaid? Nonsense: There are many reasons newsrooms have disconnected from the communities they cover, but overly fat paychecks is not one of them.
No More Whining: He's wrong that penurious publishers are to blame for readership woes.
Eliminating the Bimbo Factor: I practiced journalism, but I knew almost nothing about it - although I thought I did.
Would You Pay a Nickel to Read This?: In the world of online newspapers (and other media), the debate over whether to charge for content (more revenue) or not (more readers) draws well-reasoned and emotional commentary from both sides.
Newspapers Disrupted: "When you realize this newfangled thing is stealing your business, and you aren't sure how to get it back."
How Journalism Went Bad: Reading writer Michael D'Antonio's thoughtful essay on the demise of traditional journalism (print and broadcast) in the L.A. Times reminded me of the Woody Allen line about death: "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens."
Time for a Leadership Tuneup: Newspapers are like cars. They are complex machines that require regular maintenance, occasional new parts and a certain amount of high-speed driving to keep the grit and road grime from dulling their engines.
There's Nothing Left but the Journalism: 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.
The Journalism of Complacency: Tim Rutten, who was completely wrong about Daniel Okrent (see my comments here and here), noses about for the roots of journalistic evil and finds it to be money - that is, the relative affluence of reporters and editors, at least those in larger news organizations. He's half-wrong again - but inadvertently landed on a point worth making.
Here's No. 10: "Everything newspapers do is done to sell papers, and selling papers is bad."
Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz says he plans to update his column during the day "as media and political developments warrant."
"You'll still get your daily dose in the morning (though the time may vary a bit), and then we'll stack some new material on top of that (which you can whiz by if it doesn't grab you)," he says.
Sounds like a blog. Sounds like another "newspaper" journalist breaking free of the print platform.
(Thanks to Rantingprofs for the tip.)
I interviewed David Shaw of the L.A. Times the other day for a project I'm involved in. We discussed why it seems that stories about social justice - race, poverty, inequity - are a tough sell these days in most newsrooms and what could be done to reverse that.
Shaw was direct in his advice to reporters and editors who want to do those stories: Work harder, be more creative, try new and different approaches to topics that are longstanding, and keep the reader in mind.
Shaw writes today in a similar vein, commenting on a seminar he attended at which issues of ethics, ownership and credibility were discussed at. He writes:
"I know this sounds both personally naïve and institutionally self-serving - after all, I've been a journalist for 40 years, 35 of them with The Times - and I'm aware of not just the blatant betrayals of the public interest by the likes of Blair and Glass but the more systemic, more damaging betrayals represented by what I've come to think of as the four horsemen of the journalistic apocalypse: superficiality, sensationalism, preoccupation with celebrity, and obsession with the bottom line. …"
"I continue to believe - and what I see and hear at these journalistic seminars continues to confirm - that the best journalists at the best newspapers remain committed to serving their readers, and the public interest, to the best of their abilities."(Emphasis added)
Shaw also relates this exchange between Charles Ogletree Jr., a Harvard University law professor who moderated the seminar, and Rick Rodriguez, executive editor of the Sacramento Bee:
"What's the most important thing that I should think on as a publisher?" Ogletree asked Rodriguez.
"The credibility of your paper," he answered.
But isn't it possible that people might trust the credibility of the paper and still dislike him if he told them unpleasant truths? Ogletree asked.
"You're not publishing a newspaper to be liked," Rodriguez shot back. "You're publishing a newspaper to inform the public and to promote democracy."(Emphasis added.)
I am routinely critical of the newspaper industry and its leadership, but, like Shaw, I believe the many journalists - even those not at the "best newspapers" - reach for higher standards and operate with higher purpose.
I also believe, displaying some of my own personal naïveté, that newspapers can change, especially if they remember the role so succinctly and correctly described by Rodriguez and learn to interpret its meaning in the broadest sense.
How do we "inform the public and to promote democracy" when traditional methods no longer have the impact they once did?
Part of the answers lies in Shaw's advice: Work harder, be more creative, try new and different approaches to topics that are longstanding, and keep the reader in mind.
Los Angeles Times: David Shaw If you were the editor, what would you do?
Tim Rutten, who was completely wrong about Daniel Okrent (see my comments here and here), noses about for the roots of journalistic evil and finds it to be money - that is, the relative affluence of reporters and editors, at least those in larger news organizations.
He's half-wrong again - but inadvertently landed on a point worth making.
Rutten is on solid ground when he writes about the creeping cultural conservatism - in a non-political sense - among a class or journalists who are among the comfortable and therefore not among those who wish the afflict the comfortable. He writes:
"To the extent any bias is generally operative in the news media today, it is the middle-class quietism that the majority of reporters and editors share with other Americans. They are the suburban voters who now cast the majority of ballots in our presidential elections - mildly libertarian on social issues, mildly conservative on fiscal matters, preoccupied with issues of personal and financial security. They are suspicious of ideology with its sweaty urgency and wearying demands for consistency."(Emphasis added.)
Rutten bases his column on the observations of retired New York Times columnist Russell Baker, who wrote in a letter to the New York Review of Books that:
"Washington news people are part of a highly educated, upper-middle-class elite; they belong to the culture for which the American political system works exceedingly well. … Most probably passed childhood in economically sheltered times, came to adulthood in the years of plenty, went to good colleges where they developed conventionally progressive social consciences, and have now inherited the comforting benefits that 60 years of liberal government have created for the middle class.
"This is not a background likely to produce angry reporters and aggressive editors. If few made much fuss about President Bush's granting boons to those already rolling in money, their silence may not have been because they feared the vengeance of bosses, but only because the capacity for outrage had been bred out of them…."(Emphasis added.)
Later, in a conversation, Baker tells Rutten: "These are not adventuresome people. How could they be? Most have been to college and then have gone directly into journalism. What can you expect with that sort of background?"
The result, says Rutten - and here we agree- is "rather conventional careerism."
Rutten leaves it at that, however, and doesn't bother to explore or explain why this is not a good thing for the news media other than to rely on Baker's comments that the news media - and by that he means the "top-drawer" Washington news media - lack "empathy for the rest of the country."
I'll interpret for Rutten - and then tell you the part he's forgotten. There are two points: the lack of empathy and conventionalism.
First, Baker is correct, at least within the boundaries of his narrow definition of news media. Affluent editors and reporters from the "rather elite group of journalists" with whom he has first-hand familiarity are out of touch with Middle America, partly from an economic stance and partly from a geographic location. The vast reaches of fly-over country share little salary-wise or culturally with the media elite of New York and Washington, who, because of their prominence, have a disproportionate influence on what newspapers print and broadcasters air throughout the country.
Washington news media, in fact, are so self-involved that the president is routinely asked at his rare press conferences to comment on an editorial in one newspaper or another. (How silly. As if it matters what Bush thinks of the New York Times. Given the few opportunities reporters have to publicly question the president, aren't there more important issues?)
Lack of empathy, in other words, means lack of connection, and it is this gap between reporter and reader that causes many in the public to distrust mainstream news media and to increasingly doubt its credibility.
Conventionalism - Rutten's second point - leads to what I call journalism of complacency, the acceptance of "good enough" as a standard of excellence [ Read: The Quality Manifesto. ] and the reliance on conventional thinking in a time when innovation is demanded, particularly in the world of newspapers.
As regular readers of First Draft know, I believe this type of risk-adverse behavior underlies all other newspaper and newsroom issues. It is endemic, self-reinforcing and extends beyond the well-paid elite of Russell's peers.
Conventionalism afflicts even the under-salaried journalists who comprise the bulk of America's press corps because it is bred into each succeeding cohort of reporters and editors under the guise of tradition, hidden in the cloak of "this is how things are done" and deified by tough-guy media critics who sneer at efforts to change.
Where did Rutten go wrong in his column? When he leaps from the specifics of Russell's comments, which are clearly directed at the Washington press, to the generalization that all journalists are effete, over-compensated insiders who lack the capacity to connect with the greater unwashed.
In this case, it is surely Rutten's own sizable salary that keeps him from mentioning - or maybe even from realizing - that, as I said in October when Gerald Boyd tried to dispense with his own misjudgments in the Jayson Blair affair by stating that journalists were "losing touch with real people" because of their fat paychecks, the median reporter's salary in the United States in 2000 was $31,256, meaning half of the 55,000 journalists in America's newsroom made more and half made less.
Lack of empathy? For those reporters making $600 a week or less, I don't think so. Rutten needs a reality check. He should get out of Spring Street and talk to the journalists working on these other papers in California, some of whom earn in a year what Rutten likely makes in a quarter.
Cathy Seipp, a Southern California freelancer, puts Rutten's comments in perspective:
"I really began to notice newsroom insularism in the 2000 election, when the school vouchers initiative was on the ballet here in California and roundly lost. What I constantly heard from staff employees at the L.A. Times and similar institutions was an airy dismissal that a $2,000 (or was it $4,000?) credit would make any difference, because of course private school tuition at places like Marlborough and Crossroads and Buckley is at least $18,000 per year. Not at inner-city Catholic schools it's not, which is the real alternative for inner-city kids, but of course this world is invisible to the typical newspaper employee. … The voucher initiative would have been a big help to me and other single mom journalists I know whose kids are also in non westside private schools."(Emphasis added.)
As I've said before, this is not about the money. I don't begrudge Rutten, Boyd or any journalist making as much as the market will offer, but trying to explain away the growing gap between news media and the public with a lame argument about inflated newsroom salaries is nothing but hot air - and it won't fly with me.
Los Angeles Times: Tim Rutten Affluence remakes the newsroom
The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., has led the still small parade of newspapers that devote part of their staff time to blogs. Beat reporters for the paper publish at least a half-dozen blogs on the state Legislature, movies and health, as well as special-top blogs on the Vatican and the war in Iraq.
It is fitting, then, that the Spokesman-Review became perhaps the first paper to apply one of journalism's most hackneyed conventions - the reaction story - to one of its most promising developments - citizens using blogs to report the news.
Fortunately for the Spokesman-Review, when its editors got the idea for a blog reaction story - exactly the type of story editors assigned in the mid-'90s about the Internet (Let's see how it's playing online), they turned to Ryan Pitts, an online editor for the Spokesman-Review, and a contributor to The Dead Parrot Society blog,
Here's how Pitts described the conversation:
"The news editor for our print edition just walked up, while collecting his thoughts on our coverage of Saddam's capture. This is a guy who's worked in newsprint since the hot type days, and I'd like to paraphrase what he just said to me: 'Are you guys collecting anything from bloggers today? I'm not sure how much space we'll have, but it would be cool to run something in print.'
"And of course I told him that absolutely we'd pull together some blog stuff for print. In fact, I'd already planned to pitch a compilation of posts from Iraqi bloggers. And the news editor said: 'Wait. You mean there are bloggers ... in Iraq?'"(Emphasis added)
Pitts pulled together a story (read it here) that not only reported the voices of those Iraqi bloggers, but, says Pitts, opened the eyes of some old media editors to the potential of new media.
"Print journalists," he says, "were tossing around the term "blog" like it was old hat. News editor, city editor, executive editor. Everyone. Also very cool."
Very cool indeed.
Tim Rutten's slamdown of public editor Daniel Okrent's debut column in the New York Times struck a chord - a resounding thwang! I panned Rutten's troglodytic view of journalistic responsibility yesterday. Here's what others are saying:
Jay Rosen finds a celebration of "tough guy" journalism in Rutten's column, reflective, Rosen thinks, of the newsroom machismo - Damn the readers! Full speed ahead! - that seems to have gripped the Los Angeles Times.
Swaggering with this pumped-up (has Gov. Arnold been working out with the Times staff?) self-image, Rutten labels Okrent a narcissist, says Rosen, a sissy term unbefitting a real journalist. Here's an imagined exchange:
"Okrent: Hi, I am the new public editor. Let me introduce myself.
Rutten: Introduce your self? What a narcissist!"
Smart as always, Rosen points to the larger issue - the need for journalists to connect with the public, to, in fact, be members of the public and abandon the charade of professional segregation whose philosophy dictates denial of normal human biases and influences. He writes:
"A good many Americans (and some who comment at PressThink) are ready for the disclosure ethic in political journalism-- waiting for it. But not so they can pounce on bias, which they do not see as some punishable sin.
"Rather, these new wave citizen-critics are accepting of human plurality, conscious of human perspective, confident that, if they know where you're coming from, they can filter what you tell them accordingly. They think a good news organization is an intelligent filter on the world. They don't believe in the view from nowhere. And they tend to react badly to news providers who say: no filter here, just news, facts, truth... the world. If newspapers were truly interested in young people, they would realize that a higher proportion of young people see things this way, especially those who cruise for news on the Net.
"… journalists become realer and more believable, not when they claim to have the view from nowhere, not when they let biases show in their work, (who wants that?) but when they describe themselves in ways recognizably human. Which is all Okrent was doing in column one. The theory is not elaborate: disclosure improves credibility." (Emphasis added).
Several First Draft readers commented on my post yesterday. Among them:
Jonathan Potts: "I found it interesting that Rutten quotes a Times staffer who said he always thought the paper loved its readers. In fact, many papers, consciously or not, view their readers with suspicion. I was guilty of this as well as a reporter--I wanted a lot of people to read my stories, but was less interested in hearing from them if they thought I had done a poor job, or was unfair, or biased. Newspapers think they know what's best for their readers, and what their readers want, without actually bothering to test their assumptions."
Lex Alexander: "Any Times staffer who believes the paper's relationship with readers is a mutual love fest obviously is out of touch, which suggests that an ombudsman might indeed be necessary, if only as a first step toward permanent change in the newsroom culture."
Jay Rosen: PressThink Tough Guy Journalism More in Vogue in LA
Rutten takes offense not only at Okrent's display of personal history (Democrat, anti-Yankees), saying, "Why does any of this matter?," but at the very creation of Okrent's position and that of all other ombudsmen, whom he views as evidence of the industry's creeping belief in a "deeply mistaken notion - that editors can outsource responsibility."
As I said the other day [ Read: Welcome, Daniel Okrent ], I liked Okrent's openness about himself. I found it refreshing and not, as Rutten puts it, an assertion that the "Times' real problems have to do with issues of political bias rather than the gritty - and far less sexy - matters of accurate reportage and sufficiently tough-minded editing, the absence of which seemed to be at the heart of the Blair affair."
Okrent's role is to represent readers, whose viewpoint is rarely found in newsrooms despite all efforts by well-intentioned academics such as those at the Readership Institute and some industry leaders to instill one. Much of readership woes of newspapers can be attributed to the isolation of reporters and editors (especially editors) from readers. If by sharing with the Times' readers that he was a mediocre college correspondent or that he thinks the wealthy shouldn't whine about taxation Okrent can make a connection with them - and thereby gain at least their attention and possibly their respect - I say confess away.
More worrisome, and less defensible, is Rutten's contention that the installation of Okrent equals the abdication of editorial responsibility. He could not be more wrong.
Responsibility to readers - and to the larger public trust - is not a zero-sum game. I agree completely with Rutten's paraphrase of Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld that "fairness, accuracy and consideration of the readers' interests were the responsibility of every reporter and editor on the paper."
Of course they are. I've argued many times here that acceptance of that responsibility - and the obligation of higher editorial standards and day-to-day newsroom work that accompanies it - is the first step toward lifting the shroud of mediocrity that hangs over too many newspapers, but editors and reporters and copy editors and other journalists aren't always fair or accurate or considerate of readers, and then readers become confused or angry or frustrated with the newspaper. That's when they need someone like Okrent to step up for them.
Rutten and I share some common ground. I, too, don't care much for most ombudsmen columns. The culture of the American newsroom is defensive by nature and, to me, the tenor of most ombudsmen columns reflect that. Often, they seem to be writing from back on their heels, defending the practices of the paper or the exercise of the traditional forms of journalism against the accusations of the reader.
That's not representing the reader, that's mollifying the mob.
I wish ombudsmen columns were bolder, took more chances, challenged the notions of traditional journalism and carried the voice of the reader, not that of the newsroom.
Okrent promises to do that. I'm for giving him the opportunity.
Los Angeles Times: Tim Rutten Shouldering responsibility
A couple of small newspapers are have buried their egos and are using the web to bring their readers hometown news from wherever they can find it - even from competitors.
The Lakeland (Fla.) Ledger and the Clark County (Wash.) Columbian each have a blog that aggregates news stories about their areas from other publications.
Today, for example, the Columbian's Columblog links to a Christian Science Monitor story about teen-age suicide that focuses on Clark County, and the Ledger's Polk News Watch points to stories from the Orlando Sentinel and the Palm Peach Post.
News sites linking off-site to other sources is not new - see Mark Glaser's recent piece in the Online Journalism Review about the loosening of linking policies - but, at least to me, the emphasis on local news is.
For small and mid-sized newspapers, local news and information is their most important franchise. Most, though, don't have the reporting power to thoroughly cover their communities, especially suburban areas that have grown faster than their corresponding newsrooms.
Using the web to bring more news to readers is smart. When I see efforts like the Polk News Watch and the Columblog, I see editors thinking of readers before themselves. And that's a very good thing.
(Thanks to Cyberjournalist.net for the tip.)
Kevin Roderick of L.A. Observed reprints the New York Times memo to its staff about obits, which was distributed after the paper suffered several attacks of premature eulogization.
Here's a quote: "Every obit -- EVERY obit -- must say how we know the person is dead. This is NOT a change in policy or style. It is a restatement."
News coverage of the big dump of white stuff on Boston illustrates one of the ironies of newspaper journalism, which is all about telling stories and informing the public: The narrative is an inefficient way to convey information.
In a discussion on the Online-News list yesterday, one member, complained that the Globe's news story (as it appeared on Boston.com) reported such obvious conditions as "the fact that highways, airports and schools across the region closed, that the state and localities spent lots of money on snowplowing and that ski-resort operators are happy."
"In other words," the Online-News member continued, "who cares? Tell me something I don't know."
Well, of course, people do care when roads or schools are closed - it is helpful information if they must go to work or arrange child care - but as a subject matter it makes for boring and inefficient reading. Have you tried scanning a 40-inch weather story for the information about your local school?
More interesting (but not more necessary), to people whose lives are disrupted by Mother Nature are the stories of others in similar circumstance. And where could those stories be found yesterday? On blogs.
The Online-News member pointed to Boston Localfeeds, where he found personal stories from:
"A pilot-ship captain's account of being at the mouth of Boston Harbor at the height of the storm;
A snowmobiler's exhilaration at getting into the woods for his first serious workout since he fell off his motorcycle earlier this year;
One dressed-up couple's travails in going to a ball they didn't know was cancelled until they got there;
An account of why the local subway system sucked;
A Florida native's tale of sledding in a blizzard;
A guy wondering why there's always a run on snow shovels before a big storm - wouldn't New Englanders have enough shovels already?"
The "story," i.e., the narrative, as a form is a lousy data-delivery vehicle - and the traditional newspaper weather story is among the worst of the form. It's time to separate the "story" from the "information."
Readers need information - what's working, what's not. Put that in a box or a list, with phone numbers and links to more resources. Run even more on the web site.
Readers want drama. Put that in a story on the front page.
Readers like to know about their neighbors. Gather their stories. Put that in the paper and on the web. Connect readers to each other.
Changing the format and nature (ahem) of weather stories is not a simple thing. As another member of Online-News pointed out, in the hidebound hierarchy of newsrooms, weather stories rank barely above obits in lack of importance. They are typically a chore delegated to the newest reporters or to those unfortunate veterans sentenced to their desks on evenings or weekends.
He wrote of his of experience on a large metro paper:
"First thing I was told when I was assigned to the reporting staff … was always to look busy first thing in the day, otherwise one of the city editors would draft you into the worst fate known to reporterdom: writing a weather story. To them, weather was just another boring story to pursue in knee-jerk fashion." (Emphasis added)
Later, when he became an editor he pushed for a different type of story:
"We focused features on human features about kids and mom-and-pop businesses that make a pretty good but arduous living shoveling people out, on finding the most loyal employees who still managed to show up for work despite huge storms, on how weather affects house pets, etc. Basically, we started regarding the weather as something that was important enough to the readers to approach with something other than speed-dialing all the usual suspects and making snide allusion to how people can't understand what meteorologists say."
"In other words," he said, "we treated it like a story, not like an odious task, and tried to get back into thinking what would interest readers."
What would interest readers - as a story? That is the question. It may or may not be "how weather affects house pets," but it certainly is not 20 or 30 or 40 paragraphs reporting traffic and travel conditions. With all the tools now available to newsrooms, we can do better.
People are interested in other people. Let's make them the focus of weather coverage.
As an example, the same Online-News member who complained about the banality of the Globe's weather story preferred the photo coverage of the pros to that of the amateurs.
"Plenty of bloggers have cameras," he said, "but most of the photos were of the 'look at all the snow on my street!' variety (including, I admit, mine). In contrast, professional photographers said to hell with the danger and got the really cool pix, including what has to be the best blizzard photograph ever recorded." (Emphasis added)
Here's the picture.
Thanks to Tom Mangan for letting me know I'm in Wizbang's blogger contest for Best Media/Journalism Blog. I'm only a few hundred votes behind James Taranto and Jeff Jarvis, so with your help we could make this close. (And, Mom, thanks for the nomination.)
I've read quite a few columns by ombudsmen and reader advocates since the New York Times, embarrassed by the subterfuge of Jayson Blair and chastened by the glaring failings of its editorial process, decided to name a public editor, but not one has spoken with the determined honesty Daniel Okrent displayed in his debut column as that editor in today's Times.
Certainly, Okrent's introduction carried the force of personal revelation - his politics, entertainment habits, choice of baseball teams - that most ombudsmen's column do not (although I can't recall reading the first column by any other ombudsman) and that made it easy for me to see him as just another reader who will be, as he put it, "reading the paper every day as if I, like you, were asking it to be my primary source of news and commentary."
More than his confessions, though, Okrent conveyed, in the elegant directness and unflinching language of his writing, his willingness to not only acknowledge, but also to explore the complications and contradictions of modern newspaper journalism and to deliver to readers as much transparency into that process as he can. He wrote:
"I believe The Times is a great newspaper, but a profoundly fallible one. Deadline pressure, the competition for scoops, the effort at impartiality that can sometimes make you lean over so far backward that you lose your balance altogether - these are inescapably part of the journalism business. …
"Journalistic misfeasance that results from what one might broadly consider working conditions may be explainable, but it isn't excusable. And misfeasance becomes felony when the presentation of news is corrupted by bias, willful manipulation of evidence, unacknowledged conflict of interest - or by a self-protective unwillingness to admit error. That's where you and I come in."(Emphasis added)
The Times' late entry into the ombudsmen business (it's not alone; the Organization of News Ombudsman only has 27 members), Okrent's finite tenure at the Times (18 months) and the hierarchy that has him reporting to executive editor Bill Keller have been taken by some to mean the newspaper is not committed fully to the concept or that it is a tenuous experiment poised for extinction when the bones of Jayson Blair have been buried deeply enough.
I don't see any of that in Okrent's writing. Perhaps those who know him think otherwise, but judging from his first column this member of the Times reading public is pleased to have him on my side.
UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis is also impressed with Okrent's introduction and wonders why "every journalist shouldn't have a public paragraph such as that. For reporters not to reveal their backgrounds, interests and biases, he says, "is a lie of omission."
Sometimes I feel as if I am pounding out the same message over and over to the point of harping: Newspapers have a destructive, risk-adverse culture that stifles change and initiative. Fix the culture and the rest will follow.
Today, though, I have the opportunity to let someone else deliver the message. In a Poynter Institute essay, Skip Foster, editor of the Shelby (N.C.) Star, writes:
"Somehow, our crucial watchdog role has morphed from healthy skepticism of the powerful into a dark force - an ugly brew of anger, mean-spiritedness, and antagonism that alienates readers and turns newsrooms into personality war zones. We have lurched from the honorable mission of holding the powerful accountable to a wholesale mistrust of anything that moves, even our colleagues. …
"The recent scandal at The New York Times was alarming on so many fronts. But at the head of the list was that so many people, in and out of the newsroom, felt powerless and voiceless when it came to exposing what was going on. Distrust abounded. Communication broke down at every level. Where there should have been strong, open relationships, there were chasms." (Emphasis added)
Yesterday, in comments about the Readership Institute's research into what readers want to see in their newspapers, I wrote "without culture change, content is mere frosting on a hollow cake."
Forget the crumbling quality of the metaphor, but Foster makes the identical point in reference to comments by Mary Nesbitt, the Readership Institute's managing director. "She warned," Foster writers, "that if they went home, promoted the next day's content, and wrote with a feature approach, but didn't address their newsroom's culture, they would be missing the point."
To resurrect themselves, newspapers need to reinvent themselves as organizations - from the inside out. I am excited to see this issue moving from the relative cloisters of the Readership Institute and ASNE leadership to the front pages of Poynter, where more working journalists will see it and carry the message into the newsroom.
Read Foster's piece and the rest of the Poynter package on newsroom change. Read the Readership Institute's research on culture.
Poynter Institute, Skip Foster Culture Clash: The Mood of a Newsroom
The American Journalism Review dove into the deep pool of data and analysis compiled by the Readership Institute and surfaced in its current issue with a story provocatively entitled: Why Do People Read Newspapers?
The question, of course, remains unanswered, but the story examines efforts by various newspapers to incorporate the Readership Institute's core guidelines into their daily and longer-term decision-making. The guidelines, which the Institute calls, the "four cornerstones of readership growth," are:
Providing excellent customer service.
Improving editorial and advertising content.
Building recognition and loyalty through stronger brand promotion.
Reforming management and culture.
It is unclear why AJR chose this time to write about the Readership Institute's research, which has been ongoing since its formation in 1999. Don't misunderstand me. I am a big fan of the Institute's work, particularly its emphasis on changing the destructive nature of newsroom culture, which I believe undermines all other innovation and change initiatives and which I have written about several times, including here.
But, I am curious why the magazine (for which I write occasionally) did this particular piece, especially since the article doesn't report on the success or failure of readership efforts at the newspapers its interviews - the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Bakersfield Californian, the Racine Journal Times. I'd like to know: Is this stuff working? And, if it is, is circulation the only metric for measuring success?
(FYI: According the latest figures filed with the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the Journal-Constitution's circulation is up 5,400 from 03/02 to 03/03 - to 410,761; the Californian's, though, is down 2,500 in the same period to 69,729; and the Journal Times' numbers are down 538 copies to 28,698 from 09/02 to 09/03.)
That said, any discussion about or publicity of the Readership Institute's work is good the for news industry, which, as the article points out, has tinkered with the content mix of its papers, but has been glacial in its efforts to improve its staff or invigorate its culture. (Read the Readership Institute's research on culture and staff development, the lack of which is the primary driver for the best and the brightest leaving the industry.)
Disappointingly - and, unfortunately, not surprisingly - in AJR's interviews with readership editors and other change managers in the industry, none mentioned using the Internet, with its great powers of interactivity, as a readership-building tool. I'll skip the usual argument hear about how involvement breeds habit, but it's way beyond the time for any readership discussion not to include conversation about electronic editions, forums, blogging, participatory journalism and other methods of moving the newspaper brand beyond a 14-by-21-inch swath of newsprint.
AJR included a sidebar on what readers like to see in newspapers - ideas of which many (intensely local, chicken-dinner news, teasers, feature-writing) don't necessarily, as Pete Bhatia, head of ASNE and executive editor of the Portland Oregonian, "line up with what our ideals are for good journalism."
Bhatia points out, though, and the Readership Institute agrees, that readers still want, and even expect, solid, serious, Big J journalism. My point, and the Readership Institute agrees, is that readers want more - more hometown news, more connection, more relevance, more attention paid to what they think and less paid to what other journalists think. One type of journalism doesn't fit all.
Beneath all these problems is newspaper culture. It is anti-change, insular and innovation-adverse and it can only be modified from within. Without culture change, content is mere frosting on a hollow cake.
If you're a journalist, read the Readership Institute material. Print it out. Pass it around. Practice it.
If you're a reader, write to your newspaper. Tell them what you want to read. Tell them what you thought of today's paper, what you liked, what you hated, what moved you, what disgusted you, what bored you.
They may just be in the mood to listen.
(Tom Mangan has more on this at Prints the Chaff, including this anecdote: "True story about a real newspaper: The boss hires this research firm to ask all these questions about his paper and gets almost all the same answers. He implements a few cosmetic changes that suit his prejudices and ignores the rest of the recommendations, and nothing fundamentally changed at the paper, including its circulation slide.")
Good journalism doesn’t need to be complicated, sophisticated or expensive.
The Brownsville Herald, a 15,800-circulation daily in deep Texas, sent out a few reporters to ask local police and city commissions for various public records such as police logs or expense reports. The result: Runaround, hostility and ignorance by public officials and, in one case, a police car that tailed report Juan Ozuna for more than 20 minutes after he left city hall in Santa Rosa, Texas.
Here’s an excerpt:
Later in Brownsville, I went to another Cameron County detention center. There I asked the receptionist if I could see the jail log. The receptionist told me that it is not public information.
I told her that the records are public in all counties in Texas, but she said that I needed to speak with the lieutenant. She called him and told him in Spanish to come out front because there was a girl saying the logs were public record.
The lieutenant asked me what I wanted to see and why. I said it was public record and that any citizen is entitled to see the record. He asked if I wanted information about a specific name because he could give me some information. I said I just wanted to see the log.
Then he proceeded to ask, “Where do you live? What do you want with this information? What’s your address?”
I love this type of journalism. It resonates with truth. It conveys with direct honesty the frustrations of everyday experiences citizens undergo when dealing with government and bureaucracies – and by doing so connects with the public.
Update: Editor & Publisher reports that "many journalists who try to use the FOIA encounter roadblocks and bureaucratic red tape that often keeps their requests from being fulfilled for years, if at all.