A study done for the organization Consumers Union as part of its challenge to the FCC's new media ownership rules confirms that the future for most American newspapers lies in their ability to produce quality local news.
The point of the study, according to a Reuters story, was to argue that the FCC "overstated the importance of the Internet and radio as a source for local news and underweighted newspapers when it revised rules to permit companies to acquire more radio and TV stations."
While not engaging in that argument except to say the more competition is better than less, the numbers in the Consumers Union study (read the whole study here) are interesting:
Local newspapers are the first mentions of 57% of the respondents compared to only 15% for national news.
Television drops from 62% (for national news) to 27% (for local news).
The Internet drops from 10% (for national news) to 2% (for local news).
Radio is constant at just under 10% for both national and local news.
This means - and I am going to oversimplify because I'm heading out the door - that newspapers will live or die on how well they reflect and connect to their communities, something that can only be measure in the amount and quality of local reporting.
Of course, readers want celebrity news and national sports and business news, but the news and commentary and information and interaction they cannot get from most other media sources - at least for now - is decidedly local, everything from the heavy-lifting, transparent society stuff like watch-dogging the scalawags spending the public dollar down at city hall to the chicken dinner snippets about soccer teams and pets.
Editors perennially wonder what it is readers want. Ask them and they'll tell you: Local news.
In Circuits today, the New York Times looks at the increasing digitization of the political press corps - from wireless laptops to Blackberries to voice recorders that can store hours and hours of candidate screams.
The story refers only in passing to the question of whether all this gadgetry is actually good for journalism:
"A deadline every minute, once the preserve of the wire services, is now the motto for most of the press corps, from print reporters with newspaper Web sites to still photographers, cable producers and bloggers. The news cycle has condensed into one endless loop, and with it has come an endless stream of technology to accommodate it, or fuel it, since it is hard to say which came first.
"Campaign reporters, like war correspondents, are not necessarily gadget geeks. But the rapacious 24-hour news cycle has forced them onto the cutting edge to do their jobs better - or at least faster." (Emphasis added.)
As it turns out, the untethering of reporters from power cords and modems increases their competitive capabilities - competition being defined as being first or being exclusive, not being deeper or having more insight - but lessens their time for reflection, or thinking, about the daily events of the campaign.
Campaigns, knowing that reporters can now file while mobile, are reducing or eliminating the traditional end-of-event window when the campaign stopped moving to give the press time to write and file their stories.
I was thinking about the Circuits story - and wondering about how the technology-enabled acceleration of reporting is affecting the quality of journalism - while I was reading today's PressThink in which Jay Rosen presents the lament of a small-newspaper political reporter caught between his desire to do individualized, deeper stories and the demands of the larger media machine to produce formulaic horserace and he-said-she-said stories.
The reporter, Richard Nangle of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, asks in a letter to Rosen: "The question I keep asking myself is how do I file a dignified report and not get beaten by the competition at the same time?"
Certainly, Nangle's plight is not caused by technology - the media pack preceded the wireless card - and certainly there are reporting strategies Nangle could adopt, if his editors are willing to allow him, that would produce singular stories. In the comments, for example, Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine offers Nangle good, tough-love advice:
"Instead of writing for other members of the press, write for your audience. You are there instead of them. So go write the best and most honest and direct story you can. It's not complicated and it suffers from overcomplication." (Emphasis added.)
The elephant in this press room is the unrelenting pressure on reporters - especially those from smaller news organizations - from both peers and editors to produce at least the same story as everyone else.
Yes, reporters and editors are motivated by a desire for exclusives, but an even greater compulsion is, as I wrote the other day in Politics, "The Press" and Servant Journalism,
"an ingrained fear of missing the news."
(In that piece as well, I echoed Jarvis' advice to Nangle, saying newspapers could improve political coverage by "listening to their readers - to their audience, to their customers - and hearing their political concerns and their community agenda, and then going after focused, well-reported news stories that fulfill those needs.")
Unfortunately, the news media machine's obsession with competition is further enabled by a level of technology that, to borrow an anecdote from the Times' piece, allows a CNN producer to see an overly religious young man's impromptu prayer for Howard Dean as a competitive moment and blast a Blackberry alert about it to the studio.
"Four years ago, I wouldn't have called that in until the event was over," Mike Roselli told the Times. "But there's more competition now, 24 hours a day."
Higher forms of technology have not produced higher forms of journalism. If most political reporting is useless to readers as a tool for democratic decision-making - and it appears to be so given the political press' disconnection from voters in Iowa and New Hampshire - all technology is doing is enabling more useless stories to be filed faster than every before.
A reporter's best two pieces of technology are organic and they sit not in a holster on his belt but atop his neck and inside his chest. Good reporting requires thinking and consideration; breaking away from the pack requires heart and fortitude. Neither needs batteries.
UPDATE: Tom Mangan also keys on the reluctance of editors to take a chance:
"I suspect the problem is that political editors are former political reporters who don't really trust their reporters to be as good as they imagine they used to be, so they match their reporters' work against everybody else's to judge how well their folks are 'covering' the story.
"Nothing changes until editors start telling their boys & girls on the bus: I don't want anything I can get off the wire." (Emphasis added.)
New York Times Making of the Digital Press Corps, 2004
I have been traveling as part of a project on newsroom training and staff development and during a long flight back to San Francisco last night from Georgia I had the chance to read a good part of William Damon's book, "Good Work, When Excellence and Ethics Meet."
Damon, an educational psychologist, and his co-authors examine the concept of good work - "work of expert quality that benefits the broader society" -the obstacles that prevent it from occurring and the conditions that encourage it in two professional fields: genetics and journalism.
"Good Work" should be required journalism school reading along with Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel's "The Elements of Journalism." I'd like to write a length about "Good Work" later when I dig out from some work - and the 150-plus copies of the latest virus that showed up in email (People, people, people! Don't open those attachments!) - but here is an appetizer to chew on.
Damon et al offer a three-point value matrix that a journalists - or any other professional - can use when faced with an ethical dilemma, when confronted with a choice between excellence and mediocrity, or good work and bad work. They are
Mission: What is the central mission of the profession? What is the "basic societal need … the practitioner should feel committed to realizing." A good question to ask yourself: "Why should society reward the kind of work that I do with status and certain privileges?"
Standards: What are the acceptable "standards of performance, some permanent, some changing with time and place?" To help determine these standards, ask this question: "Which workers in the profession best realize the calling and why? A list of admired workers, along with their virtues, should reveal the standards embodied in the profession."
Identity: The "background, traits and values," when compiled and considered holistically, form an individual's identity - "who she is, and what matters most to her existence as a worker, a citizen and a human being." When faced with a difficult decision, when considering if a line is worth crossing, ask this question: "What would it be like to live in a world if everyone were to behave in the way that I have?"
Or, as one person interviewed in the book put it: "I refuse to see a pimp in the mirror in the morning when I shave."
How do these questions apply to journalism and to newspapers?
What is the central mission of journalism? "The Elements of Journalism" offers one definition: "The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing." How would you define it? Does it differ on small newspapers vs. large newspapers? Has it changed in recent decades?
What are the standards of journalism? Do they differ from place to place, from medium to medium? How flexible are they? Are some permanent? Are some transient?
What is the identity of a journalist today? Does self-identity differ from public identity and, if so, how does that affect your mission to do good work?
Somebody's always getting slammed in a political campaign. If it isn't one of the candidates, it's often the press - and deservedly so in most cases.
Jay Rosen and Cole Campbell expand on that theme in explanations of how the press is a political player and how campaign reporters create - and then dash - their own expectations of candidate performance.
Rosen, writing on Tom Paine.com and then reposting on his own PressThink, outlines "seven interlocking parts in a kind of contraption political journalists operate for us every four years-campaign coverage." They are The Gaffe, The Expectations Game ("when a candidate "wins" by losing but doing better than the press expected, or "loses" by winning but doing worse"), The Horse Race, The Ad Watch, Inside Baseball, Electability News, and Spin Alley.
The "campaign coverage contraption makes it easier to report on a presidential campaign," writes Rosen. "And safer. With everyone using the same 'instructions,' competition among journalists is reduced. Risk is spread. … This makes it possible for journalists to stand back from the ritual, and comment on its absurdities, knowing that other journalists will continue the ritual, and thus continue the absurdities." (Emphasis added.)
In Cole Campbell's piece, also on PressThink, the former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch points out that "just about everything you heard and read about the Iowa caucuses in November and December was wrong. Particularly those endless pieces about the importance of strong grass-roots organizations. The press would have done better if all the reporters had taken a long vacation."
He goes on to chastise the campaign press for failing to concede error and instead spinning its own journalistic shortcomings as a political defeat for Dean, whom reporters had capriciously anointed as frontrunner. Campbell asks:
"Who enthroned Dean and named him the front-runner? By what criteria can journalists claim he has been dealt a serious blow or dethroned? Who vaunted his grass-roots movement, and who characterized his position as 'near-invincible'?"
Read both pieces, and then think about the question Leonard Witt of the Public Journalism Network asks in a comment to Campbell's piece: "What can the press do differently to help us get the real story?"
I don't know what the answer is, but I do know where to start looking - outside the "campaign coverage contraption," as Rosen puts it, or, in my view, outside the normal newsroom hierarchy that operates the contraption and whose decision-making is too often driven by an ingrained fear of missing the news rather than by an emboldened desire to make some news.
What does that mean? It means breaking away from the pack. It means not being the 110th reporter in New Hampshire. It means throwing out the political playbook of chestnut stories - folksy chats in coffee shops, poll stories, reaction to poll stories, etc.
For newspapers, it means listening to their readers - to their audience, to their customers - and hearing their political concerns and their community agenda, and then going after focused, well-reported news stories that fulfill those needs.
Ultimately, it means independence, each newspaper defining its political coverage through the filter of its own community - something it should be doing for all its reporting to escape the journalistic generica found on front page after front page. Independence breeds freedom [ Read: Josh Marshall's comments in Public Journalism, Privately Funded ], and those accustomed to group think fear the untethered mind.
Newspapers must break free of the self-important institutional mindset of "the press" and pursue individual identities that establish them not as political players, a role that looks inward to the makers of news, but as servants of the community, a role that faces outward to the readers of news.
In recent years, the term public journalism has been a synonym for civic journalism, the much-debated notion that journalists, and newspapers in particular, have a duty to further civic discourse.
A new form of public journalism is taking place now, one that ironically was born in the personal journalism of blogging but has matured into a renewed emphasis of the natural connection between the journalist and his "public," whose members, in this relationship, are also his employers.
Marshall is a longtime magazine journalist and author of Talking Points Memo, a popular political blog. Marshall asked his audience, which Weintraub reports as 300,000 unique users a month, for donations to fund a reporting trip to New Hampshire. "Within a day," said Weintraub, "190 donors had contributed $4,800."
Weintraub points out that "given his credentials, Marshall could have easily pitched a piece on the primary to a major magazine and covered his expenses with his fee. But he decided that taking the freelance route would force him to choose between using material in the blog and saving it for the magazine. He came down in favor of the blog."
Why? "There's a freedom for me," Marshall told Weintraub, "a value to the independence. .... I'll be giving readers a sense of what's happening that they don't get in conventional journalism."
Here's a sample of Marshall's reporting, an excerpt taken from his account of a John Edwards speech:
"When I watch these guys one of the things I also watch for, either semi-consciously or quite deliberately, is, how will the Republicans go after this guy --- either on substance or on tone and demeanor and life story? With some of the contenders it is painfully obvious. But watching Edwards I had a pretty clear sense that he'd scare the president's political advisors --- a lot. …
"And yet, an hour or so later, after his presentation and after and Q& A, I had a bit of a hard time remembering quite what I was so dazzled by. It put me in the mind of one of those old clichés about light Asian food: filling at the time, but a few hours later you're hungry again.
"These are just quick impressions from observing one event. I wanted to write a post which conveyed --- in as unmediated a fashion as possible --- my immediate impressions of watching Edwards work a room for the first time. The above isn't intended as a blanket judgment about a whole campaign and a whole candidate. But in this one case I did have the experience of being truly wowed and then, later, feeling that the whole thing was somehow a bit thin."(Emphasis added)
"In an unmediated a fashion as possible." That phrase is key. Marshall is bypassing the editorial labyrinth of "conventional journalism," eliminating layers of editors, constrictions of newshole and limitations of deadline, to report directly to a public who values his work enough to pay for it in advance.
Stop. I am not speaking against editing, which plays a necessary role in process-driven journalism. This is not about editing gone wrong; this is about a new form of journalism. "This," Jay Rosen of PressThink told Weintraub, "is private people supporting something that becomes public information. It's a wild development."
Leonard Witt, founder of the Public Journalism Network, wrote in a column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that the self-publishing power of blog technology means that "intermediaries are no longer needed as public journalism morphs into the public's journalism."
Witt argues that the ability of the public to become the publisher - and in Marshall's case the public is both audience (the reader) and publisher (employer) - increases "the need for the press to stop reporting just from the top down and for journalists to listen to the people."
Significantly, tradition-bound newspaper editors and reporter who disparage blogging as hormonal therapy for teen-age girls [ Read: Sniping at Blogs ], cannot dismiss Marshall for lack of reporting credentials. While still an aberration for independent journalists (Weintraub also cites Christopher Allbritton's reader-financed Iraq coverage), Marshall's connection to his readers, manifested by their financial responsiveness to him, offers newspapers several lessons these editors and reporters should heed.
First, media fragmentation continues. Every minute someone spends reading Josh Marshall or any other blogger is time not spent reading a newspaper (or watching television, for that matter). Media is growing. The number of hours in the day are not. The relevance of newspaper reporting on the information mindshare of the public is shrinking.
A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project concluded: "The 2004 presidential campaign is continuing the long-term shift in how the public gets its election news. Television news remains dominant, but there has been further erosion in the audience for broadcast TV news. The Internet, a relatively minor source for campaign news in 2000, is now on par with such traditional outlets as public television broadcasts, Sunday morning news programs and the weekly news magazines." (Emphasis added).
Second, sophistication, authority and humanity matter. Josh Marshall writes well. His words convey the conviction of an eyewitness, even when expressing uncertainty about the significance of what he is seeing or hearing. It is a very human approach to reporting. People trust individuals more than institutions.
Third, innovation is mandatory. I should add that innovation is especially mandatory when traditional approaches are dysfunctional. Look at the political reporting from Iowa. The mainstream press, myopically focused on Dean and Gephardt, missed completely the Kerry-Edwards surge. (Note the defensiveness of journalists in this New York Times story: "The race was turned on its head. I don't know that we missed the story, but the story changed," said one. In other words, the story changed, but the reporting didn't).
Finally, empower - and trust - the audience. Marshall has only one editor - his readership. Of course, he can write what he wishes, how he wishes and when he wishes, but if he displeases his editor (his audience), they will stop reading and stop donating. The connection between news producer and news consumer is direct.
Again, I am not arguing for elimination of editors. We are not all Josh Marshalls and many of us need a helping hand on concept or craft, which good editors provide. I am arguing for creation in newsrooms of a second channel, one that compresses or skirts the traditional editing process and reaches more directly to the readers.
Think of it as product development - in this case the product is a new form of news. In many companies, for example, new products are conceived, modeled and test marketed by teams of researchers, engineers and marketers that exist outside of normal production pathways, free of the disrupting influences of everyday checks and balances such as budgeting or production capacity.
Under this model, newsroom innovation must come from outside the traditional editing and production system.
With political coverage for example, why couldn't reporters also file daily updates to blogs as well as turn in more traditional stories? (Jim Camden of the Spokesman-Review does this in his blog, Spin Control.)
If a newspaper is sending more than one reporter, why couldn't one of them carry a video camera or file only online?
Why are regional newspapers around the country sending reporters to New Hampshire to write the same stories being reported by the wires or the national papers? I'd rather read a Josh Marshall-style, personal report than another story about how Democrats want a candidate who can beat George Bush (that's news?), which is the lead story in today's San Francisco Chronicle.
As I've said many times [ Read: The Quality Manifesto ], good enough is no longer good enough. Marshall is live-from-the-Granite-State proof that readers will pay for quality - quality as they define it, not quality as defined by an anonymous set of editors.
Daniel Weintraub, Online Journalism Review New Hampshire Is This Veteran Political Blogger's Primary Concern
Leonard Witt, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Weblogs change face of 'public journalism'
The newspaper battle for the Hispanics of Los Angeles is fully engaged. The Tribune Company announced today that in March it will publish a Los Angeles edition of its successful Spanish-language tabloid Hoy, going head-to-head against the venerable La Opinion, which until a few months ago was half owned by Tribune.
The battle is part of a fascinating struggle for the nation’s largest minority market and it holds lessons that mainstream newspapers could employ in their own readership efforts.
The Tribune-La Opinion relationship was doomed from the beginning, the result of Tribune's $6.5 billion acquisition of Times-Mirror in 2000. La Opinion, still family run and managed by the grandchildren of founder Ignacio Lozano, is proud of its identity and wanted nothing more from Tribune than capital. Tribune, though, had grander plans - a network of Spanish-language dailies built on the tabloid template of Hoy and scaled to a national level. The two visions had no chance of meshing and Tribune and La Opinion announced their corporate divorce in October of last year, a month after Tribune had launched the Chicago edition of Hoy. Los Angeles - the nation's largest Hispanic market (more than 40 percent of the 16.6 million population) - was next.
To counter Tribune's coming bilingual expansion in Los Angeles, La Opinion and El Diario/La Prensa of New York, the nation's oldest Spanish-language daily, last week formed a new company that will publish its own a national chain of Latino-targeted newspapers.
I wrote about why Hispanics are such an untapped - and tantalizing - market for U.S. publishers for American Journalism Review last fall. [ Read: Dismantling the Language Barrier ]. Here are some data from that piece:
There were 38 million Hispanics in 2002, 58 percent more than a decade earlier. By 2020, one in five residents will be Hispanic.
Hispanic spending power, now $580 billion, grows 8.7 percent annually, nearly twice that of non-Hispanics. California holds one-third of this economic clout.
Hispanic-oriented newspapers and magazines generated $1.3 billion in revenue in 2002. By comparison, the operating revenue for Knight Ridder's 31 newspapers that year was $2.8 billion.
The decision by Tribune and other major U.S. newspaper companies (Knight Ridder in Miami and Fort Worth, and Belo in Dallas) to go after Spanish-speaking readers in their own language represents the industry's creeping realization that one-size newspaper not only doesn't fit all, but it can also alienate for lifetime an entire class of would-be readers.
Newspapers covering communities with significant Hispanic populations have tried for decades to entice Spanish-speaking readers with weekly, community-oriented publications. For the most part, these weeklies have been under-funded by publishers, understaffed by newsrooms and undersold by advertising departments, and thereby often perceived by the English-speaking staffs of their parent papers as weak journalistically and evidence that Hispanics don't read papers.
Indeed, a June 2003 study by the Public Research Institute of news consumption habits by ethnic minorities in the San Francisco Bay Area concluded that Hispanics preferred to receive their news from television rather than from newspapers in part because of their low level of education compared to Asian immigrants.
Of course, Anglo Americans also (overwhelmingly) prefer TV as their primary news source over newspapers, so this was not a shocking finding. Unfortunately, the Public Research Institute suffered because there are no Spanish-language dailies in the Bay Area so it could not measure how Hispanics might have responded to a news menu that included a full-service, daily newspaper in their native language as wells as several Spanish-language TV stations.
Publishers are betting millions - emboldened by the success of Hoy in New York and El Nuevo Herald in Miami - that Hispanics will read newspapers designed and written with them in mind.
Can lessons be drawn from these Spanish-language initiatives that mainstream newspapers can use to invigorate readership?
Certainly. Among them:
Follow the reader: When the community changes, so must the journalism. A news formula that's right for one community is wrong for another. That doesn't mean writing feel-good stories to appeal to a certain demographic; it means applying the highest level of journalistic skill to the issue that matter most to your community.
Be a demographics demon: Know the audience. Don't pander. Understand. Respond.
Speak the language of the community in the newsroom: Whether the language is Spanish, hip-hop, Texan or Bronx, readers will notice if you try to fake it.
Take chances: Newspapers are losing readers already. So what if you launch a youth-oriented tab and it fails? The lessons learned from failure often lead to success.
Aim high: Forget weeklies. They get no respect in the newsroom. If you want new readers, go after them every day and fund the resources to make that happen.
There's nothing like a long time in Mexico to make you forget about quality journalism or, given the state of local newspapers in Oaxaca, journalism at all. I missed much, but there will be more. Here's some of what went by while I was gone:
I add, blushingly, that point four of Rosen's eight-point answer is about me: "Tim Porter got religion again about journalism. In my reading of his story, this came only after a loss of faith." (The back story on Rosen's comment is available at my post Eliminating the Bimbo Factor.)
First, thanks Jay. My mother is happy to hear I've found some sort of religion again.
Second, the intersection of religion and journalism is well-traveled (but not necessarily well explored). More than once, journalists I have interviewed about their calling have made references to the higher nature of their vocation. Here, for example, are some outtakes from a story I did about the paltry salaries paid in the newspaper profession. Speaking are Orville Schell, dean of the UC-Berkeley journalism school, and Scott Bosley, executive director of ASNE:
"Journalism "selects those who cannot but be writers and journalists," Schell says. "It means you get a level of commitment and dedication that is quite unusual in many other professions. But you can only abuse people so much. They have families, children and student loans and lives to lead. We are not monks."
Schell calls journalists "men and women of the cloth" who are doing the "Lord's work," and Scott Bosley, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, argues that even though journalists want to make a "societal contribution … they didn't do this to enter the priesthood."
With a final allusion to journalism's loftier aspirations, Schell adds, "I hope they can benefit a bit by the dot-com crash, which hopefully will free up some good young acolytes who might otherwise have their heads turned by the content mongers."
Doug Clifton, editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, started a blog, saying he "decided to tip toe into these electronic waters because I recognize that to ignore change is to be consumed by it." Smart.
The Columbia Journalism Review launched The Campaign Desk, a blog covering the coverage of the presidential campaign. So far it seems to be a link pointer. (Ed Cone called it "clueless old media snobbery.")
Media Audit reported that "percentage of adults who spend at least an hour a day on the Internet is significantly greater than the percentage of adults who spend an hour a day with the print edition of a daily newspaper."
La Opinion of Los Angeles and El Diario/La Prensa of New York announced plans to form a new company, Impremedia, that will publish a national chain of Latino-targeted newspapers. La Opinion had to do something to counter the Tribune Company's aggressive pursuit of the Latino market, plans that ironically did not include the 50 percent ownership it had in La Opinion.
Quotable: Some quotes are worth printing (but they are worth reprinting). Here's S.F. Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein, tongue Super-Glued to his cheek, being taken seriously by Editor & Publisher's Joe Strupp in a story about actor Sean Penn penning (sorry) a first-person report for the paper from Baghdad: "We are always glad to have contributions from local residents," said Bronstein, "if they are interesting and relevant."