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 04:19 AM | Comments (5)

February 19, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 12: What We Can Do

Philip Meyer should have stopped when he was ahead.

That spot was in Chapter 11 of "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," which he finished with, if not a flourish of trumpets heralding the arrival new media forms upon which journalism can thrive, at least a farewell reveille to journalism's latest dying host, the newspaper. [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 11: Saving Journalism]

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."

Notice he chooses to make the chapter title declarative (What We Can Do) rather than questioning (What Can We Do?). Had been chosen to conclude the book with a question, planting it as a seed that could sprout many answers from others, perhaps he would not been compelled to provide such an unsatisfactory answer himself.

And how does Meyer think journalists can prepare for the transitional future? By becoming more professional.

I find that answer underwhelming, even though part of Meyer's reasoning is rooted in a belief I also share: That as the continued collapse of mass media produces narrower and narrower niches - much of them populated by pseudo-journalists, yammering egoists and celebrations of celebrity - quality, community-oriented journalism can be a differentiator.

A year ago I wrote:

"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." [Read: There's Nothing Left but the Journalism]

Meyer makes a similar point, approaching from the concept of audience as an increasingly valuable commodity. (An interesting turnaround: When media were few, audience there was plenty of audience to go around. Now that media are plentiful, audience is rare and therefore more valuable.) Meyer writes (all emphasis is mine):

"In the cluttered information marketplace, where information itself is no longer scarce and therefore less valued, the attention of the public has become the scarce good.

"In order to gain that sparse attention, professional communicators are trying a number of things that, while not performed by real journalists, are not always distinguishable from journalism in the public mind."

"… journalism's response to these demands will slowly but irreversibly force it to move from craft to profession. It is time to band together for self-protection and for clearer identification."

Meyer then expends a great many words explaining what "professional" means - having a body of knowledge, recognizable standards, a code of ethics and organizations to catalog, develop and enforce those things. Far less attention is devoted to explaining why those characteristics are good for journalism, much less helpful in saving it.

In Meyer's version of a professional world of journalism, reporters might become certified in specific fields like medical reporting or database analysis. He points to similar certifications for computer professionals and, in what I consider a truly unfortunate example, TV weathermen. It is a poor choice on which to build a case for certification as a contributor to better journalism. No amount of certified meteorological expertise can add gravitas to the prancing airiness that characterizes local weather reporting.

Certainly, it might be beneficial, as Meyer points out, for an editor to know that a potential reporter had the computer skills or analytical chops to parse data, but how does a news organization use that to gain credibility with readers or viewers? Do television newscasts gain higher ratings because their weatherman holds a degree in meteorology? Maybe. I don't know. Is a newspaper going to be more credible simply because its business reporter has an MBA or its courts reporter made it through law school? That I doubt.

(I am suddenly intrigued, though, with the idea of newspapers displaying the credentials of their staffs. It's common for all sorts of people who use the Internet for work or personal interests to put up our resumes - mine is here - but most the background of most journalists, even those who work online, are kept in a black box. How about some more transparency? Maybe that would partly answer my question above about how a newspaper might use the certifications of its staff to gain credibility.)

Today's journalists already the most educated in history. Meyer cites statistics from the University of Georgia's annual hiring surveys: In 2000, 78 percent of new hires at newspapers were journalism school graduates; at TV stations, the number was 94 percent.

Yet, newspaper readership continues to decline and newspaper content in all but the best papers is blander than ever, heavily dependent on coverage of institutional process, courts and crime, sports and celebrity. TV news, of course, is even worse.

My point is this: More education is fine and professional development for journalists is critically lacking, but more important than having knowledge is what's done with it. Becoming better at producing the same agenda-driven news menu is a waste of a good education. (There is a separate, but connected issue worth considering: It could be that the current components of journalism education ill prepare someone for actually doing quality journalism in today's complex mιlange of changing markets and emerging media.)

If I sound disappointed with the Meyer's conclusion, I am. I wanted something bolder, something more than urging that we prepare "the next generation of journalists (to) be ready to work when the process of natural selection chooses the new media forms where trust and social responsibility prevail."

Now is a good time for you to ask: How would I have ended Meyer's book?

My ending lies in Meyer's beginning of this chapter, words spoken by John S. Knight to "summarize the essential mission of traditional reporting." They are: "Get the truth and print it."

I believe the path to journalism's future lies through its past, its roots, its "essential mission" of speaking truth to power, of being a champion for the community, of enabling conversation, of airing differences in society in order encourage commonality.

Sadly, I believe it is the very professionalism Meyer urges journalists to embrace further that has diminished newspapers' capacity to fulfill those core purposes. Most newspapers bred the spirit and the fire and the spit out of themselves as they attempted to become all things to all readers and in the process became necessary to very few of them.

Professionalism, as Meyer points out, is a "conservative force against innovation," which journalists need more of, not less.

If there is an "ism" journalists should embrace to ensure they have future vehicles to support John Knight's "essential mission, then it is entrepreneurism. Don't wait for new forms of media to emerge - build them yourselves.

That's what David Talbot did when he left a newspaper to create Salon.

That's what Larry Kramer did when he left a newspaper to start MarketWatch.

That's what former newspaperman Mark Potts is doing building Backfence.

And, that's why Dan Gillmor left the San Jose Mercury News to found a new business for grassroots journalism.

There are examples, as well, of newspapers attempting to rebuild themselves. Some, like the Chicago Tribune with RedEye or the Dallas Morning News with Al Dia, are using traditional methods (newspapers) to reach niche audiences (young people and Spanish speakers.). Others, like the Bakersfield Californian with Northwest Voice, are breaking with tradition altogether and allowing the community to help create the news product.

I wish Meyer had ended with a call for action instead of a call to prepare for action. He could have paraphrased Scoop Nisker and made this his last sentence: If you don't like the newspaper, go out and make your own.

That's better.

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:12 PM | Comments (2)

February 18, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 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 flowers and all but cues the choir to sound the opening bars of Amazing Grace.

Remember, this book isn't about saving newspapers - although that would be nice - it's about saving journalism, specifically the "social responsibility functions that have been traditional for newspapers."

As printed products subject to the vagarious pricing of ink, paper and gasoline, newspapers can no longer scale. Most can earn more money selling fewer papers in more focused markets than they can by trying to expand circulation to the fringes.

With the exception of a few national newspapers that sell to elite audiences, most newspapers are not going to grow. Even those that do manage to add circulation because they are in growing communities will likely to continue to lose market penetration.

Even as Meyer reminds us that a quality product - in this case journalism - is associated with business success, he points out that neither he nor anyone else has been able to prove that the former causes the latter. It could be that papers that make money have the wherewithal - the capacity [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 9: Capacity Measures] - to add staff and do better journalism. Of course, neither is profitability a predictor of quality. High-margin mediocrity abounds in the world of newspapering. Meyer writes (all emphasis throughout is mine):

"… there is very little to suggest that quality is the prime cause rather than an incidental effect of profitability, except in those cases where two or more newspapers are contesting for market dominance."

Aha! Quality matters when there is competition between newspapers - of which there is precious little these days.

But, there is a new kind of competition, one that holds the potential to both further marginalize newspapers and be the vehicle that might help save journalism. "Bring on the Internet," Meyer says.

The newspaper business model (audience = influence = advertising = profit) was already under pressure from declining audience when the Internet became popularized in the mid-90s. Now, a decade later, with the web fully commercialized by both legacy and start-up enterprises, the long-term viability of the newspaper model is questionable. The disruptive potential of the 'Net is being realized.

What can newspapers do? "The most obvious way to deal with substitute technology is to enter the substitute business," says Meyer. But, that's a risky proposition and newspapers are unaccustomed to risk. Meyer writes:

"The Internet can do many wondrous things. Learning how to make its wonders profitable requires a long series of trial-and-error experiments, performed by organizations with a high tolerance for failure. Newspaper companies seldom fit this description."

That was evident, of course, in the first iteration of newspaper web sites, which were shoveled into electronic reproductions of the newspaper, many of which still exist today in the same formats dressed up with fancier technology. (Disclosure: I was one of the early shovelers.)

In recent months, legacy news media companies have made major acquisitions of online news and content operations, signaling a shift in strategy: If you can't beat 'em -- or don't want to build 'em -- buy 'em. The New York Times' purchase of About.com, the Washington Post's absorption of Slate, and Dow Jones acquisition of Marketwatch are big money bets that the future of news media is digital not printed.

Jeff Pelline was a cross-alley competitor of mine at the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1990s when he left the newspaper to join a start-up called C|Net. He writes (with some obvious satisfaction):

"Despite the opportunity to make their businesses more profitable, the brass worried about cannibalizing their own print model. Although many companies invested in the Internet, it definitely was a sidelight business. ('I work for the print edition, not the online edition,' was the typical refrain from many longtime journalists.)

"Now the print media giants are changing their tune--albeit it more from a defensive than offensive posture. Stuck with stagnant growth and under pressure from Wall Street, these companies are taking their biggest plunge yet into the Internet pool."

Meyer correctly sees the Internet as a means to save journalism, not an end. Of course, much good journalism is being done on the 'Net, and much of that by former newspaper people. As competition on the Internet to provide the best journalism replaces traditional print competition, Meyer returns to his influence model as a predictor of the companies that will win out. [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 1: The Influence Model]. He writes:

"If the industry were to embrace the influence model and use it as justification preserving social responsibility functions in whatever new media combinations emerge from the great technological disruption, then it might make a difference. … It will be especially important to compete with local newspapers for the role of the most trusted."

This is important: Trust matters. Credibility matters. Meyer has pointed out earlier that credibility is one of the few indicators of profitability for newspapers [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 4: Credibility and Influence].

And, in a period when sources of news and opinion are at once exploding in number and narrowing in focus, I believe credibility counts most of all. This argues for greater transparency by newspapers, more interaction with the community and further dissolution of the barrier between the producers and consumers of news.

The Internet is not the only possible savior of journalism, says Meyer. He points to the emergence of organizations like the Center for Public Integrity, which uses foundation money from a number of sources to produce high-quality investigative journalism. Similar private, non-profit enterprises could fill the gap left by newspapers that lack the resources to do heavy-lifting journalism.

I like the way Meyer dismisses concerns that these non-profits are funded by foundations like the Pew Charitable Trusts or the Ford Foundation. He writes:

"So let us be blunt. Allowing charitable organizations to pay for the news might be risky, but it is probably no worse than a system in which advertisers pay for it."

Touchι, Phil.

Let's end on an up note, as Meyer does. He wastes no paragraphs bemoaning the inevitable continuing decline and eventual demise of the traditional newspaper business model (the paper may persist, but profits will come from new revenue models). He writes:

"There is, in short, more than one way to pay for the next news. The fact that newspapers are not doing so well these days should not blind us to the possibility that the influence model could reappear in unexpected form. Remember its elements. Advertising gains value, not through interference with the news product, which undermines the long-range interests of everyone, including advertisers, but by appearing in a medium with a reputation for integrity."

Here's the question journalists must answer: "How would we create such a medium using the tools and economics of new technology?"

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Posted by Tim Porter at 06:57 PM | Comments (1)

February 17, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 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.

It is fashionable these days to link the decline of newspapers to their transition from enterprises owned mostly by families to ones subject to the quarterly pressures of public investors, who, critics argue, demand ever-increasing profits at the expense of good journalism.

I like my title better because it shifts the responsibility away from Wall Street, which is only applying to newspaper companies the same standards to which it holds all other sorts of companies. (Of course, it is equally stylish these days, and rightly so, to criticize investor obsession with 10-Qs and the short-term thinking it produces.) Let's put the blame on the party who initiated this bad marriage - the newspaper companies.

Philip Meyer quotes Merrill Lynch newspaper analyst Lauren Rich Fine (all emphasis throughout is mine):

"The real genesis of all the problems here is newspaper companies went public for the wrong reason. They didn't care about shareholders, they did it for their purposes. My frequent point that I've made is that if don't like what it means to be a public company, you don't need to be public because, here's the good news … these companies generate a lot of free cash. Not one of them, not one needs to be public. … Hey, I didn't tell you to go public, but as long as you did, I expect a return."

As Meyer points out, newspaper companies went public because they wanted to preserve or raise capital.

Gannett broke the IPO barrier in 1967 with the intent of growing through acquisition. And it did. At the end of the 1960s, according to the company, Gannett owned "33 dailies and 12 weeklies, six radio stations and two television stations." A decade later the tally was "78 daily newspapers in 33 states and Guam, a national news service, seven television and 14 radio stations, outdoor advertising plants in the United States and Canada, 21 weekly newspapers and the research firm of Louis Harris & Associates."

Knight (before it was Knight Ridder) and McClatchy went public to protect family holdings, with the latter also preserving the McClatchy influence over the company through a two-tier system of stocks that kept voting control within the family.

History lessons aside, Meyer addresses the question of whether Wall Street's insistence on growth and ROI has hurt the quality of journalism produced by these newspapers. He arrives at an answer similar to that found by Rick Edmonds when he analyzed staffing at publicly held vs. privately owned newspapers: It depends.

The variable is the culture of the company. Meyer looks at the way several companies handle staff size when the economy sours.

Gannett, for example, routinely seen as, "went through the 2001 downturn without layoffs" because "there was nowhere to cut. Its staffing had been bare bones to start." On the one hand, Gannett is Scrooge; on the other, its routine tight-fistedness spared newsrooms the demoralization of layoffs.

McClatchy also didn't layoff during the recession, but CEO Gary Pruitt tells Meyers his newspapers "did not needlessly bulk up" during the '90s boom and managed to shrink newsroom budgets through attrition.

Knight Ridder made the most news - and not the kind PR folks welcome - with its layoffs in 2001, most notably those that led to the very public departure of San Jose Mercury News Publisher Jay Harris. Meyer quotes from Harris' speech to ASNE in 2001:

"What trouble me, something that had never happened before in all my years in the company, was that little or no attention was paid to the consequences. … There was virtually no discussion of the damage that would be done to the quality ands aspirations of the Mercury News as a journalistic endeavor, or to its ability to fulfill its responsibilities to the community."

Unlike McClatchy, Knight Ridder's newspapers did add staff during the 1990s and what the company did with its cuts 2001, said Edmonds in his study, was "bring staffing levels closer to the industry norm."

Meyer asks a good question here: "But what if the 'norm' is the wrong strategy?"

I come away from this chapter thinking about corporate ownership of newspapers as I did before: There are good owners, there are mediocre owners, and there are horrible ones. (See Durham for an example of the latter.)

Some corporate executives believe quality journalism is good for business and some don't. Pruitt of McClatchy thinks quality matters. He tells Meyer why his company doesn't lay off:

"We always say to our papers, you challenge is no matter what, the paper must improve. It always drove me crazy … where in a downturn, news hold cuts were made and the paper got worse. … And I always thought restaurants don't make food worse in a downturn. Car companies don't make cars less safe in a downturn. … Why is it OK to make a newspaper worse in a recession? That's your excuse for making your product worse? It makes no sense."

Meyer asks analysts: "If newspaper companies can find a few quality indicators that could be measured and published periodically, would Wall Street care or even pay attention?"

Not really. Although Fine of Merrill Lynch says she has no problem viewing newspapers as value investments, those that don't necessarily provide quarter-over-quarter returns. She says:

"I'm going to make money with you if I invest over time, and I recognize those times where you're not going to look as good as somebody else. But a few years out you'll look better."

It seems newspaper companies can concentrate on quality and profit if they manage Wall Street instead of letting the market manage them. Pruitt explains:

"We had, to some degree, tried to shape the type of shareholders we had, and have by defining the company differently and not wanting to have certain types of shareholders that would be upset by our actions."

I don't want you think I completely disregard the financial pressures newspaper companies place on newsrooms. I've written and managed newsroom budgets in good times and bad and there's nothing worse that cutting, especially when it involves someone's job.

I do, though, think journalists need to be wary about blaming the industry's woes on Wall Street. As Meyer as pointed out repeated in The Vanishing Newspaper, long-term systemic changes in media, the economy and society are behind much of the decline in influence newspapers once had. That's why all of the work he's done for the book has only found indicators that can limit circulation loss rather induce readership growth.

Good companies, journalistic or not, do good work. And good companies, public or private, are led by managers who value quality, play fair and respect their employees. Here's a coda from Meyer:

"Newspaper reporters have a cynical expression that helps them cope with the inherent frustrations of the profession: 'Good things happen in spite of management.' For the best of the top managers, parallel idea might be, 'Good things happen in spite of Wall Street.'"

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Posted by Tim Porter at 07:39 AM

February 16, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 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.

In this chapter of the "Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," Philip Meyer looks for connections between the capacity of newspapers - the "tools" they have to do their jobs - and their success in the marketplace. As other researchers have before him, Meyer finds very little that is heartening to journalists who feel they might be able to reverse the decline in the circulation and influence in their newspapers by simply adding more troops to the trenches.

Meyer does unearth some good news:

 Newspapers that staff heavily more heavily than the norm - 1.18 journalists per 1,000 circulation - don't lose readers as quickly as other newspapers. And newspapers that spend the most on staff - about 1.7 journalists/1,000 circulation - manage to stay even with circulation.

 Newspapers "that maintained or reduced staff" between 1995 and 2000 "lost significantly more circulation" than papers that increased spending on staff. Although, as Meyer points out, "we have no way of knowing which came first: the staff loss or the circulation decline.

Of course, outside of this slim silver lining looms a dark gray cloud. Notice that neither of these findings points to increases in circulation but rather to conditions that may slow circulation loss.

Also worth reading if you haven't already is Rick Edmonds' work for the Poynter Institute, which searched for connections between staff size and quality, and for differences between the newsroom funding of private and public companies. The studies cited by Meyer are "Lifting the Veil on Newsroom Staffing" and "Public Companies No Worse Than Private." Meyer summarizes:

 Lifting the Veil: "The results were ambiguous. … When he looked at nineteen of the twenty-one highest-ranking papers in the Columbia poll, thirteen were above average in staffing and six were below."

 Public Companies: "The conventional wisdom was supported: independent papers had the best staffing, and private chains were better than publicly held chains. But the differences were small. When he looked for evidence of large-scale staff reductions, the results were equally ambiguous. … the publicly owned newspapers among the twenty-two that Edmonds looked at actually cut less than those that were privately held."

The number of journalists in a newsroom is one measure of capacity. What types of journalists are hired is another, suggests Meyer.

For example, newspapers that employ training editors, database specialists or ombudsmen have "a different kind of capacity" than those that do not, and signal a commitment to a higher level of journalism or engagement with the community.

In closing the chapter, Meyer attempts "to detect the effect of having an ombudsman on a newspaper's ability to hold on to its audience." He finds a connection:

"The twenty-nine newspapers with ombudsmen in 1996 had retained, on the average, 89.3 percent of their home county penetration between 1995 and 2000. The papers of comparable size without ombudsmen retained only 86.3 percent."

But, which came first: The success of the paper (if you can call losing only 10.7 percent of core market penetration in five years a success)? Or the ombudsmen?

Can't really say, says Meyer, although he does offer an explanation I like:

"An ombudsman is just one visible sign of a newspaper that cares about its reputation - and its influence - in the community. A newspaper that has one is probably doing lots of things right, and they all add up to an effect on maintaining circulation."

In the end, after two chapters [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 8: The Last Line of Defense], Meyer there are too few data to use the processes and capacity of newspapers as an analytical tool. Until news companies are more forthcoming with financial information, says Meyer, "content, because it is manifest and measurable, must remain the viable indicator of quality."

I agree, but that brings us back to the problematic question that is not addressed in the Vanishing Newspaper: What should a newspaper's content be? Is the current menu of institutional stories, crime coverage, professional sports and celebrity good enough to entice new readers? Falling circulation numbers suggest not.

What should replace these stories? And what type of newsroom structure is needed to make that change? The current beat system can only produce more of the same stories.

Finally, and perhaps this is a question Meyer will ask and answer in his final three chapters, does content even matter? He has already asserted that some the readership decline is "not the fault of the editors" [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 7: Do Editors Matter?] and that some journalistic sacred cows like spelling [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 8: The Last Line of Defense] have little impact on readership because of the structural forces in the news business "that made a newspaper lose circulation were largely independent of its content."

If, as some suggest, that year by year a smaller and smaller percentage of the population maintains interest in the workings of government and other public components of society, how should journalists respond?

Should we accept the proposition that traditional journalism might be a dying form of communication, shoulder that fate and trudge onward with our shrinking, aging audience into our professional sunset?

Should we give in (further) to the cult of celebrity, evict from our pages the tedious coverage of government and the under-classes, and fill the space with more news about people we already know way too much about?

Or should we take up the challenge of change and reinvent ourselves, keeping the principles that motivate us but creating new tools - new capacity - to put them into practice?

That's not a difficult choice to make.

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Posted by Tim Porter at 10:20 AM

February 15, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 8: The Last Line of Defense

There is a "foul air" in newspaper newsrooms and it is emanating from the copy desk.

In 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.

The result, detailed in this chapter of Meyer's new book, "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," confirmed statistically what rim rats long knew intuitively - Mr. Dangerfield, a drum roll please: Copy editors get no respect.

As Meyer puts it: "The last line of defense for quality in newspaper journalism is not a happy place." He elaborates (all emphasis throughout is mine):

"They felt less respected by their newspapers' reporters, they saw fewer opportunities for professional development, they liked their bosses less, and there were less likely to feel reward for their work."

So what if these editors aren't feeling the newsroom love? Does it matter to readers? Does it affect sales of the paper? Does it help Meyer prove out his thesis (quality journalism = credibility & influence = readership = profit)? [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 1: The Influence Model]

Well, yes and no.

Yes, because Meyer finds a correlation between the way copy editors feel about their work and success in the marketplace. Newspapers where respect for the rim is higher "hung on to an additional 1.5 percentage points of home county penetration" for the three-year period Meyer examined. That "half percentage point a year adds up mighty fast," says Meyer.

What doesn't matter, though, to readership or much else, is how well copy editors do their jobs - at least the part of their jobs that involves ensuring accurate and grammatical copy ends up in the newspaper.

Meyer dove into the databases of 20 newspapers and searched eight years of stories for common spelling and grammatical errors, such as "miniscule for minuscule" and "general consensus for consensus."

The result? Plenty of errors, about 4 percent on average. The San Jose Mercury News published the cleanest copy (1.14 percent errors), the Boulder Daily Camera the dirtiest (11.08 percent).

Big papers were generally more correct than smaller ones, a condition Meyer attributes to staff size: More editors, more time per story, fewer gremlins.

But, regardless of where the copy fell on Meyer's accuracy scale it didn't affect any of the other indicators he examines for sign of connectivity between quality and success. He writes:

"If editing accuracy is an indicator of general newspaper quality, then it should predict all sorts of things, including reporting accuracy, credibility, circulation penetration and robustness. It doesn't. … Whatever readers want in a newspaper, spelling accuracy appears not to be a primary concern."

In his last chapter [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 7: Do Editors Matter?],
Meyer suggests newspaper editors must face "the possibility that they were powerless." It seems copy editors should consider the possibility that what they do is meaningless.

Already disrespected and defensive, copy editors are sure to consider such a statement inflammatory, but, given how radically different a copy editor's job is today than it was in pre-pagination days (especially at smaller newspapers) it seem reasonable to raise the question: What role should a copy editor play in a modern newsroom?

I believe if newspaper journalism is, to paraphrase the subtitle of Meyer's book, going to survive in the information age then newsrooms must be rebuilt from the ground up. [Read: Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System]. The current structure is too rigid and baggage-laden to respond with the nimbleness needed to operate in today's news media environment.

Should there even be a copy desk? The traditional rim is now overburdened with duties ranging from gate-keeping the copy to wrangling the pagination system. Let's separate the manufacturing jobs from the journalism jobs.

Why bother chasing typos and proofing pages? Getting the content right counts, [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 5: Accuracy in Reporting], but type lice don't bother readers or move the circulation needle, says Meyer, so why put much energy into eliminating them? Doesn't it just reinforce the perfection-minded culture in newsrooms - much effort on little things, little effort on big things?

How can newsrooms make better use of their copy editors? Should they work more directly with reporters, be more involved earlier on, have more duties related to writing and content and fewer connected to process and production?

I don't have the answers -- and I'm not even suggesting these are the right questions to ask -- but I think newspapers must begin some fundamental self-examinations of what they are, what they do and who they do it with in order to address Meyer's underlying query: How can we save journalism?

In the meantime, I leave you with the Copy Editor's Lament, a product of the restless mind of George Martin, rim rat extraordinaire at the old San Francisco Examiner.

Posted by Tim Porter at 12:13 PM | Comments (8)

February 14, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 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). Neither do I desire to over-display the considerable gaps in my education, which did not hinder my newspaper career, but are a disadvantage when trying to find deeper meaning about media in the work of an expert like Meyer.

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.

Let's back away from that statement a bit, and walk the path Meyer took to reach it. He begins with a study done in 1977 by Leo Bogart that "surveyed editors on their definition of a quality newspaper." Meyer continues (all emphasis is mine throughout):

"Then he compared the responses from editors of successful papers with editors whose papers were slipping, expecting to find the secret of success. But the winning editors and the losing editors, to his surprise, gave the same answers!"

Later, in his book "Preserving the Press," Bogart said:

"… editors of successful and unsuccessful newspapers seemed to be operating by identical editorial philosophies. The inevitable conclusion seemed to be that forces that made a newspaper lose circulation were largely independent of content. Success or failure had more to do with pricing, distribution, and population changes … than with the character of the editorial mix …"

Ouch. That's an ego buster. Meyer elaborates:

"The editors were not ready to hear this. Rather than rejoicing that the readership decline was not their fault, they attacked Bogart's survey and his conclusions. Any outcome was better than facing the possibility that they were powerless."

VanishingNewspaperRoll forward a quarter century. Meyer took another run at editors in 2003, asking members of ASNE to rate the importance couple of dozen criteria. "The basic values had not changed" since Bogart asked a similar question in 1997, Meyer found, although the editors had rearranged the list (see accompanying table).

Is there any meaning in how editors weighted these values? The only interesting shift I see is the down-grading of the importance of "news interpretation and backgrounders." This seems counter-intuitive in a time when the Internet has diluted the value newspapers have in delivering of breaking news and readership research calls for more context, not less. (Also interesting is what's missing: Interactive, for example, or participation by citizens.)

Meyer groups these values in five clusters - localism, interpretation, editorial vigor, quantity of news, and ease of use - and attempts to gauge their impact on the success of a newspaper (defined by market penetration.) He looked at 32 newspapers and found:

 Localism: On average, 46 percent of stories in these papers were staff-written. Up to a point, larger newspapers had more local copy than smaller ones, which Meyer attributes to staff size. However, the smaller papers generally had greater market penetration. Bottom line: The amount of local news had no effect on circulation.
 Interpretation and Illustration (ease of use): There was no relationship between these characteristics and the market penetration.
 Editorial vigor: This measured a newspaper's voice and engagement with the community, taking into account the percentage of local editorials, how controversial and pointed there were and how often a newspaper offered readers the information they needed to get involved in an issue. Again, market size mattered: Larger papers had more vigorous editorial pages. But also again: This quality didn't effect circulation.
 Quantity of news: Meyer found more bad news for editors when laying the amount or percentage of news hole over circulation success. "When we do, the result is discouraging. Size of the news hole adjusted for market size, has no visible effect on penetration, robustness, circulation, or readership."

Let me recap: The amount of news (local or not), how well the news is interpreted and illustrated and the robustness of a newspaper's voice have no measurable effect on circulation. As Meyer says: "This is not welcome news."

Since I was an editor, I share the bias Meyer pointed out earlier that no editor wants to believe he or she is "powerless," but after the news, the photographs and the opinions in a newspaper what's left? Not much more than comics and advertising. This is disheartening for anyone seeking traditional solutions to newspapers' problems because so many of those cures are rooted in changing or rearranging content.

Now that he has depressed every newspaper editor in America, Meyer proffers a bit of palliative hope: The quality of the journalism may matter, but only if it varies greatly from the norm. But, he adds:

"If true, this requirement would be bad news for editors who are hoping to make a difference with small, low-cost changes in quality."

I agree: Tinkering with the paper doesn't matter and rearranging the furniture in the newsroom or the typefaces on the pages is nothing more than busy work that makes editors feel like they're making progress when in fact newspaper readership has been declining for 40-plus years despite all efforts to the contrary. Meyer explains why:

" … this is an important possibility to consider, perhaps Bogart was right in 1977 when he tried to tell ASNE members that they were off the hook. Maybe the readership decline was not then, and is not now, the fault of the editors."

Having given editors a pass they may or may not deserve, Meyer counterpunches with a final blow to their egos:

"People in newsrooms - and I have been one - tend to overestimate the effects of their work."

I - an ex-editor, too - am less generous than Meyer. Editors may not be guilty of causing readership decline, but they should bear the burden of their timid responses. Media was exploding and editors were patching up gaping body wounds with band-aids when triage was required.

What's needed are big changes - revolution, not evolution, says the Readership Institute - that match the revolutionary shifts in media tectonics that have occurred in the last 15 years (the rise of cable and Internet).

Here's where editors can make a difference if they do one thing: Throw out all the rules (not of journalism, but of newspapering) and rebuild your news organizations from zero. [Read: Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System for some ideas.]

At one point, Meyer suggests the decline in head-to-head newspaper competition led to a lack of editorial and marketing aggressiveness by the surviving papers. Newspapers must resurrect that urgency. There is more competition than ever, not less. And news organizations who survive this wave of change will do so because they are adaptable and because they concentrated on what is possible for the future and not on what was lost from the past.

Editors are good, but for that type of change the industry also needs leaders.

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Posted by Tim Porter at 06:41 AM | Comments (2)

February 12, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 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.

Today's journalists, already the most educated crop of reporters and editors ever, need more ongoing education so they can interview with sophistication, research with understanding and report with credibility, but when it's time to write Meyer suggests they shed the sheepskins and scribble their stories at a sixth- to eighth-grade level, a range he identifies as the sweet spot of newspaper readability.

Meyer travels (as always) a statistic-laden route to identity the average newspaper reader as a junior-high schooler left behind. He parses the staff-written contents of 40 American newspapers with a common readability formula called the Flesch-Kincaid index. The index measures sentence structure and complexity of language, then gives the writing a number on a scale of 1 to 100, with 1 being "practically impossible to read" and 100 being, well, a stop sign, I suppose.

The Flesch-Kincaid tool is built into modern software like Microsoft Word, so it's easy to measure the readability of anything. Meyer offers some examples:

 Average newspaper story: 70-80 (about eighth-grade level).
 John F. Kennedy's inaugural address ("Ask not what …"): 10.3.
 Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" speech: 6.6.

What does Meyer find after crunching 2,125 stories from newspapers as diverse as the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Houston Chronicle? Only 25 percent of those stories could be understood by someone who reads at an eighth-grade level or lower. The other 75 percent needed an audience of people who at least struggled through high school English, including a few who opened the Borzoi Reader in college.

Meyer's conclusion:

"The case is clear. Many newspaper stories are too hard to read." (Emphasis added.)

Too hard to read? Too hard to understand because of clunky, jargon-rich writing - that I would agree with. Too boring because the content is institutional, not human? Too little useful information because the stories are under-reported and lack context? Those I would agree with also. But too hard to read because the language is too sophisticated and the sentences too complicated? I don't buy it.

I don't disagree with the underlying premise that more readable stories - stories with cleaner writing, stronger narrative and less institutional focus - are a necessary step toward continued relevancy for newspapers (more point of view, more voices from citizens and more transparency of sources are equally necessary), but I think Meyer is missing the point when he connects readability levels with readership.

Meyer creates a ranking for the 40 newspapers he surveyed based on the difference between their Flesch-Kincaid readability score and the education level of the people who live in their home counties. Those newspapers with the biggest difference - that is, those that write most below the reading level of the community - rank highest.

No. 1 on the list is the Grand Forks Herald with a reading level of 5.04 - a fifth-grade - five levels below its community; No. 4 is the Houston Chronicle with a tenth-grade level, just about on par with its community.

Meyer then compares the newspapers' reading-level gaps with their circulation and finds the papers with the biggest gaps have the deepest market penetration.

What I want to write is this: In other words, the dumber the writing, the higher the readership. But, I take that back because I'm sure it reflects some generational or educational bias I hold about the nature of journalism that conflicts with readability principles.

I'm also sure Meyer is not advocating dumber journalism, but instead proposing simpler writing. Is that a good strategy at a time when the rest of the media mob is racing to the bottom as fast as they can? I don't think so. It's time, I believe, for newspapers to distinguish themselves by providing the context, sophistication and depth not possible, or not preferable, on television.

It would be foolish to try to argue Meyer's research because he's got the depth of the data on his side. That said, I challenge the idea that people aren't reading newspapers because "many newspaper stories are too hard to read."

In fact, the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulation statements for the Grand
Forks Herald - Meyer's most readable newspaper - show the paper losing circulation, falling to 31,524 in September 2004 form 32,591 in March 2002.

Let's try an experiment. Here are the lead staff stories from Friday's Wall Street Journal and today's New York Times (web versions) run through the Flesch-Kincaid tool in Word:

 "Rare and Aggressive H.I.V. Reported in New York," New York Times - Reading ease, 48.2; grade level, 12.0.
 "In Path of Tsunami, Giant Cement Maker Struggles to Recover," Wall Street Journal - Reading ease, 47.4; grade level, 11.4.

And here are the recent ABC circulation numbers for both papers:

 New York Times -September 2004: 1,121, 057; March 2002: 1,194,491.
 Wall Street Journal - September 2004: 964,220; March 2002: 803,347.

Just using the numbers, it seems that what are arguably the nation's two best newspapers are also among the most unreadable., but they are gaining circulation while the country's "most readable" newspaper is losing it.

(CORRECTION: As Tom Johnson points out in the comments, I flipped the numbers on the New York Times, which, as you can see, in fact lost circulation in the period cited. My point, though, stands: That examples of what most journalists considerable to be quality journalism flunk the readability test.)

Finally, let's try this same test with the five most popular blogs (based on the Truth Laid Bear Ecosystem), just using the bloggers' own writing, not that of excerpts they are using:

 Eason Jordon post, 09:33 a.m., Instapundit - Reading ease, 55.7; grade level, 10.0.
 "Encore Performances: dKos Jazz," Daily Kos - Reading ease, 46.6; grade level, 12.0.
 "Remembering Mr. Lincoln," Powerline - Reading ease, 45.3; grade level, 12.0.
 "Easongate: A Retrospective," Michelle Malkin - Reading ease, 46.2; grade level, 10.9.
 "The news judgment of the public," Talking Points Memo - Reading ease, 53.9; grade level, 10.7.

Blog readership grew 54 percent in 2004, a number any newspaper publisher would envy for an entire decade, even though the most popular blogs are much more difficult to read - by readability standards - than newspapers.

Clearly, there exists an unquenched public appetite for robust writing, sophisticated commentary, analysis, debate and engagement that newspapers are not addressing - particularly at a local level. I'm not sure using a readability index is the best step toward satisfying that hunger.

I've had a difficult time (as you might be able to tell) expressing my concerns about Meyer's reliance on readability equations because I don't want to make light of his work and I do believe most newspapers are bastions of mediocre writing littered with jargon, acronyms and over-attribution. So, I want to give Meyer the last word. Here is a paragraph from the beginning of this chapter:

"Journalists today are well educated and have broad interests, and their natural inclination, if not checked by self-monitoring and good editing, is to write for each other." (Emphasis added.)

That's something we do agree on.

(This post scans 41.0 on the readability scale, an 11.4 grade level.)

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Posted by Tim Porter at 10:52 AM | Comments (8)

February 11, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 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.

Meyer surveyed people quotes as sources in news stories in 20 communities to determine the accuracy of the newspapers in those cities, the affect of errors on the newspapers' credibility and which type of mistakes sources considered the most serious. Meyers also asked the sources why they thought errors happen. The answer (all emphasis is mine):

"The top reason given by sources, when asked to judge why the reporter made a mistake, was simply that the reporter didn't understand what he or she was writing about."

Here are the top seven reasons for errors and the percentages of sources who named them:

1. Reporters didn't fully understand the story - 29%.
2. Pressure to get the story done on time - 23%.
3. Not enough research - 16%.
4. Events surrounding the story were very confusing - 15%.
5. Laziness on the part of the news staff - 12%.
6. Reporter didn't ask enough questions - 12%.
7. Reporter didn't ask the right questions - 12%.
Aside from the perception by some sources of outright sloth and the recognition of deadline pressures that compel reporters to cut interviews short whether they've "got" the story or not, all these reasons can huddle under the umbrella of lack of knowledge. On some subjects that are the grist of every-day journalism, like financial reporting, analyzing government budgets, and deciphering emerging technologies, reporters don't even know what they don't know. They can ask questions and put the answers in the paper, but the transfer of fact from source to reporter to reader appears without context, resulting in a misinformed reader and a source who believes the reporter is too dumb to distill complexity.

Reporters are not stupid, but they are under-educated. It is the newspaper industry's great disgrace that it fails to provide, or even acknowledge the need for, ongoing education for its journalists. The industry spends only a third of the national average on professional development for its employees. The result: A workforce of generalists, an increasing number of whom hold master's degrees, but most of whom have little direct non-journalism experience, and therefore posesss only a cursory understanding of the fields on which they report.

There are exceptions, or course - reporters who hold degrees in medicine or law or engineering - but they can be found for the most part only on larger papers. The bulk of the nation's newsrooms are filled with in-the-trench reporters who are poorly equipped to deal with sources on a peer-to-peer level.

Take math, for example. The inability of many reporters (and their editors, who spawned from the ranks of reporting) to do math is so legendary that journalism training organizations offer routine math tests and tutoring (like this one by IRE) to bring reporters' calculating skills up to the level required of high-school graduates.

Errors flow from misunderstanding. That's something that can be corrected.

Newspapers have been concerned about accuracy and its connection to readership for several decades. (Here's ASNE's benchmark accuracy study from 1999.) What Meyer has done is borrow some of the questions of the earlier work, build on them to conduct the 20 market survey and find a way to connect accuracy to credibility. (Remember his thesis: Good journalism = credibility = readership = influence = profit.

In his study, Meyer puts errors in three categories: Objective (misspelled name), Subjective (out of context, exaggerated, sensationalized), Math (percentages, etc.)

Of the more than 5, 100 stories Meyer examined, 21 percent had an objective error, 18 percent a math error and 53 percent a subjective error. Interestingly, the sources for these stories were more likely to forgive a subjective error, thinking that the reporter was either too dimwitted or too biased to get it right, than a math error. After all, math is factual, and if you can't get the facts right than how can you get the context right?

(The idea that some errors are more important than others and should therefore be treated differently when corrections are made is just beginning to catch on among newspapers. The New York Times, for example, prodded by public editor Daniel Okrent, recently divided its mistakes into two categories: For the Record (objective errors) and Corrections (subjective errors, Jayson Blair, etc.)

Does accuracy affect credibility and therefore readership? Yes, Meyer says. The newspapers with the highest accuracy ratings were generally held to be the most credible both by their news sources and their readers, and these papers also the highest rates of circulation penetration in their core markets.

What interested me about Meyer's finding was not so much the connection between accuracy and credibility, but his conclusion on how that perception of credibility is spread through a community: By the sources themselves.

Since the sources of most news stories tend to be the elites in the community - newspapers report on the powerful, not the powerless - they also tend to be the opinion leaders as well as the most critical readers of newspapers. Meyer continues:

"… sources are pretty good judges of a newspaper's quality. And why shouldn't they be? Their names are in the paper, and they will naturally give it a closer reader and a more careful judgment than the average reader can or wants to manage. Moreover, many, if not most, news sources are opinion leaders. They form attitudes toward the paper based on how its writers handle matters on which the sources are informed. You can bet that they don't keep those opinions to themselves."

In my previous post [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 4: Credibility and Influence] I mentioned that Meyer bases his thinking on many studies done or concepts developed before the arise of the Internet. This is natural given his lifetime of research on newspapers. It does, though, leave some gaps in his logic chain.

Referring to how sources influence community perception of a newspaper, Meyer quotes a study done in 1940 which posits that ideas flow from media "to the opinion leaders and from them to the less active sections of the population."

That's not the case any longer. While the news media do continue to push ideas downward into the community, the community now has the ability - through liberating advances in technology - to push back. The one-directional flow of ideas Meyer cites is gone. It is now a continuous loop.

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:59 AM | Comments (1)

February 09, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 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. [Read: Eliminating the Bimbo Factor.]

Philip Meyer, after a lifetime of seeking the journalistic grail, continues that quest still. In the fourth chapter of "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," Meyer rides out, statistics and studies and software at the ready, in search of the elusive element (he calls it the "X factor") that gives some newspapers credibility, thus earning them the trust of their communities and granting them the influence Meyer endeavors to connect to readership and profitability. [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, I: The Influence Model.]

Editors, says Meyer, prefer instinct over inquiry (or, critics might say, olds habit over innovation) and dismiss efforts to delve deeper with a disinterested "I know it when I see it." Journalists are great at "doing," but not so good at thinking about what they're doing.

Meyer fills that gap. He asks and attempts to answer three questions: What is credibility? What causes a newspaper to have it? And, finally, one of those chicken-and-the-egg mind benders that give journalists dyspepsia and tickles academics with delight:

"Are newspapers believed because they are read, or are they read because they are believed?"

My answer for that is the latter. The people who still read newspapers today do so because they believe what's in them (or they still have the "habit" of believing what's in them). The non-believers have moved on - to cable, to magazines, to bloggers. Ask that question in 1960 and the answer would be the reverse.

If this were a movie review you would hate me now because I've just given away the ending. The "what came first?" question is Meyer's chapter closer, the coda on a good number of pages filled trying stitch together credibility, civic journalism and circulation. While the chapter overall unraveled more like an unruly ball of yarn than a neatly knit-and-purled wrapper for Meyer's core thesis (good journalism = credibility = readership = influence = profit), a tug at a few of its loose threads provides some ideas that wear well.

Among them:

Credibility: A community's trust in its local newspaper varies with time and circumstance. This is good news for today's journalists, who have once again declined in public confidence to somewhere between ambulance chasers and Nigerian con artists. Tough reporting that attacks a sacred community cow, consistent errors or pigheaded journalism that disregards local needs or values can all diminish credibility. However, time heals. Meyer cites the example of the Akron Beacon Journal's reporting on deadly Firestone tires and the paper's subsequent drop in public perception (people thought it irresponsible). A few years later, however, another survey found that view reversed.

The lesson says Meyer (all emphasis is mine throughout):

"Think of credibility as having two components. One is a solid inner core that doesn't change from day to day or even year to year. The other is the variable outer shell that is subject to the shifting winds of public mood as the news changes."

Meyer concludes that trust is binary, that is, it is something the newspaper cannot earn on its own. Instead, it derives from the "interaction between a newspaper and a community."

I like this idea and I wish Meyer had explored it further in the context of today's new media and the affordability it offers both newspapers and the members of the community to remove the wall between publisher and consumer. He doesn't, though, choosing to use civic journalism to exemplify an attempt, albeit a failed one, to convert the newspaper from an institution that covers the community to one that is the community. [Read: Don't Reflect the Community, Be the Community.]

Civic Journalism: This journalism movement of the 1990s was killed partly by the defensive culture of newsrooms in which the only thing worse than change is change sponsored by management. Says Meyer:

"The concept was introduced into newspaper companies from the top down. In a business so conservative that anything new can set off alarm bells, top down innovation can create a problem."

Civic journalism, says Meyers, was also "denounced by critics as a ploy by publishers to make more money." Meyer is no defender of publishers' gluttonous appetite for double-digit profit margins [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 2: How Newspapers Make Money], yet he still can't resist a dig at the economic naοvetι prevalent in many newsrooms:

"One unintended effect of the historic separation of news and business sides has been to give some news people the odd notion that making money is bad."

The bottom line and the public good can be compatible. Meyers describes a study of newspaper companies so thorough that I only can wish for my own team of research serfs. Meyer's crew harvested the language newspaper CEOs used in their annual reports and sorted it into wheat and chaff - one set of words referred to social responsibility (celebration, charity, service, quality, etc.) and the other to profit (assets, efficiencies, return, revenue, etc.).

Meyers found that those CEOs whose language had the smallest profit-to-social-responsibility ratios ran companies whose newspapers were most open to embracing the concepts of civic journalism. Writes Meyers:

"The X factor is real. It is something in the corporate culture of a newspaper company that lets it think about other matters than corporate profit at least part of the time."

Circulation: Meyer is heartened by the work done at the Readership Institute to find news ways of measuring reader involvement with newspapers. He points to the development of the Reader Behavior Score, a term most top editors are familiar with but one that is probably still not discussed in newsrooms where Readership Institute research is not shared (as it should be). Reporters and editors should read in on it. RBS helps reframe the conception of a newspaper from a static product to one that can activate experiences in readers. Here is a good primer on reader experiences.

Some Reservations: Something is nagging at me as I read this book and that is this: As Meyer works to build his case that quality journalism can increase readership and eventually drive the bottom line, he relies on a lot of data and research that were compiled before the explosion of the Internet.

For example, his studies and those of others on credibility, while ongoing, are rooted in surveys that are now five to 10 years old. In that half-decade-plus, media has fragmented exponentially further than it did in the 1990s, fueled by political divisions, moral shifts, generational transition and, of course, the advent of personal publishing software that has negated newspapers' most hard-wired defense against irrelevancy: They owned the printing presses.

What does this mean for the credibility of Meyer's book? I'm not sure, but maybe I will be in a week or two when I've finished it. Certainly, Meyer's observations on the business of the industry, his sharp dissection of past efforts at change and his belief (unwavering, it seems, but as yet unproven) that good journalism can survive the current model are valuable and, to me, thought provoking. And, in an industry where thinking is not as valued as doing, that in and of itself is a good thing.

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Posted by Tim Porter at 06:03 PM | Comments (1)

February 08, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 3: How Advertisers Make Decisions

Whatever the Poynter Institute is paying Jim Romenesko, it's not enough.

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. Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, I: The Influence Model.) Meyer explains (all emphasis throughout is mine):

"Before Romenesko came aboard in 2000, the Poynter site was generating around 10,000 page views per weekday. By 2003, it was up to 160,000 a day, with spikes to 250,000 when there was a big story such as the departure of Howell Raines from the New York Times. … By 2002, PoynterOnline was the trade publication most read by journalists, beating both the slick paper publications, American Journalism Review and Columbia Journalism Review."

At times while reading this section of the book, I felt Meyer needed Ben Bradlee to tell him what he grumbled at Woodward and Bernstein in "All the President's Men" when the two reporters turned in a particularly delicate story, "You haven't got it."

Meyer tries hard to draw a connection between a newspaper's credibility - his proxy for influence - and its advertising draw, but after a baffling (at least to liberal-arts-major me) regression analysis he concludes that "much more data collection" and a "better measure of influence" is needed to establish credibility as a predicator of advertising power.

Since this is the core thesis Meyer is trying to prove in the book (good journalism = credibility = readership = profit), I'm left wondering where he goes from here.

Unable to connect these dots, Meyer turns to diagramming the market-making capacity of the Internet and its incursion on newspaper's second-largest bloc of revenue: Classifieds.

Newspapers once owned the classified market because they were the dominant medium in a given region and, as Meyer states, "buyers and sellers alike tend to converge on the spot where they are most likely to find one another," a principle of self-fulfilling circularity most exemplified by the success of eBay.

Beyond any particular online marketplace, Meyer characterizes the Internet as a "perpetual catalog" accessible to exploration, and commerce, via the power of search, i.e., Google et al. A marketplace that is cheaper than newspapers, more fixed than broadcast and possesses both the cataloging capability of the former and the illustrative power of the latter not only threatens the newspaper business model, but also the journalism that model supports. Meyer puts it this way:

"Technology can separate advertising from its traditional role of supporting useful editorial content."

Journalism and advertising operate symbiotically. Without either - regardless of the quality of the journalism - the traditional publishing model collapses. Unfortunately, Meyer cannot prove quality newspaper journalism can attract sufficient advertising to fund its current printed platform - a proposition that is becoming increasing problematic given the inherent economic advantages online publishing has over print. Meyer explains:

"Newspapers suffer from the historic fact that they are a manufacturing business. They buy raw materials, ink and paper, and add value with news and information and advertising. … The trouble with a manufacturing business is that its mains costs are variable, not fixed. What this means is that every new customer means a proportional added cost in raw materials and transportation. Double your customers, double the newsprint."

A variable-cost business model means some new customers aren't worth the price of securing and serving them. This is why some newspapers in recent years have killed off suburban editions or cut off subscribers on the rim of their circulation areas - the costs of selling readers those newspapers outweighed the revenue the additional circulation generated. In Chapter 1, for example, Meyer tells the tale of the Wichita Eagle, whose former editor was ordered in the mid-1990s by the paper's owner, Knight Ridder, to increase the operating margin to 23.5 percent. The editor, W. Davis Merritt, describes how the paper did it:

"We looked and looked, and the only way we could do that was to cut 10,000 circulation, reducing all out commitment anywhere west of Wichita. We had to tell 10,000 people who were buying and reading our paper, 'we're not going to let you buy our paper anymore.'" (Remember yesterday's example of how newspapers use "aggression against their customers" to maintain profit.)

By comparison, the Internet operates on a broadcasting model. Its costs are mostly fixed. If 10 million people search Google every hour (and more than that do), it doesn't cost the company significantly more than if only 9 million people searched in the same time period.

It's hard not to get the feeling that Meyer believes, despite all he might wish otherwise, that come some day in the not-too-distant future newspapers are not going to be the primary platform for daily journalism.

In Chapter 2, Meyer makes a good case that newspapers will persist because the collapsing business model will attract entrepreneurs who will create substitute publications and be satisfied to earn 6 or 7 percent on their investments (the national norm across all industries) instead of the 20 to 40 percent to which current newspaper companies are accustomed.

In this chapter, though, Meyer crosses the threshold of imagining good journalism - in its traditional watchdog, civil society sense - without newspapers. The underwriters of this journalism could arise from the nascent online world. Meyer writes:

"If the new media barons of the future make large investments in creating trusted editorial products that will attract and influence citizens and buyers, newspapers will be in trouble, but society will be served."

Is this transition inevitable? Not, says Meyer, if the industry can do what he has so far been unable to do in this book: Find a way to measure the influence of a newspaper and establish a clear connection between that influence and the value of its advertising.

Meyer asks and answers the next question: What if newspapers can't do that? Then "it will soon be time to think about vehicles other than advertising-supported media to fulfill the social responsibility functions that newspapers have historically provided."

Is that the right answer? Non-profit journalism already exists in traditional forms like NPR and newer configurations like the Center for Public Integrity and some newspapers, like the St. Petersburg Times, are owned by non-profit entities. Will good journalism become a non-profit venture, reliant on the largesse of funders or the deep pockets of an elite level of subscribers? What beyond advertising might support citizen journalism and other emerging forms of journalism?

Like Meyer, I don't know. I do know that newspaper companies and newsrooms need to be asking these questions and looking for answers.

ENDNOTE: Read Alan Mutter on the erosion of national advertising in newspapers. He reports on findings by Merrill Lynch media analyst Lauren Fine, who says "the majority of national advertisers are 'shifting from print and TV towards cable and the Internet.'"

Why? Just as Meyer pointed out: Those media are not only cheaper, they also better enable advertisers to measure influence (effectiveness) of their ad buys. Fine says:

"As advertising shifts from an investment to an expense within organizations, the need to measure returns and/or lower costs has heightened. This has pushed marketers more toward the Internet, direct marketing, sales promotion and branded entertainment [product placement]."

Mutter concludes: "If the newspaper industry thinks it is controlling ad erosion, it is suffering from a profound case of self-denial. There's just no denying it."

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Posted by Tim Porter at 09:46 AM | Comments (1)

February 07, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 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 (all emphasis throughout is mine):

"If the money comes in not matter what kind of product you turn out, you become production-oriented instead of customer-oriented. You are motivated to get out the gate as cheaply as possible. If your market position is strong, you can cheapen the product and raise prices. Innovation happens, but it is often directed at making the product cheaper instead of making it better."

Meyer describes what I've called the news factory [Read: Rethinking the News Factory (Again)], a place where routine trumps creativity, where "news" must be fit into well-defined slots and where managers are valued more than leaders.

The comment about innovation is especially true. Think: Where do newspapers invest the most capital? In equipment designed to lower the cost of production - presses, mail-room routers, newsroom pagination systems that replace costly back-shop employees.

Where is the similar investment in human capital? In new editorial products? In cross-platform innovation and integration, both for editorial and advertising? It is all but non-existent. Investment by newspapers in newsroom training is about a third of the national average and newspapers are getting thumped in the battle for classifieds by online operations like eBay and Craigslist because they failed to understand early on, and therefore invest in, the revenue potential of the web.

The second point above is critical. Meyer points out that the newspaper revenue model changed dramatically in the second half of the last century, shifting from a dependence on retail advertising (local display ads), which comprised 57 percent of revenue in 1950, to a reliance on classified (local help wanted, real estate and automotive ads), which comprised 40 percent of revenue in 2000.

Classified advertising is highly cyclical. It rises during good times as more jobs are available and more houses are being sold, and it falls during bad times when the reverse is true.

Classified lineage has been eroding for some time, a decline accelerated by newspapers' reflexive response to the challenge: Raising prices and lowering quality, which in the case of classifieds mean to charge more per line of advertising while circulation is dropping. Instead of more for less, which an organization likes Craigslist offers (free ads for most people; a flat $75 for help-wanted), newspapers, accustomed to holding monopoly positions in their markets, offered less for more.

Meyer reaches into what surely must be the voluminous files on the newspaper business he's assembled over the decades for a 1982 report by an investment analyst who describes, with satisfaction, the "aggressive pricing" by newspapers "especially in one-newspaper markets." In the literature of business, the term "aggressive pricing" means lower pricing. Not so in the 800-pound gorilla newspaper model. Meyer explains:

"That's because most industries are competitive, and a price cut is an aggression against the competition. Newspapers, being mostly monopolies, direct their price aggression against their customers instead of each other."

Got that? "Aggression against their customers."

Still, Meyers asserts, despite decades of neglect of customer and reader, newspapers have two assets upon which to draw in the fight for the future: Habit and Trust. Anecdotally, he offers this:

"A good newspaper, some sage once observed, is like a fine garden. It takes years of hard work to build and years of neglect to destroy."

In the short term, the habit of newspaper readership, which eroding, will continue, at least for this generation. And advertisers, accustomed to newspapers, will continue to buy page space, at least until substitute forms of media provide greater return on their investments.

In the long term, Meyers lays out a scenario that appeals to me: If we believe newspapers are not in the news business, but in the influence business, "then the quickest way to gain influence is to become a trusted and reliable provider of information."

Newspapers can survive by selling trust, a commodity, says Meyer, that "in a busy marketplace lends itself to monopoly." I'm not so sure I agree with the monopoly component of that statement, but the logic holds true that trust is a key differentiator in a world of multiple choices. We have seen that in the emergence and ascendance of non-traditional news media and of personal media whose appeal to the consumer is transparency of purpose and authenticity of voice. Blogs, of course, exemplify this model, as does Craigslist, which purports no particular point of view other than the unconflicted belief in an open forum for conversation and commerce.

Trust, says Meyer, perhaps a bit too wishfully, can be the lighthouse that guides newspapers beyond the shoals of print into a sea of agnostic content produced for the good of the community. He writes:

"(Newspapers) would define themselves not by the physical nature of the medium, but by the trust that they have built up. And they would expand that trust by improving services to readers, hiring more skilled and writers and reporters, and taking leadership roles in fostering democratic debate."

Another word for trust is goodwill, which means the non-tangible assets of an enterprise. Meyer points out that the value of newspapers, defined by their sales prices, is only 20 percent physical (presses, trucks, etc.) and 80 percent goodwill (standing in the community based on their journalism and commercial influence).

Here's where it gets interesting. If newspapers "liquidate" that goodwill by gutting newsrooms and jacking up advertising rates, they open themselves to competition and replacement by new forms of media that are not shackled by the up-front capital costs of starting a newspaper. Internet news operations, blogging conglomerates, niche market newspapers - each challenge traditional newspapers on different fronts: Virtual (therefore cheaper) distribution; targeted content, measurable audience; narrow geographic focus. Meyer writes:

"The race to be the entity that becomes the institutional Walter Cronkite in any given market will not be confined to the suppliers of a particular delivery technology. How the information is moved … will not be nearly as important as the reputation of the creators of the content. Earning that reputation may require the creativity and courage to try radical new techniques in the gathering, analysis, and presentation of news."

Well, I quibble with the Walker Cronkite metaphor, but Meyer is correct in his detailed of what's needed: Creativity of content and of conception of what is news, and courage to take risks, fail, recover and risk again.

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Posted by Tim Porter at 09:13 AM

February 05, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 1: The Influence Model

In preparation for sharing a panel with Philip Meyer, the University of North Carolina journalism professor who has been a longtime advocate of the link between quality journalism and profitability, I'm reading his new book, "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," which sets out to prove that very point.

Meyer writes in the introduction (all emphasis is mine):

"This book is 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 of the present and the future. … The main value of the work that follows is that it offers a model for looking at the news business that supports our intuitive appreciation for quality and, most importantly, can be transferred to whatever strange forms of media will convey news in the future."

The Vanishing Newspaper addresses some fundamental questions about the newspaper business, including the soundness of the core business model in an age of media demassification, and has drawn considerable attention among journalism watchers (me included), partly because of Meyer's recent essay in the Columbia Journalism Review, "Saving Journalism."

Follow along, for chapter-by-chapter posts.

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 Hal Jurgensmeyer) that posits: Quality journalism increases social influence and credibility, which in turn drive circulation and profitability.

The 40-year calving of mass media into smaller and smaller chunks - a process accelerated exponentially by the growth of the Internet - has created a wealth of information that, quoting the Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon:

"... creates a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."

In less wonkish terms, consumers, inundated by wave upon wave of emerging media, are retreating from the mass and seeking refuge in niches that meet a basic need to know about the surrounding world but also satisfy a more specific desire for information about their particular interests.

How has the newspaper industry responded to these challenges and the declining market penetration that have resulted from them?

Badly, says Meyer.

"The main response of the newspaper industry to the threat of substitute technology (ed note: The inevitable disruptive force that attacks every industry) has been to reduce costs and raise prices." Further driven by increasing consolidation and short-term financial pressures, newspapers have done everything to fortify the bottom line but the one thing that may actually keep their influence strong: "Pay the costs of the radical experimentation needed to learn what new media forms will be viable." In other words, the industry has refused to take a short-term hit on its historical double-digit margins in order to invest in a chance for long-term survival.

The newspaper industry's drive for profit at the expense of good journalism - profits rose 207 percent between 1991 and 2000 while newsroom budgets crept upward only 3 percent in the same period - feeds a cycle that "will in time erode public trust, weaken societal influence, and eventually destabilize circulation and advertising. So why would anyone want to cut quality?"

Good question. One answer, says Meyer, is that there are "many bad newspapers" that make money. Another, he suggests, is that some news companies are, in the words of Harvard professor Michael Porter, "harvesting market position." Meyer explains this tactic in his Columbia Journalism Review essay:

"Managers do it by raising prices and reducing quality so they can shell out the money and run. I know of no newspaper companies that are doing this consciously, but the behavior of most points in this direction: smaller news hole, lighter staffing, and reduced community service, leading, of course, to fading readership, declining circulation, and lost advertising. Plot it on a graph, and it looks like a death spiral."

Meyer is not all gloom. He finds a few photons of sunshine in the connection between community journalism and credibility. "Smallness in size contributes to credibility, which in turn aids" penetration, he writes, and from this comes advice for editors of larger newspapers:

"They can at least try to imagine way to manage a larger newspaper that would yield some of the effects of a smaller community. Zoning is one obvious way. Encouraging citizen participation in the affairs of the larger community, a goal of the civic journalism movement, is another."

There are other ways, of course, some of which I tossed out in raw format in Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System, and all require a fundamental re-examination of the way newspapers do journalism. Traditional antidotes like zoning may produce short-term readership and advertising successes, but they fail to address the inherent structural and cultural issues of newspaper newsrooms that inhibit the bold thinking necessary to transform newspapers from an institutional on the verge of complete disruption into one willing risk substantial investment in its own relevance.

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Posted by Tim Porter at 11:23 AM | Comments (2)

February 04, 2005

Using Journalism, Not Stenography to Reconnect with Readers: A Guest Letter

When Perry Parks, a former newspaper reporter and editor who is now the adviser to the student newspaper at Michigan State University, wrote a letter to Romenesko the other day offering solutions to help reconnect daily journalism with the needs of readers, I knew I had found a kindred soul.

I emailed Perry to ask if I could republish his letter because Romenesko doesn't have permanent links on letters and Perry's thoughts on the ingrown nature of modern newspaper journalism and its disengagement from readers are well worth keeping in circulation.

Perry singles out the institutional focus of most news coverage - "they write for their institutional sources and their peers rather than for fellow citizens" - as one of the dehumanizing demons that drives readers away. He's right. Try this little test yourself: Keep a week's worth of the metro section of your local paper. At the end of the week, count the number of stories in the section. How many are about meetings, policies, political debates, regulations, courts actions or crimes? I suspect about half to two-thirds. Most will be routine reports that fail to provide context, explanation or insight into these daily grindings of government. This is not journalism. This is stenography.

Here is Perry's letter. All the bold-face emphasis is mine. Clink on the link to read the whole thing.

Perry Parks:

I'm the Michigan State University newspaper adviser to whom The Daily Northwestern's Elaine Helm refers in her letter, so perhaps I can help answer some of Valerie Gregory's questions about ways of engaging younger readers -- really all readers -- in newspaper journalism.

The question arises from the groundswell of legitimate media criticism that newspaper journalists have lost touch with their audiences -- that they write for their institutional sources and their peers rather than for fellow citizens; that they focus on inside baseball rather than public problems; that they emphasize political style and strategy rather than the substance and impact of policy proposals; that, in a desperate quest to produce what they perceive readers "want," they fail to produce what readers need to participate in democracy.

In the three years I've been an educator after leaving a daily newspaper -- The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk -- which spent the better part of the '90s pursuing creative solutions to these problems, I've been trying to help students recognize and overcome the disconnect that is modeled for them in most of the professional press. I've been encouraging students to think deeply about what DOES motivate them to read and act, and transfer some of the successful reporting and presentation methods they see in magazines or newspaper sports and entertainment sections over to news coverage.

Solutions come in two major categories, I think:

1) Attacking news with the right priorities, which include showing how reader-citizens ultimately control the direction of public affairs; focusing on common problems and possible solutions to those problems rather than name-calling and political competition; reporting and writing about the impact of public policy on readers and peers; EXPLAINING how governmental processes work rather than just writing about the Planning Commission and expecting readers to get it; and giving readers information they can act on to make a difference, rather than treating them as a passive and helpless mass.

2) Writing and presenting news with a sense of authority, personality and -- if necessary -- attitude, to attract the attention of disinterested readers. Many college and professional newspapers do a wonderful job on sports and features pages breaking down complex information, writing informally and conversationally, using design and graphics to create interest. News pages, by contrast, often remain flat, bland, institutional and cold. A potential reader can look at a news headline about city government, Congress, the United Nations or what have you and get no inkling of where he or she fits into the story, why he should care, what she could do.

In covering the elections this fall, my students at The State News made a special point of writing from young people's perspectives. They convened a panel of undergraduates to watch the presidential debates, and reported on these students' reactions. They profiled students and recent graduates who were volunteering with campaigns and get-out-the-vote groups. They repeatedly ran detailed information about how to register to vote, how to get an absentee ballot, how to contact the campaigns. On the Opinion page, they ran a daily graphic with a different goofy reason students should turn out and vote. One election day, under the headline "No excuses," they ran a giant map of campus-area voting precincts so students could find their polling places. A recent survey by MSU's Institute on Public Policy and Social Research, whose results I don't quite believe but feel heartened by anyway, concluded that about 90 percent of Michigan State students voted -- well beyond the collegiate or general population totals. Even if this number is high by 10 or 20 points, it's good news. I can't prove, but would like to think, that my students' newspaper played a role in the turnout.

In short, working journalists today need to focus their energy on doing whatever it takes to connect readers with the important news of the day. There was a thread awhile back when Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi's personal e-mail about Iraq traveled the Internet circuit. Many people posting to this site were saying: This is the kind of raw, authentic, emotional stuff we need to see in the paper, so readers really get what's going on. Translate that idea of more authentic, more earnest, more meaningful reporting and writing to all aspects of covering public life.

Meanwhile, today's student journalists have to be thinking about how to reinvent journalism so that meaningful reporting can be made attractive to today's young people. This is not a call for dumbing down the news, but for encouraging some of the most savvy and civically committed young people to figure out how to spread their PASSION for public affairs to other young people. I don't know how to do this -- I'm not so young anymore, and I wasn't hip when I was young. Middle-aged people aren't going to solve this problem; only young people can. That's one of the messages of my presentations to college students.

Here's a good time for a commercial: I'm writing a book about this idea of making important news interesting. I'm searching for examples of newspaper public affairs coverage that is engaging, educational, inspirational, innovative and empowering. I need examples of local, state, national, world, business and opinion reporting, writing and presentation that are breaking the mold of bland, boring coverage and inviting people to be a part of the democratic process.

If you have any examples of this kind of journalism, please send them my way, to parksp@msu.edu.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:11 AM | Comments (2)

February 02, 2005

The Power of One

Over and over again I hear journalists bemoan the falling numbers in their newsrooms or shrinking size of their news hole. And they are right to do so. They are also right to pursue efforts to link quality journalism to higher profits. But that is not enough. Individual journalists need to take personal responsibility for the quality of their work and get beyond the question someone asked yesterday at a conference on homeland security reporting: What can one person do?

The answer is: Plenty.

The question was directed at Robert O' Harrow, the Washington Post reporter I mentioned yesterday who took a year's leave from the Post to write "No Place to Hide," a book about the growing security-industrial complex in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

O'Harrow was very animated in replying to the question: What can one journalist do? Here are some excerpts from my choppy notes:

 Independence: "What did Rachel Carson do? Set your own journalistic agenda. … We're advocates for openness of government and accountability … That's what we should be advocates for. … Go off on your own and within those journalistic constraints tell the story. … Where is the lack of accountability? Show that and lay it out for the reader."

 Persistence: "Take the heat when people say, 'Who gave you the right to write about this?' Say, 'Well the Constitution gave me the right.'" … Do the digging and take the pain. Be righteous form a journalistic perspective."

 Focus: "You can only do one thing at a time. … Just do that and then do the next thing."

 Dream: "You have one life, one career, you might as well shoot for the stars." Maintain the traditional values of journalism but give in to the voice that says, "I want to be romantic here."

These are great pieces of advice for individual journalists - be dogged, follow truth, think big - as well as for newspapers as organizations, which, sadly, too often lack these qualities.

O'Harrow burns with the passion to do great journalism and he does not let himself be deterred by conventional obstacles. Yes, he works for the Post, which has a sizable staff and it affords him the time to report deeply, but O'Harrow says he worked the same way on smaller papers and there is no reason to doubt that.

Interestingly, O'Harrow's desire to tell the story he wanted to tell to as broad an audience as possible led him to the Center for Investigative Reporting and to collaborate with a radio and a television producer to create documentaries about the subject in both those media. You can listen to the radio piece here. There is a lesson in this approach, as well, for newspapers: Extend the journalism beyond the paper; collaborate; think multi-media (not just web) from the beginning.

The core message I take from O'Harrow is this: Quality journalism requires passion and persistence. These are characteristics that can't be downsized.

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:54 AM | Comments (3)

February 01, 2005

Know Thy Customer

I'm at a conference for a few days in San Francisco in connection with the Institute for Justice and Journalism. At a kick-off reception last night, we watched the documentary "No Place to Hide," based on the book of the same name written by Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow Jr.

While the piece, originally broadcast on ABC and narrated by Peter Jennings, was a bit squishy around the edges -- made so by Jennings being struck with an acute case of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand-itis -- it showed both the power of data collection and the potential for abuse.

I thought of Nowhere to Hide this morning when I was reading this Alan Mutter's post on Newsosaur about the waning power of newspaper advertising and the medium's subsequent loss of appeal to advertisers like Home Depot.

Alan quotes Deutsche Bank analyst Paul Ginocchio:

"Due to retailers capturing more customer data via in-house credit cards, loyalty programs and online sales, retailers now have much more information about their customers. As direct mail and online ad results are much more auditable and tangible, they are going to capture ever-larger allocations of ad budgets.

"If newspapers are not able to segment more precisely, make themselves more measurable and help retailers reach their overlapping customers (via comparing databases and by household-by-household targeting), then newspapers will continue to lose retailers' ad dollars."

In other words, just as the journalists who work at newspapers have fallen out of touch with their communities, so have the advertising teams not mined the market for the data advertisers demand these days.

The result, says Gnocchi: Newspapers provide one of the worst returns on investment for advertisers of all media.

Mass media is fast disappearing in the rear-view mirror. Ahead is the age of massless media, an environment that requires variable business models and flexible content that can support them. Unfortunately for newspapers, "variable" and "flexible" are not two of their better qualities.

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:50 AM | Comments (1)