Newspapers: Defending the indefensible

Newspapers and the postal service are in a tug-of-war over couponsWhat happens when one industry in disruption runs into a business conflict with another industry in disruption? Think of two huge carnivores fighting over a third helpless beast at the tar pits of LeBrea.

An editorial in the Madison Eagle newspaper of Bernardsville, NJ last week caught my attention, because it provides a new enemy for newspapers — the United States Postal Service (USPS) — and proposes the same tired refrain of a threat to freedom, if something isn’t done about it. Last month, the Postal RegulatoryCommission approved a three-year discount deal to boost use of the mail system by Valassis Communications, which sends mass coupon mailings to homes under its RedPlum brand. Newspapers opposed the deal, because it cuts into “their” value proposition on delivering coupons via the Sunday paper.

I get that this is yet another rug being pulled out from under the newspaper business, but I object to the industry’s defense, as spelled out beautifully in the Eagleeditorial:

To newspapers that count on advertising to pay its reporters and cover the news, this USPS plan is beyond alarming – it’s a threat to journalism and an informed public. Many think it will push some newspapers in America already struggling with a fragile economy and Internet competition over the edge.

If that or anything like it happens, communities across our country will suffer the most long-term harm.

…We don’t fear the Internet; we are using it, and it is vastly expanding our ability to inform the public up-to-the-minute.

But, two things to keep in mind: The most reliable and comprehensive news on the Internet is posted by journalists who work for print newspapers. Anything that weakens those newspapers will have a negative ripple effect on access to solid, accurate news on the Web.

And two: This is a media age not only in revolution, but in transition, to a future no one can fully describe. There are still many readers who aren’t satisfied that the news has really been reported and disseminated “until it’s in print.”

I’m especially struck anytime I read such hubris as: “The most reliable and comprehensive news on the Internet is posted by journalists who work for print newspapers.” Let’s ask the Pulitzer Prize winning Huffington Post about that.

Do newspapers truly believe stuff like this, that they are so important to freedom in the U.S. that their loss would be a threat to an informed public? In a capitalist economy, the powers that be simply say, “Cry me a river,” for only fit businesses are allowed to thrive. Fifteen years ago, newspapers had a virtual monopoly on classifieds, display advertising, and coupons. As each one has been stripped away, the industry has chosen not to compete with the disruptors, but instead do nothing except cry “foul” and offer a threat to freedom as the consequences of their doom.

As Lisa Williams famously wrote in 2008: “Journalism will survive the death of its institutions.” Do I really need to go into the ways it’s already happening?

Carl Bernstein: Citizens are the scourge of the era

Carl Bernstein

Carl Bernstein

I just watched a rather remarkable Guardian video with Watergate superstar reporter Carl Bernstein in which he puts on his best Jimmy Carter mask and blames the people for the problems he helped create.

Here’s my transcription of the audio:

The question is how would that information (investigative reporting) be received today by citizens. The more time I spend thinking about this question, the more dangerous factor, I think, is a citizenry that has become inured to truth, that has become so politicized that it is unwilling, or unthinking in terms of desiring truth, but rather believes it already knows the truth.

The American system worked in the case of Nixon, because a consensus was formed around Richard Nixon, partly based on our reporting, that Nixon had to go, because he was a criminal President. In our history in this country, there usually has been a consensus about what basic facts are, from which we can have a public debate, going back to the debate over what the Constitution of the United States would be when we were a new nation.

There’s no longer a basic consensus about the facts. You can’t get a consensus about what the basic demographics of the country are even, because people are ill-informed and too many people don’t have a desire to be well-informed; they would rather have more ammunition for what they already believe. So I think that that is the scourge of our era, much more than what, I think, conventional wisdom has become, which is just the decline of investigative reporting, again in quotes, or of newspapers. I don’t think that. I think it’s the decline of a willing citizenry.

Upon completion of the above, the star-struck reporter arises, only to have Bernstein beam with pride and inject: “A little different answer than you usually get, I think.” That’s right, Carl. Most thinking people know better than to blame the audience for problems the press has created by itself and for itself.

So let’s see if I’ve got this right. There’s no consensus today, because we all think that spin is truth. We’re ill-informed, because we don’t have a desire to be informed, which certainly suggests to me that Bernstein thinks “citizens” are stupid, and worse, that it’s our own fault. I mean, it’s one thing to be called stupid, but quite another to suggest that it is so because we’re unwilling to be taught.

Or could it be that — among many other factors — the press has brought this spin-is-truth idea on itself through its insistence that there is no truth, only “sides” in a barrage of what Jay Rosen calls “he said/she said” reporting? I mean, how can there be consensus in a world where there’s only “sides?”

This whole business of the decline and reinvention of journalism is complex and multi-faceted. Journalism will survive, but such disdain for the people formerly known as the audience will not and cannot be a part of it. “Citizens” who are trying to figure things out for themselves are in such a position, precisely because the press doesn’t have the cojones to work on their behalf.

Talk about stupid!

 

The Postmodern Journalist

Here’s the latest in my ongoing series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

The Postmodern Journalist

As the nature of media continues to evolve, questions of what news will be like in the future continue to spark debate. We have clarity in some areas – such as the shift to real time flows and streams – but other aspects are yet to be uncovered. Those of you who’ve followed my work over the years know that I believe a cultural change driven by a technologically-empowered bottom is what’s underway, and this essay examines – with a degree of specificity – what it will take to be a journalist in this new era. To me, the signs are everywhere, and evidence such as new data from Gallup about trust in institutions needs to be considered as something other than a momentary glitch in the progress of the West. I hope you enjoy and consider this piece thought-provoking at the very least.

Reporter job ad, circa June 2012

Jay Rosen (via Twitter) pointed me to this advertisement for a reporter in New Orleans. It’s from the NOLA Media Group, via NOLA.com, and it’s a far, far cry from reporter jobs posted when I was in “the biz.”

Job Details

The Reporter will report and produce news stories for various platforms, and act as a statewide expert and discussion leader on high-value topics, meeting audience demand for immediacy, depth and engagement.

  • Gather information and write journalistically sound news elements for use in all media platforms, existing and future, that is: balanced and factual; timely and topical; and, well –sourced and contextually correct
  • Learn and employ all techniques for effective digital “beat-blogging” reporting across all platforms
  • Post frequent and incrementally posting throughout the day
  • Engage in story aggregation and topical link-posting
  • Monitor and engage in reader comment streams on nola impact pages
  • Elevate comments into new posts when appropriate
  • Interact on social media platforms, with story shares, objective commentary, promoting your topic and news organization’s content initiatives
  • Effectively employ various means for monitoring audience interest and competitors’ posting on your topic, including setting up Google alerts, Twitter and RSS feeds
  • Maintain operational communication with editor and, when applicable, production center,
  • Understand and use hardware, software and cloud-based equipment and systems for direct-to-web production and engagement, including but not limited to:
  • Posting photographs and short videos to the web and any internal production systems
  • Remote web reporting, using laptops and smart phones
  • Understand and use our news organization’s audience traffic tracking systems and analytical reports
  • Meet production deadlines

Requirements

  •  Degree in Journalism or Communications or related field required
  • Minimum of 2 years of journalism experience with a proven ability in reporting and writing required
  • Proven experience building, maintaining and engaging an active audience
  • Ability to work independently under deadline pressure and prioritize tasks appropriately
  • Demonstrated reporting, writing and organizational skills
  • Solid understanding of news writing, journalistic ethics and story structure
  • Experience with search engine optimization practices
  • Experience with using social media to source and promote content a plus
  • Demonstrated capability in capitalizing on high-value topics by engaging audiences in frequency and urgency
  • Understanding of the methods and tools used to deliver content across a variety of platforms such as Moveable Type CMS, SCC Budgeting and Archiving System, Smartphones
  • Understanding imperatives of multiple platforms – print, mobile, Internet, etc.
  • Mastery of social media and digital interaction
  • Proven ability to utilize a broad set of tools to tell stories and engage the audience
  • Ability to leverage relationships with sources to deliver content that differentiates the organization from competitors
  • Ability to work independently and remotely

I suspect this will evolve even further as the news business itself continues to evolve. To quote (once again) Henry Adams, “The way of nature is change, but the dream of man is order.”

Reasons we (allegedly) don’t trust the press, #3,181

Toronto’s Eaton Centre Mall was the scene of a fatal shooting this morning, and the Wall St. Journal’s version (paywall) of the story reveals yet another reason why the press is detached from reality in the minds of consumers. Here’s the headline:

Toronto Police Search For Alleged Mall Shooter

The press badly overuses the term “alleged” as a way, they believe, to avoid liability in possible libel or slander cases. What this does, however, is make writers appear to be idiots. In the headline above, for example, if there was a shooting at the mall, and police are looking for the guy, there’s nothing “alleged” about it. There WAS indeed a shooting, but this headline makes me wonder.

In the copy of this article, the word is used twice, both times incorrectly:

Police searched Sunday for a man alleged to have opened fire in the crowded food court of a busy downtown shopping mall Saturday evening, killing one man, leaving seven others injured and shocking a city unaccustomed to such violence.”

A man actually did open fire, so there’s nothing alleged about it. If the article referred to a suspect by name, then it MIGHT be wise to use the term, but in the context of a general statement, there’s no need to drag out this old bag of meaninglessness to describe what’s taking place. “Joe Smith is alleged to have done this.” Nuff said.

Police said they are conducting a massive manhunt to capture the alleged killer.”

Again, there was a fatal shooting, and police are looking for the killer. Can we please drop this dreadful word?

This is the kind of conditioned responses we have to real, ongoing events. The language is off-putting and absurd, but we just keep on doing it, because we either don’t know any better or believe we can get away with allegedly treating our customers this way.

We need to get over ourselves

Business Insider PageThere it was, staring at me with remarkable clarity, a headline from Business Insider on the sad state of newspapers pared with a picture from the film “All The President’s Men,” the story of Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein, The Washington Post and, of course, Watergate. The irony? Evidence (Gallup) suggests that this event — the elevation of everyday journalists into superstar status — was the bellwether occurrence that began the downward slide of press trust in the U.S. Of course, you won’t hear contemporary journalists speak such heresy. After all, Woodward & Bernstein are the model of what it means to be the successful professional (a.k.a. “real”) journalist of today, and this is why BI used the photo.

The BI article examines new research from LinkedIn on sectors of the economy that are losing jobs.

On a percentage basis, newspapers shed the most jobs, down 28.4% between 2007 and 2011.

The good news: online publishing had job growth of 20.4%. But it didn’t add as many jobs as newspapers lost.

We’ve heard from thousands of insiders and outsiders, experts and armchair quarterbacks on what’s causing this decline, and all tell part of the story: disruptive innovations, Craigslist, the recession, failing to initially charge for content online, and so forth. But most of these are shortsighted, and the Gallup research is the only evidence that points to the origin of the decline in press trust in the country, and it begins shortly after Watergate.

I’ve written much about what I think happened, that journalism subtly shifted from a way from a career in which a single person could make a difference to one of riches and notoriety (see: “I love to be in front of cameras” below). The ability to hobnob with those they covered — and, therefore, gain status simply by rubbing elbows with the famous — became the wish of many of those who passed through the gates of accommodating journalism and communications schools. I witnessed this up close and personal in my own career. Employees who “wanted to be on TV” became the majority, and then there’s the ugly side of market-hopping, the slow shift from parochial news coverage to cosmopolitan news coverage in smaller markets as more and more Woodward & Bernstein wannabes expressed themselves for the sake of their resumes instead of the community they were supposed to be serving. How else do you explain stories of young TV reporters doing things like jumping a fence at a very small market airport to “prove” how easy it would be for a terrorist to do likewise? This kid got himself arrested, but that’s not the point.

Playing hotshot super sleuth in a place like that wasn’t even close to reporting news for the community, and the thing we’ve always failed to see about this is that people — you know, the audience — have been paying attention. It’s crystal clear to them that news people are in it for themselves and serve neither the public nor the profession. Beginning at the university level, an entire industry swung from making a difference to the quest for the big bucks (“quest,” because we never really got there, except for the few, right?), and the hell with what the audience might think.

This is why I wrote last week of the Great Winnowing that has begun, wherein the practice of journalism is having its way with a whole generation of misled practitioners. I have faith that the demand for journalism remains (and will be) strong and that people will earn a decent living at the end a really rough season for most.

Ego is a funny thing. It drives people to great personal risk, which can produce great rewards, but it can also create unrealistic expectations and turn normally sane people into preening peacocks of staggering insanity.

What has been our chief sin since Watergate? We just can’t seem to get over ourselves.