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One Person's View on How to Fix Newspapers

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by concernedjournalist, Mar 11, 2008.

  1. concernedjournalist

    concernedjournalist New Member

    I have been a journalist for more than 20 years and, like many, I am heartbroken by what has happened to our industry. I have watched and waited and hoped the business would find a way to rebound and remake itself in the internet age. But all I read about are layoffs, space cuts and stock price free falls. And nobody seems to have the answer.

    I don't pretend to have the answer, either. But like others, I have some suggestions. So I offer this as a starting point for a discussion.

    I would prefer to stay anonymous for now, if only to avoid the possibility that some will prejudge this based on who I am, and who I am not. I'd rather it be judged on its merit. Some will recognize my ideas, as I have discussed them with others from time to time. No, I am not involved in any of the current threads on the subject, but they certainly did spur me to write down these ideas I have been thinking about for some time.

    Also, I assume throughout that the focus for newspapers going forward is on the web product, as I think we all will agree that it is the future of our industry.

    With that in mind, here's my list of ways to fix newspapers (apologies for the length):

    1. No other website can offer your readers your masthead, a reputation built on 100 years of journalism (plug in the number for your paper) and the people who know your community, politicians, sports teams and history. That's what newspapers should be marketing, and yet they do the opposite. They dump the local publisher who knows the community. Then they bring in an outsider who lays off their most experienced reporters because they cost more, and replaces them with Johnny College or, these days, with wire copy. Neither wire copy nor rookies with no name value in the community will draw readers to your site. And it's all about web hits, right? So why not give readers what cnn.com, espn.com and yahoo.com can't? Give them your unique expertise. Tell them there is only one place they can go on the web to find that unique voice about their town, city or community. I don't know if the Detroit Free Press still does this, but the paper used to advertise its writers as the draw: "Read Mitch Albom in the Free Press" - snide comments aside, please - or "Read John Lowe," etc. They hired many memorable writers and touted them to draw a distinction from the Detroit News. TV does it all the time ("Watch Anderson Cooper, 360.")

    The message: Your people are your best draw and your sales pitch. So why in the world are you eliminating them? It would be like the New York Times dumping Frank Rich or Thomas Friedman. It'll save some money. But those guys drive traffic to their site.

    2. Readers who have become accustomed to certain writers probably will follow them to the web. But readers and especially young readers want more than that now, and the web offers an infinite variety of ways to deliver it. Unfortunately, newspapers aren't adept at anything other than print journalism, and they have been too slow to adapt. Instead of contraction as a response to falling advertising, this should be an era of expansion in an effort to capture all of those young readers who are sponges for information and are turning to the internet en masse to get it. Newspapers should be hiring the best television news producers in their markets to augment their web sites (just as television stations should be vying to hire the best print reporters in their market to augment their presumably more video-savvy, content-weak sites as well). With TV savvy producers, you will have the best video reports in the market to drive web hits - using your reporters who will continue to build their print following, make names for themselves and drive viewership.

    3. Beyond that, newspapers also should be expanding staff to accommodate the 24 hour news cycle. If you want to be the place to go for information, then you have to have that information constantly updated as sites like cnn.com do.

    4. There is a trend in the industry to go hyperlocal in content. The theory is that readers or viewers can go anywhere for information on subjects of regional and national interest, so newspapers are trying to provide service and information on news only of local interest. They see that as their unique niche. I think it's a huge, huge mistake. By eliminating coverage that is deemed redundant in the internet marketplace and going hyperlocal, you announce to your readers and viewers that they will have to go elsewhere on the web to follow the rest of their international/national/regional interests. Why in the world would any web site that charges advertisers based on how many hits it gets, tell readers to go elsewhere for information? Here's an example: Bean counters are cutting back or eliminating NASCAR beats at newspapers throughout the south with many plugging in wire copy in their place and offering only token occasional coverage. The assumption: "People can get NASCAR coverage anywhere. It's not something unique to our market." But the voice that your own writer provides is unique. NASCAR fans read Orlando for Ed Hinton (or they used to); people read Atlanta for Rick Minter, etc. Not all. But some readers do seek out writers they are familiar with, don't you think? Besides, how in the world can wire copy generate the same web hits? You can get wire copy anywhere; there's no reason in the world to go to your site for it. You should be working to make your website a destination, not giving readers fewer reasons to go there. All of those newspapers that have dumped their national writers are ceding that audience to other web sites. It just makes no business sense to me to cut beats and offer less if you're trying to build readership and web hits.

    5. Yes, I know. You can't cover everything. You can't hire masses of reporters to go national. Only ESPN.com and a few others can do that. But once you have established your unique voice on a beat that matters to your readers and given them a reason to go to you, then you should supplement the articles and categories with links, links and more links. If you're the New York Daily News, be the one-stop shop for the NFC East. Give your readers everything they need to know about the Giants. Then link your readers to Philly, Dallas and D.C. Link to SI.com or ESPN.com. Link to the best blogs. Remember, you're making it easier for your NFL fans to get their fill without having to find the links themselves. They'll come back to you, because you have all local content and all the links they want. I know some will argue that you can go hyperlocal and link to everything else. But hyperlocal isn't going to be enough to draw the readers in the first place. The more local, unique voices you can add to your site, the more people will be drawn specifically to your site.

    I'm also sort of trying to follow the model of Google, and here's my thinking. I used to go to dogpile.com for searches, because it provided links to 10 different search engines. I figured one of them would get me where I wanted to go. But I eventually moved on to google.com because I didn't want 10 search engines in one. I wanted one search engine that took me everywhere I wanted to go. Google is your one-stop shop for searches. Google is the gatekeeper. Why can't newspapers follow a similar model for success? Be the first stop for readers and give them a reason to keep coming back because you give them what they want in local coverage (again, beyond the tiny niche of hyperlocal), and then are their expert guide because you know your audience and you know the best places for them to get the rest of their information nationally/internationally. If they can go to one site - yours - to get the local unique voices they know and are comfortable with, and then links to all the national stuff, they will keep coming back to you first.

    6. Don't charge for web content...yet. The industry hasn't built itself up enough to succeed that way in the short term. That's why a site like nytimes.com dropped the fee it had been charging to read its columnists online. The paper apparently found it could make more money on the added web hits if it allowed readers to read columnists for free. Build up your site, make it the destination it should be, and then maybe in the future there will be a chance to charge for content. Or maybe not. It's hard to look that far ahead.

    7. Accountability and Credibility. I think this is the one crucial area that has received the least attention in trying to regain readers. I've seen surveys that rank media in the same category or even below used car salesmen in trustworthiness. As an industry, we have an image and a credibility problem and we've earned it. It will get worse in time unless it is addressed. So we have to try to regain our authority.

    Here's my grandiose plan (I actually forwarded this idea a year ago to a former journalist who is now in academia, but never heard back. I know it's over the top, and an impossibility, but just hear me out):

    I believe the heads of the great journalism programs in the country, from Columbia to Missouri, Northwestern, Syracuse, Georgia, Penn, Michigan State, UCLA and the rest, should get together with folks at the Poynter Institute and the Society of Professional Journalists for an unprecedented journalism summit. Bring in some retired giants of the industry to participate as well, those with impeccable ethics. And once you've got them in a room, this group will create the new, nonprofit Fourth Estate Foundation For America.

    The Fourth Estate will:

    a. Set a standard for all media to follow, an A to Z of ethics rules, bringing together the best ideas from all the different standards out there today. The ethics guide will be given to every journalist registered as a member of the Fourth Estate Foundation For America, and it will be required reading for any student studying journalism.

    b. Create a process that will allow newspapers to pay dues (thus funding the foundation along with grants) and join as official members of the Fourth Estate who vow to uphold the Rules of Ethics for Professional Media. There will be a process of accreditation and the possibility of being fined or stripped of accreditation if a committee formed to monitor the media finds a newspaper, internet site, or television or radio station in flagrant violation of these Rules. Being stripped should be like the death penalty in NCAA sports - it should have a dramatic enough impact on a newspaper's standing in the community and among peers that newspapers will work diligently to avoid it.

    c. Create a lobbying group to push state and federal officials to enact laws protecting journalists. And do so in part by working to make a public connection between mastheads and the mission of the media as a watchdog for the public interest. Yes, it's PR. But people need to understand the importance of the media as watchdog in a democracy.

    d. Issue a joint statement from the Directors of the Fourth Estate acknowledging that public corporate ownership of media and the Wall Street pressures that go with it are antithetical to the mission of newspapers. And then the Fourth Estate should reward newspapers that voluntarily put up a wall between their business/advertising departments and editorial, and reward those who put journalists in charge of editorial instead of bean counters.

    e. Create a workgroup for each media. For newspapers, examine ideas that will aid the industry in the transition from print to online delivery and find ways to come together to capitalize on it (maybe, eventually, even a radical industry-wide movement to eliminate free access). For the internet, a set of guidelines even for bloggers to adhere to (like it or not, they're only going to grow). For television and radio, ways to use the internet to move the industry back toward issues journalism instead of focusing all coverage on the latest car wreck video.

    f. Be a source for information and resolution of ethical conflicts. Officials at the Fourth Estate will issue public rebukes of media that are involved in ethical conflicts, such as the local publisher blatantly using the newspaper as a tool to push for a favorable vote on a referendum and using the news staff to write deliberately biased articles on the subject. The Fourth Estate also would be the place to go to make complaints about plagiarism and other violations, because it will investigate and issue findings.

    g. The Fourth Estate will create a Hippocratic Oath for Journalists, a simple statement of acknowledgment by all those in the industry that they will adhere to the ethical tenets and pledge to uphold their mission to be watchdogs for the public interest.

    h. All would-be journalists would be required to take a course on ethics before becoming reporters (not quite the bar exam for lawyers, but along those lines). If you pass the course, you become a member in good standing of the Fourth Estate. Every few years, journalists will have to take follow-up tests to maintain their standing as card-carrying members of the Fourth Estate. Newspapers would be rewarded for hiring reporters who are members.

    What is needed here is a massive undertaking to re-establish the Fourth Estate as something more than a profit-only industry, an industry that acknowledges and embraces its very special role and understands why it is mentioned in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The Fourth Estate Foundation for America will be a one-stop source for all things related to the industry, maybe something with the national name recognition of the American Medical Association, although not just a protectionist lobby, but more in the sense of a national supervisory organization that answers to all issues involving journalism. And something with more authority, more visibility and more teeth than the Society of Professional Journalists.

    I'm sure there are a lot of reasons why my ideas won't work. But if something here can spark an idea in somebody who can make a difference, it will be worth it.

    To those who made it this far, thank you for taking the time to read this very long post. Now have at it.
  2. PeteyPirate

    PeteyPirate Guest

    The New York Times sports department has been doing all this for years.
  3. zagoshe

    zagoshe Well-Known Member

    I think Mr.scottnewman has better ideas to fix this industry
  4. Clever username

    Clever username Active Member

    That's got to be the record for longest first post.
  5. Mizzougrad96

    Mizzougrad96 Active Member

    That's interesting since the NYT has played a crucial role in why journalists are no longer trusted...
  6. BRoth

    BRoth Member

    Completely agree on the hyperlocal thing, to an extent. I do think that it's going to help sell papers, or at least keep people interested, so it's needed. However, I hate the fact that papers will ignore other big news or interesting regional stories just because it doesn't happen in the small, specific coverage area of the Anytown Times.

    People care about hyperlocal issues, but who's to say they don't care about things happening a couple hours away? Maybe it's just a point of connecting the dots between the two places and everyone can be happy.

    Oh, and blogs.
  7. mustangj17

    mustangj17 Active Member

    The google example represents a different picture to me.

    Nobody uses smallers search engines because they have it all.

    Nobody goes to their city paper for news because they can go to USA Today (or something similar).
  8. Joe Williams

    Joe Williams Well-Known Member

    Cheese and Slim Charles had a better chance of making their co-op work than a bunch of print journos and academicians do of smoothly running a Fourth Estate consortium. Half of us are contrarians and the other half would, of course, disagree with that.
  9. Ben_Hecht

    Ben_Hecht Active Member

    . . . much of which can be laid squarely at the feet of Raines and Keller.
  10. captzulu

    captzulu Member

    So who exactly would take this consortium of academics, Poynter, and SPJ seriously?

    Working Journalists? Considering what many of them think of academia and Poynter, I don't see how a consortium involving those two and SPJ (of which I don't know anyone who is a member) would be taken seriously even by people within the industry. And given that, it is unrealistic to think that working journalists would ever agree to have such a group give out "accreditations" on whether they are qualified to work in the business.

    Newspaper owners? They will simply tune out this consortium, especially if it is condemning corporate ownership as antithetical to the mission of journalism.

    Government officials? What incentive would they have to protect journalists? Why would they have any motivation to protect people whose job it is to keep a close eye on their every move and point out what they are doing wrong? The only reason they would have for protecting journalists is if they think their constituencies would demand it. But considering that much of the public dislikes or even flat out hates the media, protecting members of the media would really have no benefits to a politician.

    The public? Maybe. But as the OP said, the public's perception of journalists isn't exactly sparkling. Part of that comes from some of the mistakes the business has made, but part of that also comes from the role that journalists play. You're never going to be all that chummy with the community if your job involves, inevitably, presenting stories and viewpoints that don't agree with everyone. A group of box factory workers get laid off, they have the community's sympathy. A group of journalists get laid off, and at least half the reaction from the community would be along the lines of "about time they got rid of that a-hole of a columnist" or "these lie-spreading bastards got what they deserved". In the face of that, I can't see the public really latching on to this consortium, especially once they realize that the other groups mentioned don't care about it either.

    So, if journalists, media owners, government, and public won't take this consortium seriously, what exactly will it be good for? They could maybe issue guidelines for ethics and hope people would actually look at them, but as far as real power, like doling out rewards, punishment, and accreditation, I just don't see it.
  11. concernedjournalist

    concernedjournalist New Member

    Who will make the Fourth Estate work? The only chance would be for corporate ownership to go all in. It has plenty of incentive. Newspapers are in a death spiral. Look at the circulation thread. The more they cut back on staff and content, the less reason they give readers to buy or click, the more severe the circulation/web hit drops will be. And it will go on and on. Either corporate ownership changes its model, or these newspapers will be worthless. Some of them already are.

    Here's why I think they have some incentive to buy into the Fourth Estate: the idea I already put forth. Eventually, they can combine forces to charge for web content when it is feasible to do so. And raise ad rates for web hits. In a way, that's what the music industry did not too long ago to reverse free song swapping. Industry leaders joined forces, sued, muscled and bought out the Napsters of the net, and regained control of online music delivery. Newspapers have to do the same to gain control of online content. But right now, there are so many of them and no mechanism for them to get together and work together on a common goal: survival. The Fourth Estate is a way to get them working together, and a way for them to establish much needed credibility at the same time.
  12. rpmmutant

    rpmmutant Member

    The purpose and responsibility of the Fourth Estate is a great ideal. But it is not a right. It is a privilege. I think that gets lost on journalists. It is protected in the Bill of Rights. The right to express a dissenting opinion or communicating information, however insignificant, is guaranteed. That will never go away.
    What will go away is those willing to do it out of duty rather than compensation.
    One question I have is: Would any of us do what we do if we didn't get paid to do it? Is that the motivation? Perhaps not the sole motivation, but it is one, and that makes the ideals of the Fourth Estate tainted.
    We all have to make a living, but nowhere is it guaranteed that it has to be in journalism.
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