The problem with journalism is not only the business model

News

This article in the Society of Professional Journalists’ publication Quills is dead on.

Is journalism’s main problem the failing business model? The sub-headline makes it perfectly clear where the authors of this piece stand:

Rather than slapping a fresh coat of paint on the business model, perhaps there’s a bigger problem: the cracked foundation  

This pretty much sums it up:

“If we really want to reconstruct American journalism, we need to look at more than the supply side; we need to explore the demand side, too.” Schaffer points out that news workers too often fail to see how their role may be contributing to journalism’s problems. She asks, “What ailing industry would look for a fix that only thinks of ‘us,’ the news suppliers, and not ‘them,’ the news consumers?” 

I have previously noted this issue as have many others. I think we have a point.

Let’s imagine an analogous example in a non-media industry. Let’s imagine, for instance, that large numbers of people stopped buying Coca-Cola products. Let’s say that the drop-off in sales was so extreme that it caused entire distribution plants to be shuttered, mass layoffs, etc. What kinds of things do you think Coca-Cola executives would do? I bet some of the things they would do would be market research to determine why exactly people stopped using their product and what product they are using instead. Do news organizations do similar analyses of their readers/viewers/listeners? If they do, they’re not doing it enough and they are not making strategic decisions as a result of their findings.

The article goes on:

Thinking about “them” — what New York University Professor Jay Rosen [linking is mine] has called “the people formerly known as the audience” — is as vital as pondering new economic models for journalism. In fact, it is mandatory for a more relevant journalism for two reasons: 1) news consumers indicate they see traditional journalism as inaccurate; and 2) news consumers are increasingly asserting that they have a role in defining what is credible news. 

All I can say is AMEN.

And yet, I sense that there is still resistance in many newsrooms to thinking this way and approaching news gathering this way. There are some great examples of this changing, but they are few and far between. 

Why does the news media have such trouble with this? The SPJ piece suggests what I think many people have already started to sense – that journalists are so caught up in staying objective and professional (whatever that means), that they lose touch with their audience:

“Too often, the focus of professionalism rests in an approximation of a scientific, we-give-you-the-facts approach that reveals a worldview divorced from citizens’ concerns and sensibilities.”

Being professional and ethical is great, but not when it distances you from the people consuming the news you produce. And as for journalists’ vaunted objectivity, that too needs to be reconsidered:

Journalists must rethink objectivity, as Brent Cunningham urged in a 2003 article in the Columbia Journalism Review. He noted, in a world of spin, a “particular failure of the press: allowing the principle of objectivity to make [the press] passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it.” 

In other words, almost anyone can do the simple task of recording what happened when and who said what. Not everyone can (or should) take up the task of explaining what it means or put it into a larger context. This is the task that journalists must passionately tackle and it is a task that cannot be done without knowing what matters to their audience. Many journalists just don’t seem to know what that is.

Finally, the piece talks about the next generation of news gatherers, the digitally savvy grads who can blog, shoot video and are adept with social networks. These technical innovations are all good and well, the authors reason, but they alone cannot take journalism where it needs to go. That culture change must occur in newsrooms themselves:

Attacking the problems with objectivity, then, begins in the newsroom. A bevy of new young journalists equipped to use the latest technology won’t help journalism’s credibility problems if the culture of the newsroom continues to emphasize treating news as a lecture instead of a conversation. Newsrooms need a new orientation toward news work. Instead of objectivity, journalism needs to take a side —the side of the public, and what it needs from the news to help daily life go well.

Here in Chicago, it’s happening at one of our major dailies, but not at the other. It’s also happening in other mediums like radio or even online. Here’s hoping it starts to happen more and more.

 

 

10 Comments

  1. Anonymous June 6, 2010

    Right on. I don’t understand why some news organizations are so afraid to change the way they do things. There’s a real need to increase engagement, conversation, and taking the public’s opinions into account. It is a new world for journalism and you’re absolutely right that the fundamental issues go far beyond the business model debate.

  2. Anna Tarkov June 6, 2010

    I have an answer for why these changes aren’t happening quickly enough in newsrooms. I think it’s because a lot of the people in decision-making capacities really have little to no firsthand knowledge of the technologies and tools that can facilitate this new kind of news gathering. I was at a journalism panel discussion once and there was a bigwig from the Sun-Times on the panel. Someone asked him why the S-T doesn’t link out in their online stories. He seemed to think they did. It was left unresolved, but in a conversation with someone later, we had no choice but to conclude that he might not know what we meant by “linking out.” I’ve gotta believe that this guy isn’t the only one like this at major news orgs. So the bottom line is that the people who are in a position to make real organizational changes happen are not the same people that are having discussions like this one :-)

  3. Anonymous June 6, 2010

    Makes sense. I really think you’re onto something. It’s too bad though. It may take many years, but our generation will right the ways.

  4. Anna Tarkov June 6, 2010

    I hope you’re right!

  5. Anonymous June 6, 2010

    Great post, Anna. I totally agree, especially on the concerns over objectivity and professionalism. I think that journalists for a long time have been almost brainwashed to believe that they could be totally objective and unbiased, which I think is ridiculous. Every person has biases, and that’s completely natural. It doesn’t need to be covered up – only acknowledged.

    I remember talking to colleague in the 2008 election. He explained that he had just gotten an Obama bumper sticker, but he wasn’t going to put it on his car because he had to remain objective and appear professional. I explained that I thought it was more professional to at least be upfront about what you believe. So the guy liked Obama? Plenty of people did, especially seeing that he was elected president :) Why do his readers need to be sheltered from that information? Don’t they deserve to be informed about his biases, and take them into account when reading his work?

    There’s a very paternalistic attitude in journalism: we know what’s news, we know how to write it, we know what you should think about it. The problem isn’t that people have become unengaged – people are more engaged with the world than ever! The problem is, they’ve become less engaged with the boring stuff we’re producing that isn’t relevant to the world we live in.

    Sorry for the rant. All of that to say: Right On!

  6. Anna Tarkov June 6, 2010

    Great point @mmcottrell. By the way, even your comments are well-written :-)

    I too have always disliked the veneer of objectivity on journalism and I think, as the original SPJ piece points out, the general public dislikes it as well. That’s one of the reasons political blogs are so popular. People like knowing exactly where an author is coming from.

    Let’s be honest. Everyone has a bias and it’s better to have it out in the open than to hide it. I’ll never forget how my father once compared anti-Semitism in the former USSR with anti-Semitism here in the US. He said that in a way he preferred the USSR, because there it was institutional and thus out in open. Here it’s hidden.

    It’s the same with political, racial, gender and other biases. Let’s just all admit we have them and state them honestly. Personally I think every byline should have an (R) or a (D) or (I) next to it if the reporter is covering anything remotely political. After all, politicians have that letter attached to their names. It could be based on how the reporter has voted in, say, the last 4 elections. And if they haven’t voted, that should be indicated as well. After all, reporters champion transparency in government so they should have no problem applying the same standard to their reporting.

    In short, let’s stop pretending that we are some sort of superhuman species that is able to have no opinions. What’s more important is to present both sides of an issue fairly and accurately.

  7. Anonymous June 6, 2010

    Honestly, I don’t think the issue is whether or not “journalists” need a new perspective, it’s whether or not their managers/publishers do. From what I can tell, most folks in the news media business think they’re either in the television or newspaper business, not the news business – or more accurately, the selling-advertising-to-people-who-want-news business.

    Now that I’ve been through two rounds of looking for editors for Center Square Journal, what I see is there are plenty of flexible journalists who just want to write good copy. But there seem to be too few publishers who understand how to make a product that people will want to buy.

  8. Anna Tarkov June 6, 2010

    I totally agree @vouchey. I made a similar point in my second comment where I said that the trouble seems to be with the people in management roles. I think that in journalism, like in many other industries, the people with the bright ideas aren’t necessarily able to put those ideas into practice on their own or to convince someone in management to try something new. Journalism seems to overall be a more risk-averse and change-averse industry than many others. Also, since some media companies are gigantic, they face the same difficulties other large companies do when implementing changes. Small companies are always going to be more nimble and so are small/independent publications.

  9. Anonymous May 4, 2011

    This is an excellent article, and the intelligence behind the discussions posted here really make me quite pleased. I am a college student, about to graduate with a BS in Journalism, and I personally prefer the British style of journalism much better than ours. They are allowed to write out their personal opinions in the story, but still try to remain fair in their coverage. And, looking at BBC articles vs. almost any american newspaper, it is easy to see who is less biased in the long run. I definitely understand why American journalism attempts to be unbiased, and I applaud the idea. However, those biases are always going to be there and it would be better to just state them and get it over with. That way readers could judge the information better.

    Again, thanks for the very informative article!

  10. Anonymous August 31, 2012

    Not that so good, maybe we need to wait for few years, but still it will make right generation.

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