The Fundamental Truths of Our Business

By: Michael Bugeja For the past few years we have been experiencing declines in newspaper sales and subscriptions, wondering where readers have gone and hiring media consultants to help find them.

In May 2005, Michael Kinsley wrote a cheeky but chilling column, "The Press is in Decline," noting "an evil force" abducted our readers and predicting the last subscriber "will hang up on a renewal phone call that interrupts dinner on Oct. 17, 2016. And then it will be over." In May 2005 I wrote about the same subject for Editor & Publisher ("The Internet Trap"). Unlike Kinsley, I identified the evil force: consultants. "Don't we realize that our entire history is associated with the community, which we have abandoned because consultants in the dubious '' days told us to go online where the money was ? or risk extinction?"

The issue was not where readers but where reporters had gone. "There are few absolute rules in the newspaper business," I wrote, "but one is 'Know Thine Element.' You risk extinction when you are out of your element, and newspapers are out of theirs?physical place."

Two years later consultants are telling print reporters to carry video cameras so that they can record events on the street, promoting a bad broadcast method known as "the one-man band." The reporter operates without a camera person or producer, focusing on the lens rather than on the event or source.

But at least consultants finally realize the importance of the street beyond the Dow.

Because of the stock market, newsrooms layoffs and firings number now in the thousands. Traditional indicators continue to erode: Subscriptions are down; revenues, flat; and earnings, plummeting.

It is time to listen less to consultants and more to our conscience.

One of the veterans who emphasizes this is Alan Horton, former senior vice president for newspapers at The E. W. Scripps Company and now chairman of the Scripps Howard Foundation. "Somehow," he states, "we need to tap the wisdom of our readers, users, viewers, but not anonymously. It is amazing how much perspective they can provide, not to mention all of those additional facts they know but we don't."

Horton cautions us, however, "never to relinquish our editing responsibility no matter how difficult given today's technologies.

"Those of us who care ought to be trying to make sure we create ways -- and technologies -- for ethical editors to maintain control of the content they are in charge of producing. Interactivity is a fabulous tool or it's a catastrophic threat and a weapon of media credibility destruction. It?s our choice."

Interactivity creates opportunity when it affirms and extends our fundamental credibility. Interactivity poses a threat when it doesn't. By now we should be able to tell the difference, revisiting past advice to write for the Web rather than for readers, obliterate beats, grant anonymity and brand the news. Credibility is our value proposition.

Many others, including David Miller, writing in the March 2005 issue of Ideas: the Magazine of Newspaper Marketing, have a different take: "Stewardship of the public trust remains central to the identity of most newsrooms. But perhaps newspapers are now structured on promises of value, such as independence and objectivity, which fail to substantially exist in the minds of consumers. Even if it were a perception that could be re-kindled, how much additional purchase intent would it generate?"

Miller's observation is based on what he honestly believes is our purpose: revenue generation. We have a higher purpose, the byproduct of which is audience share. Generally speaking, growth in audience share leads to more revenue.

E.W. Scripps, the most cost-conscious businessman of his time--rivaled in our own only by Sam Walton--pinched wheat pennies until they floured. But even Scripps knew that the newspaper publisher "who starts out to build up a circulation by canvassing for subscribers generally bankrupts himself before he discovers a fundamental truth concerning our business--which is that a successful newspaper must depend entirely upon its quality for its custom, and not at all upon slick solicitors." (See "Knowledge, Control and Coordination in the Scripps Newspaper Chain" by Gerald J. Baldasty.)

Scripps believed that quality creates the brand, not the other way around. The only brand that matters is the place in the nameplate.

Beat reporters delivered on that promise. They journaled on Wall Street, inquired in Philadelphia, chronicled in Houston, appealed in Memphis, recorded in Hackensack, called in Allentown, observed in Charlotte, examined in San Francisco, heralded in Boston and Miami, dispatched in Columbus and Saint Louis, and stood as sentinel in Milwaukee, Knoxville and Orlando.

Nameplates wed newspapers to community, which we scoured for news. "Beat" is a hunting term, the act of ranging over land to flush out game. As such, we viewed beat not only as topic (education) but also place (local schools). We eliminated place because of computers and with it, wrote our own obituary in advance of our demise.

Just as the Internet threatens newspapers, scores of cable channels steal audience share from local television stations, but they are fighting back by stressing the importance of place. As their gear became lighter and more mobile -- they rarely use trucks anymore -- TV crews drive cars and vans emblazoned with call letters to let the locals know the station is on the scene.

This is why, in part, the State of the Media report states that local television "remains by far the most popular choice to get the news ? irrespective of age and income." Moreover, the report adds, newscasts clearly separate news from commentary. News is segmented into beats that viewers care about--education, crime, politics, weather, etc.--with a strong sense of place.

Meanwhile newspaper technology leashed reporters to desktops in the name of "productivity," deleting place from beats and reporters from view.

Worse, this happened when readers were equipped with handheld gadgets that could record, photograph, text, take video and disseminate data directly from the street to the Internet.

This accounts for the rise of citizen journalism. They were on the scene. We weren't.

Don Muhm, one of the greatest agricultural writers ever, worked for the Omaha World Herald and the Des Moines Register and Tribune. When he began his 40-year career in the 1950s, he drove cars emblazoned with nameplates when he went into the field, literally. Everyone knew when he was in town and would share their concerns on site so that his stories rang true.

Why would any high school student ever pick up a newspaper rather than an iPod when he or she has never seen a reporter on the beat in the schools?

Why would anybody trust a newspaper whose reporters they seldom see? It's as simple as that. We need more interaction and less interactivity.

Interactivity must be transparent to be believed. Apart from the rare whistle-blower, anonymity only provides cover to perpetuate ill intent. That is why we have attracted too many readers with lifestyle traits listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Worse, we designed Web pages that blurred lines between news and commentary. Now many readers do not distinguish between the two, which explains why online journalism often seems off-putting to the type of user we had hoped to attract: ones with a social conscience.

Technology changes everything it touches. What it changed most dramatically, however, is style.

Place is a trigger for style. It arouses sight, taste, sound, smell, touch and sense of movement. Style is primal. Remember those stories by the campfire?

You cannot captivate the audience unless you recapture style. Visuals are important, to be sure. But without style, you have text, and the only text many of our readers know is what they send to others via cell phones.

Give them an alternative. Here are others:

-- Rebuild the wall between news and advertising and tear down the one between you and community.

-- Put place back in beats and hire more reporters or at least make them more visible.

-- Distinguish between news and comments, making visitors click to post their views on a new page where rules for discourse appear above the comment box.

-- Require real names on comments to ensure higher levels of civility and weed out reporters praising their own stories under cover of anonymity.

-- Remember that people love a good story because life has beginnings, middles and ends.

Facts matter. Place matters. Style matters. Names matter. If they don't, then neither do we.


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