Tuesday, August 18, 2009

When it's broke don't blame yourself

The vow. Global media mogul Rupert Murdoch this month: "Quality journalism is not cheap. The digital revolution has opened many new and inexpensive distribution channels but it has not made content free. We intend to charge for all our news websites."

That will work for the Wall Street Journal, but will it for more local newspapers?  

No matter, as Miner outlines here, newspapers keep telling themselves that there is a problem and then offer up a million ways to fix it. The problems are always the same: Craigslist, giving away their product for free on the Internet, blogs... all these problems are sort of right, but mostly wrong. Yes, Craigslist eliminates the guy looking for a job or the girl looking for an apartment, but this couldn't have been a large percentage of readership (a free weekly like the Reader probably is hurt more by Craigslist than the dailies). True, newspapers give away their product away for free on the Internet, but that's also not totally true since most papers make money from Internet advertisements. Sure, blogs link and copy parts of stories... but blogs need newspapers more than newspapers need blogs. If anything blogs should only help newspapers.

And then there are the ways to fix newspapers: better copyright laws, payment to read content... but those aren't going to solve the major problem that newspapers have but they refuse to admit to themselves: It's themselves.

As I wrote -- there is little context to far too many stories that are written and reported. The problem with newspapers is that they hire journalists. The journalists who are smart and can give context to a story end up at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the paper's editorial board, or go off and do their own thing (magazine writing, columnist, write movies, etc). The average journalist keeps chasing fire trucks or hits up a press conference and then just tells us what happened. That's not enough. In grade school, when asked to write an essay, what do they teach you?  

Who? What? Where? When? Why?  

Newspapers can do the who and the what and the where and the when... but they never seem to get the why right. The day to day journalist always seems to never quite understand the why.

And why is that?

Well, in the complex world we live it, with specialists and fine print and everything else, the journalist, who is really a generalist, is going to be far behind the person who was educated in economics, biology or law. However, the journalist is required to some how take what happened and then combine them with the complex ideas of a specific study.  If a newspaper can't give context to the story or what happened, then why would I, the reader, want to buy the newspaper?  Why would I want to go to their website when I know that the stories on the site won't give me the context I'm looking for?  The days of telling us what happened are long gone -- newspapers need to realize that covering a press conference is not enough because the reader now has many options.  Chicago is called a two newspaper town, but that's false, it's a hundreds newspaper town because there a blogs out there that give context to the stories I want to read.  And if you don't believe me, find someone under the age of 30 who still reads a sports section to a local paper -- they don't -- because the coverage is so much better on the blogs.  SouthSideSox does a better job analyzing than the Sun-Times or Trib.  The same can be said for pretty much every economic or policy story (and I assume most science stories).

I am not saying that over the years a journalist cannot become an expert him/herself. They can and do so. But remember, the good ones leave for another paper or another gig (season Five of the Wire highlighted this problem).

The question newspapers should be asking themselves is why aren't they hiring young lawyers or economists or scientists out of grad school or college? Sure they'll have to offer more money for such people, but they would get better context in their stories. Newspapers need to realize that the Watergate scandal is only part of their job -- uncovering graft is just part of what we, the buying public, wants.  The other part of the story we'd like to read about?  How about someone being able to explain how property taxes and schools are interconnected...

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