Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Future of journalism

The future of journalism - the kind we grew up with thriving newspapers giving us hard-hitting stories from City Halls and courtrooms - is not only a major source of debate and angst at print news media outlets, but also is one of extreme interest to us in the public relations profession.

As a former journalist, it tears my heart to see the staff cuts, the bad choices for what appears as "news" in print, and the general loss of respect for good journalism among the general public.

Posing great questions in this area is Jim O'Shea, the dismissed LA Times editor, in his recent column in the Nieman Watchdog.

Much of what Jim writes is trying to answer the question of "what happened?" and dissecting the logic of his former boss.

As a journalist-turned-PR professional, I'm more consumed by the question of "where is this going?"

For the future of a democratic and informed society, we need strong, independent journalism. An informed public receiving news and information from independent sources and not from government propaganda was the foundation upon which this country's founding fathers built the first set of laws. These are the same values that people in other countries continue to fight for today.

Yet, as staff cuts continue and as we see veteran reporters being replaced by rookies, the results are predictable. The strength of good journalism is weakening. I am not here to bash the young journalist. I was one myself. But experience makes a difference. If you are watching this closely, the breadth of a story is more narrow, the perspective is lacking and the information is skimpy. Without the background and years in the trenches, a younger reporter simply doesn't know all the questions to ask or fails to pursue the hard questions.

As O'Shea also points out, the editors are contributing to the demise by their choice of Page One stories.

So, let's go back to "where is this going?"

As O'Shea aptly observes, the public trust in journalism has reached all-time lows. Unfortunately, sensational electronic "entertainment" news (including talk radio) has been lumped into the same bag holding legitimate (aka "fair and balanced") news gathering and reporting - the kind assembled in many newspapers. (Or, used to be conceived).

The dilemma before newspapers is a bundled mess of cost, value and branding.

O'Shea is to be applauded to fight Zell's business-first/journalism-last perception that newspapers should simply give readers what they want. What newspapers need today are strong leaders and owners who recognize the long-term value of good journalism as the reason newspapers (regardless if they are print or digital) are always going to important to the public.

If you think the public hates journalists now because of a perception that they are biased or politically motivated in their coverage of news, just think where these ratings will go when the public realizes they are being pandered to?

This leaves me with one observation.

It's about re-establishing the brand.

In the old days, journalists simply let their stories do the talking. To be branded a great newspaper, you simply published great stories. Readers got it. The Pulitzers confirmed it. When the Internet came along, newspapers simply placed this threat in the same category as Ted Turner's unrealized prediction that the cable television industry would soon spell the doom of print journalism. Sure, every house had a television set, but what happened is that TV news was no more convenient than print news. At the beginning, at least. So, the public kept their print subscriptions because they could retrieve their news on their terms - when it was convenient to them.

A couple of things changed the picture. First, USA Today figured out that public was more mobile and didn't want lengthy articles. Pandering to what readers want? Perhaps. But USA Today was a dynamic that couldn't be ignored. Many newspapers adapted, but did so only superficially without regard to the long-term impact. Then, computer ownership rose dramatically. Now, we have a tool that allows us to get our news and information on even better terms for our busy lives.

With a new, very powerful tool at our fingertips our "brand loyalty" shifted or simply disappeared. News and information remained important to our lives, but we didn't care where we got it. Nothing I'm sharing here is earth-shattering news to any of you.

So, here is one possible solution for newspapers (and the future of healthy journalism). Re-establish your brand. Sure, it may sound like an simplistic initiative driven by the public relations or marketing department. Yet, reader loyalty is the crux of the current dilemma. Mr. Zell, you won't get readers under a philosophy of "giving them what they want." As a capitalist, you should remember the importance of the value of the product. Apple is making huge gains in the marketplace not because of cute TV ads, but because they supply incredible and durable technology. Consumers are not purchasing imitations. They are purchasing a product with a brand built on quality.

Strong newspaper journalism will regain readers if readers believe in the value of the product. Mr. O'Shea and other former editors have tried to argue this. The problem was they did so from an editor's point of view.

Is it time to look to brand strategists and public relations pros for the answers? Yes. But, we can't do this alone.

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