Journalism has evolved to fit society’s needs and demands

When ever I write about the need for journalists to learn new tools — such as blogging or DIY video — there’s a few hearty souls who pop up and say, “It’s not about the technology. It’s about the journalism.”

Those people are absolutely right. It’s not about the technology. Where they might be wrong is, it is not necessarily about the journalism.

What they should really say is, “It’s not about the technology. It’s about the audience.”

The audience decides what journalism they want. They always have. For background on this, see my review of Discovering the News.

Successful publishers of the past figured out what audiences wanted and gave it to them.

Publishers such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer became wealthy and built successful publishing empires by giving audiences the kind of journalism they wanted.

Even as journalists at the start of the 2oth Century began to take a greater role in defining their profession, they still had to write and report what people would buy.

What journalists mean by “journalism” today isn’t what journalists meant when they spoke of “journalism” in 1830, 1880 or 1910. It was only during the radical changes in society following World War I that the word objectivity entered the lexicon and modern journalism began to take shape.

It may merely be a coincidence, but interestingly, as journalism became more of a profession and less of trade in the 1930s, newspaper household penetration began to decline.

Real circulation losses didn’t start until the 1970s, at the apex of the rise of investigative journalism and the birth of the Woodstein era.

Is it possible that professional journalism, for all its pretense to serving society, has really been out of touch with its readership?

Is it possible that for the past four decades, journalists have produced stories to impress other journalists (aka, win awards), not please readers?

The funny thing is, Mr. Reporter, when is the last time the guy in the other cubicle picked up a paper and read one of your stories, or you one of his?

It doesn’t often happen, does it?

Now, for the first time, our audience can fight back. They can post comments, publish blogs, produce videos, and report the news themselves. Society is changing, but many journalist hide behind the notion that “technology does not change journalism.”

If society changes journalism, however, what happens to the journalist, or the newspaper, that doesn’t change to meet the new needs and demands?

If a brand of journalism doesn’t fit with the society it purports to serve, is it really serving that society?

Shouldn’t we be listening to our audience so we can figure out what they want from us?

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  • http://www.patthorntonfiles.com Pat Thornton

    Howard, I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again: we need to start making journalism that our audience cares about.

    If we’re losing readers, it’s not Internets or our readers fault, it’s because of ourselves. We are failing to deliver a product people want to consume.

    Whose fault is that? Journalists.

    We need to produce journalism that people want in the formats they want it in.

    And I find far too many journalists trying to win awards (which are judged by fellow journalists) than trying to produce journalism that will get everyday citizens talking, reacting and perhaps trying to change the world around them.

  • http://www.lectroid.net Marc Matteo

    Awesome post! Thought provoking, I like that.

    Tho I’m not sure I fully agree. Our logs show us what people want, they want Britney. One of the most trafficed videos on one of the sites I support was a video about some cheerleaders getting suspended for an “inappropriate” cheer. Hmmm, I wonder why?

    I have no doubt I could increase newspaper web traffic dramatically with the addition of a few “page 2 girls” but seriously, is that what we want?

    There is a form of journalism, somewhere between impressing award committees and catering to banal interests, that tries to explain why something previously assumed to be boring and mundane (city council meeting anyone) really does matter *to the reader*. Maybe we should try that.

  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    I thought about adding this later, and was hoping somebody would address it comments …

    I don’t think your logs show you what people want. They show you what people prefer in what you’re doing now, but not necessarily what they want.

    I would argue that we’re not really sure what they want, but that something about blogging gives us an idea. But that’s only the start.

  • http://kevinmyrick.com/blog Kevin M

    Howard,

    I agree with you on the point that the audience matters: where I currently work our website numbers are being driven by a combination of the local news we’re repackaging and posting online and the sports content that is being generated by myself and other reporters on the team I work on. And while news does just fine, the traffic numbers on our website tell us that people want sports.

    Isn’t the problem not entirely about the journalism community as a whole but what mainstream outlets like CNN and Fox News have repeatedly told their audiences to care about when they present the same old sensationalized stories? We journalists can argue and complain about the Britney Spears coverage all we want, or keep throwing things at the television every time Greta Van Sustern brings up Natalie Holloway for the umpteenth time, but eventually readers and viewers begin to get sucked in by that type of “journalism,” and start ignoring the real gems of stories that are out there about people in their communities, or about politics, or any number of topics that are far more engaging and enlightening than anything the tabloid press can ever provide.

    In my view the audience is only part of the equation, and what we in the “mainstream media” (or should I say opinion shows on any of the three major cable news networks) have decided that is important is affecting the way that people view the art of journalism as well.

    Thus, I don’t think any one thing is to blame for the falling circulation numbers or the decline in MSM’s internet numbers, but rather it is more about what people care about. And where I work, people love their sports just as much as they love their Britney Spears. I don’t think that sports coverage is going to necessarily save us, but it seems obvious to me that here in the near future if these stories that are more about ratings and less about content keep being pushed to the forefront on television and the internet (I could go on for hours and hours about this too…) then our own practices as journalists will eventually destroy us. We need to take responsibility for our actions in this industry, do our best to ween people off of this junk, and reeducate our readership about what news really is all about. Because otherwise, the audience is going to stop paying attention, and one day we’ll all look around and find the eyeballs looking elsewhere.

  • Walter Wellman

    It’s always about what readers want, and good newspapers — ones that are increasing in circulation — give readers what they want.

    In the “old days,” most newspaper reporters grew up in the towns they reported about. They inherently knew what people like them wanted. The, journalism schools spread their tentacles — but that really was after WWII, not WWI.

    Since for some reason newspapers or other media don’t seem to hire many reporters native to their area, newspapers and other media must invest in good, solid, scientific basic research to find out the likes, dislikes and wants of their community, then invest in strategic research to find out if what they develop is providing it. Of course, circulation increases will show that, too.

    Good newspapers are growing in circulatin and growing online readers. They should be seen as models.