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?

Review: Discovering the News, by Michael Schudson

Journalism — what constitutes a story, the guiding principals and mores of editors and reporters — hasn’t changed much in my lifetime. It’s easy to think that the attitudes, aptitudes and priorities of journalists have been much the same all the way back to Gutenberg.

Of course, people who have studied journalism history know that’s not true.

We don’t spend a lot of time talking about our profession’s history, even though history might teach us a good deal about today.

A great place to start the discussion is a book I just read called Discovering the News by Michael Schudson.

Schudson’s book is thirty years old, but it covers the major changes in journalism through the Watergate era.

The primary theme of the book is that journalism has evolved in response to changes in society.

Schudson’s story begins in the 1820s, when the dominate newspapers where either organs of political partisans or served the interests of the business class. They sold for six cents per edition, but required annual subscriptions. This meant only the wealthiest Americans could afford a newspaper. Few papers sold more than 2,000 copies per day.

In the 1830s, the penny press arrived. Some might think it was technology (steam-driven cylinder presses) that drove the advent of the penny press, but it was really the rising tide of a middle class in America, and a greater sense of democratic rule over gentry rule (voting was now open to more than just land owners). The penny press met the demand for news (something the six-penny papers didn’t have) by reporting actual events, such as murder trials, rather than just political editorials.

The publishers, such as James Gorden Bennett and Horace Greeley, cranked out a lot of news, and a lot of advertising, to a middle class, trained by the six-penny papers, to see newspaper subscriptions as a status symbol. They sold a lot more newspapers.

The papers were not necessarily non-partisan, and while the reporting was informational, it wasn’t necessarily without an agenda, and they were certainly sensational.

By the 1880s, the New York papers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst took sensationalism to new levels. While the journalist of the day would believe their reporting was truthful, they were not beyond withholding information to shape a story. Consider the career of Richard Harding Davis and his role in reporting the Spanish boarding the Olivette. Davis didn’t quit Hearst not because Davis didn’t support the publisher’s position, but because the particular fictionalization wasn’t his fictionalization. Davis merely withheld facts. Hearst invented new ones.

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute the success of Pulitzer and Hearst to Yellow Journalism. At a time when New York first became a commuter city, and a city of immigrants in need of illustrated papers and simple language, Pulitzer and Hearst met the need.

It wasn’t until Adolph Ochs purchased the New York Times in 1896 that a more non-partisan, less sensational style of journalism began to take hold. Ochs’ style of journalism came along at a time when observational science was beginning to shape cultural attitudes and realism was the leading trend in art and literature. Again, Ochs was meeting the needs of a changing society, not driving innovation in news coverage.

Prior to World War I, the word “objectivity” was not part of a journalist’s lexicon. Reporting was expected to be factual, but objective was not a common news value.

With the unraveling of the world after the Great War, up through the Great Depression, people began to question democratic institution and market forces, and the very idea that facts could be considered neutral came into question. Objectivity became a counter weight to the questionable judgment of individuals, not just in journalism, but in law, social sciences and art, as well.

Walter Lippman and others began to call for and define a greater professionalism in journalism. Schools were founded and awards created. It was in this environment that interpretive reporting — putting the news in context — first gained currency.

During World War II, the U.S. government entered, for the first time, into organized attempts to control the news flow. Press agents were hired and press conferences became widespread. Reporters lost access to government officials. The relationship between press and White House changed radically in the post War years.

The rise of McCarthysm, the Bay of Pigs and the start of the war in Vietnam were all events that helped create within society a greater sense that the U.S. government, now no longer easily accessible, was not always worthy of trust. For the first time, the press began to take on a watch dog role and investigative reporting was born.

This trend reached its apex with Watergate.

The way I read the book, prior to the 20th Century, publishers (not reporters and editors) reacted to changes in society where they saw business opportunities. As the 20th Century has progressed, and journalism has become more of a profession rather than a trade, journalists have had a great say in what constitutes professionalism, but there is still a good deal of reaction to society, rather than journalists simply changing the terms of their jobs.

And now, society is apparently going through its largest upheaval, especially in terms of how it interacts with media, since at least the 1960s, if not the earliest parts of the 2oth Century.

If that’s the case, should today’s journalist react with “we should keep doing what we’ve always been doing” attitude, or figure out how journalism needs to change to meet new demands and new needs?

It doesn’t look like San Diego’s free classified strategy worked

I have yet to hear of a newspaper improving its revenue or audience growth by offering free classified ads.

The San Diego Union-Tribune tried it int 2005.

Now the U-T is further trimming staff.

“Not since the merger of the Union and Tribune over 15 years ago have we faced such wrenching changes,” he (CEO Gene Bell) wrote. “At the same time, never in our history have we faced revenue losses as dramatic as those of the last 12 months.”

Observation: The U-T offered free classifieds  and that did not stem the tide of revenue loses.

I’m not trying to draw a direct connection, just saying … it didn’t help.

The only time I’ve ever heard of an MSM newspaper offering free classifieds and using it to win market share was in Arkansas when Walter Hussman took the Democrat from second-tier player into only game in town.

There might be a very scary lesson about the inability of a market leader’s inability to use disruptive strategy to beat other disruptive players.

What worked for Hussman to beat a bigger paper, may not work for a market leader like the leading metro in town to beat Craigslist and other free-classified sites.

If that’s true, then sustaining innovations (which most newspapers have been pursuing in the recruitment ad space for a decade) may be the only way to go.

Just thinking out loud.

Update on the MBO post

I’ve had a couple of reporters contact me to say they had already done things on the list, but were inspired to do more, including Stephanie.

One reporter has legitimately (no prior wiredness and included supervisor on e-mail to me) taken up the objectives (no blog yet).

And this Roving Reporter blog just appeared from an unnamed journalist at at daily in Mass.  Said reporter is also new to Twitter, judging from a note at the bottom of the blog.

MSM and the struggle to balance user participation

Mark Glaser has a good post up summarizing the various positions and approaches media companies are taking to user participation.

“I think quality is more important than quantity,” Landman said. “You have to create a space where the conversation is the kind of conversation that appeals to the people in your world. There are places where the conversation gets really ugly and people don’t go to the New York Times to get yelled at.”

Mark was kind enough to include a couple of words from me.

Suggested RSS feeds

We’ve discussed before that journalists need to get an RSS reader and read it.

Over on Back Channel, I offer a list of ten RSS feeds that should be in your feed reader.  I didn’t post it here, because the list isn’t intended to be just for journalists, but for anybody who values being a well-rounded person, which we would hope would apply to all journalists.

Five easy things journalists can do to help their web sites

Hey, Mr. Reporter, you like your job, right?

You do realize, don’t you, that its advertising that pays your salary, right?

And newspaper advertising is getting hammered.

Online news sites, however, well, there is some revenue growth and opportunity there, isn’t there? It’s just not enough, necessarily, to save your job … yet.

What if you could help online revenue grow?

No, I don’t mean you should go out and sell advertising. What I mean is you should help your web site get more traffic.

If your revenue is based on CPM or CPC models, traffic equals revenue.

There are at least five simple things (and none of them require a huge time commitment once started) you can do to help your site grow traffic. All of them are ethical, both from an SEO perspective and an SPJ perspective.

  1. Start a blog. Yeah, I know, I’m always saying journalists should start a blog (interestingly, 27 percent of them have), but this time the advice isn’t about doing something to learn web culture, it’s to help your site’s SEO. To be useful, your blog can’t just be a link farm to your site. You need to do real blogging, the kind of blogging other bloggers will link to, so you build good SEO credibility. When you do, you can use your blog to deep link to your own stories and to your favorite stories of your colleagues. Google loves blogs. Blogging is great SEO.
  2. Join social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. Now, you should NOT just throw up a link to every story you do — only your best stuff. You should build a network and use that network to drive traffic to your best work. Nick Belardes at KERO in Bakersfield uses MySpace a lot to promote his work.
  3. Use social bookmarking tools such as and reddit. Bookmark interesting things you find on the web for your own benefit, but also bookmark your best stories. With proper tagging, others will find your links.
  4. Get into Digg and/or Mixx, or similar sites. To be effective, you have to Digg more than your own work. You need to find good stuff on the web, Digg it, and build a reputation for finding good stuff. You should also Digg your best stuff. Digg, especially, has powerful SEO juice, so even one Digg can help your story get more traffic.
  5. Make vlogs about your best stories and upload them to YouTube and other social video sites. You don’t need to make fancy productions. You just need a web cam and something to say — if you have a Macbook, for example, you can shoot your video with Quick Capture with no software or extra equipment and upload it to YouTube quickly and easily. A good title and keywords, and you’re giving your story some good SEO.

These SEO ideas are just a few of the things every reporter could do to help his or her site grow traffic, and thereby help the site grow revenue. Imagine if half the people in your newsroom cared deeply enough about their jobs to get this involved, what it would mean for traffic and revenue?

This post inspired by the SMARTS marketing video.

Chris Tolles brings some stats to the anonymous vs. registration debate

Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, sent me a note and said:

I got sick of reading all the hand wringing by various newspapers around anonymous comments and had our development guys run some stats comparing anonymous comments vs. registered users’.

And that led to this blog post.

While anonymous posts have a roughly 50% higher kill rate, they also account for 3X the comment and commenter volume. If one asks, “where are we getting the most acceptable comments from?”, the answer is clearly the non-registered user base. As pointed out above, that there are as many registered users on Topix is partially due to offering anonymous comments

Also, its important to note that the ability to manage “anonymous” commenters and “registered” commenters is equivalent from a moderation standpoint. It’s just as easy to identify someone by their IP address for the most part as it is through a registration system. While a 50% difference is certainly something to look at, it’s not an order of magnitude, and we’re also looking at a grand total of way under 10% of total commentary.

Some quibbles:

I think there is a difference between “acceptable” and “accepted.” What the Topix numbers show is 3x as many “accepted” anonymous comments. That does not mean they were “acceptable,” if you define acceptable as A) adding to the civil discourse (as opposed to empty, ranting blather); B) providing useful information that advances the storyline of the article, which is the beauty of a really good user comment string.

Both A and B should be the goal of a adding comments to a story.

That’s not to say that there isn’t value in a Wild-West approach to comments. The open conversation is better than no conversation. I would simply rather see interaction evolve to a higher level of utility. We catch glimpses of that sometimes in some anonymous comment strings now.

I have a great faith the the majority of a audience to be civil and intelligent, and that providing some tools, techniques and encouragement, we can draw more civic mindedness out of more people. Anonymity does encourage, I have no doubt, a certain level of glibness if not outright bad behavior.

I’m willing to accept some lesser level of participation in exchange for better conversations.

That said, I totally part company with those (referenced in Chris’s post, but original articles no longer available (now there are some newspapers using a bad CMS)) who say there should be no comments unless we enforce registration. At GHS, we’re building a registration-based system, but in the meantime, we’re using an anonymous system. I would rather have the conversation than not, even if that means we have to weed out some junk.

Chris is right on this point:

The “anonymous” issue is just a red herring. Really, what these journalists are threatened by is the nature of truly public discourse on the web. These people are not barbarians that appeared one day the net went up.

They’re your audience

I agree. You simply MUST enable the conversation on your web site (just don’t outsource it to Topix). And you must be a part of it. And you must learn to deal with it. That’s part of being a journalist these days. If it’s not already in your job description, it should be.

You simply must engage your audience. The benefits far outweigh the periodic bad actor post (one of the benefits of the Topix report is that it statistically demonstrates how little actual really bad stuff is part of the submission flow — journalists should be able to deal with this trickle as part of their duties).

One thing that would be interesting is if Topix ran an A/B test on registration vs. non-registration. Of course, it would only really be useful if we had some way of measuring the civic value of conversations, not just how many posts were banned. Also, I would like to see the test involve registration that sets some sort of expectation for real identity. Topix, at least, has the volume of participation to make such a test statistically valid if run over a long-enough period of time (and maybe in a couple of different periods). The A/B test would involve using the same content to spur conversation, but route half the people to an anonymous-allowed site, and half to a registration site.

Go win yourself a Scripps Web Reporting Award

As a Scripps alum, I think that the E.W. Scripps company is one of the finest newspaper companies — a long, proud tradition of quality journalism and community service.

It would be an honor, I think, to win an award with the Scripps name on it.

Once again, the Scripps Foundation is offering a web reporting award.

Jack Lail has the details.

Contrary to Askimet’s belief, I am not a spammer

Askimet thinks I’m a spammer.

Thankfully, Scott Karp, among others, knows I’m not a spammer. But he has had to hassle four or five times recently to fish my comments out of Askimet’s spam bucket. That led to this post.

On any blog that is using Askimet’s spam filter, if I leave a comment, my comment goes into the spam bucket.

Why? Apparently, it’s related to the fact that my site was hacked twice. One of those hacks involved putting a redirect page in one of my directories, and then the spammers sent traffic from hundreds of other hacked blogs to that page.

That was great for my technorati ranking, not so great for my reputation with Askimet.

I’ve written to Askimet and asked to be taken off the back list. So far, the request has been ignored.

I pretty much hated spammers before these incidents. My inclination to think they should all be shot on sight is hard to resist, even as much as I strongly believe in full and fair trails for all accused criminals. Here’s to hoping people like Alan Ralsky, assuming he’s convicted, get punished to the full extent of the law. We need thousand more prosecutions like this, but then I suspect most spammers reside in countries where the government could careless. Hopefully, someday, those governments will join the civilized world and come to hate spam as much as the rest of us do.

UDPATE: Afternoon of Jan. 9, 2008.  I just got an e-mail from Askimet saying I’ve been unblacklisted.