Howard Owens is a digital media pioneer. He started publishing local news online in 1995 when very few local news outlets had web sites. The header image on the site depicts the film camera he used early in his career and the press pass from his year on the staff of the Carlsbad Journal. For more on Howard's professional background, read his LinkedIn profile.
HowardOwens.com is the personal web site of Howard Owens and covers his range of interests -- political localism and libertarianism, music and personal interests, as well as his professional interests.
Howard is currently publisher of The Batavian and lives in Batavia, N.Y.
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Daily Archives: February 16, 2008
This is a follow up post to Maybe it’s journalism itself that is the problem. It’s another thought exercise in trying to figure out how to discover what journalism should be to better serve today’s society.
- Stop writing for the front page. Too many journalists — and I was this way as a reporter, too — think that getting a story on the front page is the only viable confirmation of their worth as a journalist. On the web, of course, there is no front page — only time stamps. It’s better to get the story right than worry about where your editor is going to place it in print.
- Stop treating journalism like a competition. It’s fun to beat the other news outlets, but that shouldn’t be the only reason to pursue a story. Treating every story like a scoop leads to errors, both in reporting and thought process about how to handle the story. The economic value of beating the competition these days is arguably nil. The value of being a trusted source of a timely, reliable, steady stream of information is significant. These are not contradictory points, if you think them through.
- Stop submitting your stories to reporting and writing competitions. This only encourages you to write for other journalists, not for your readers.
- Listen more closely to your readers. Cherish every scrap of unsolicited praise. If it’s in a letter or postcard, pin it to your bulletin board; if it’s in an e-mail, print it out and pin it there, too. Make unsolicited reader praise your daily goal. Stop automatically writing off the criticism of the cranks who complain about everything your newspaper does.
- Put more people in your stories and fewer titles. I’m going to make up this rule of thumb, but … for every title in your story, you should reference two people without titles. So, if you cover the city council and quote the mayor and a city council member, you need in your story four non-titled, real people, as well. Put the emphasis on how real people are affected, not just what talking heads say about an issue or event. See how many city council stories you can write in a month that never even mention an elected or appointed official.
- Don’t cover process. Cover real stories. Real stories have real people in them, with real things to say about how real things effect their real lives.
- Be a subject-matter expert. You should know your beat better than any of your sources. This will help you avoid he-said, she-said stories, allowing you to write stories with real depth, and give you the confidence to add perspective. You will also uncover more and better stories.
- Forget the false-promise of objectivity. Instead, aim to be fair, honest, impartial and accurate.
- Be accurate. Always. Being accurate is more than just getting your facts right. It encompasses your entire approach to a story. Part of being accurate means you never sensationalize. Never. You never play up conflict for the sake of making a better page 1 story. You never trim a quote to make it more dramatic, or add modifiers to emphasize a point.
- Cover your community like it is your hometown — and hopefully it is — be invested in your community and care about its people. While reality may intrude, and you may have to move some day, at least for the time your covering a particular community, develop a mindset that says you’re going to spend the rest of your life covering this town, or this beat, or this topic.
The issues facing journalism today are not a technology problem, but an audience problem.
Declining readership did not begin in 1994, when the web began to take hold.
Household penetration began to drop in the 1930s. Serious readership declines accelerated in the 1970s.
There is no one reason why newspaper dominance of media started its decline 7o years ago. There was the advent of broadcast media, and changes in society (more working women, depressions and wars, new societal attitudes, changing class structures and commute patterns), but during that same time, literacy and education levels rose, women entered professional and educated life, the leisure time available for citizens to get involved with their communities increased, and soaring revenue for newspaper publishers allowed them to greatly expand staffs during most of the 20th Century (it’s one of the paradoxes of newspaper publishing that while readership declined, ad rates and linage went up).
In other words, one could reasonably conclude that newspapers should have benefited from circulation increases during the very time they were losing market share (for most of the 20th Century, actual subscriber numbers increased, while household penetration decreased at a faster pace).
From the 1970s through the close of the century, there were more newspaper journalists employed at all levels, and because of the explosion of journalism schools in the later half of the century, they were better trained than ever. And because of the likes of Woodward and Berntein, they were substantially motivated and inspired to do great, important work.
Yet, real readership declined.
Could it be, that journalism itself is at fault?
In the 1930s that the likes of of Walter Lippman began to agitate for a more professional journalism class, and journalism schools began to proliferate. Up until journalism became a profession rather than a trade, entrepreneurial publishers determined the tone and style of the journalism they published. Publishers paid attention to readers needs and wants, and hired and trained editors and reporters accordingly; whereas the professional journalist hues to a higher standard of story selection and presentation with considerations far removed from what readers might prefer.
We could debate which model is “better” in the academic sense, but my only real concern here is what’s better in the business, real-world sense. Being academically correct when it comes to marketplace competition doesn’t put food on the table. All of the high-minded ideals in the world don’t mean a thing if nobody reads your stories.
Previously, I said the issue for newspaper journalism is not a technology problem, but an audience problem.
Technology does play a role, however. It is the accelerator, the starter fluid that is putting both heat and light on the short comings of present-day journalism.
Consider again that while readership declined, newspaper revenue growth could only be slowed by recessions. Every decline or stagnation of revenue growth was merely a cyclical nuisance, not a harbinger of death. But up until the start of the current recession, newspaper revenue in recent years, especially in classified categories, was under constant downward pressure, while the overall economy continued to grow. That was a historical first.
The only way to save journalism, then, is to figure out how to spark audience growth.
My humble proposal, then, is that individual journalists start paying attention to what readers want. That was the point behind my reader satisfaction post. The goal is to find some meaningful measure of reader satisfaction and fashion a new journalism that meets reader needs.
I’m not saying I have the answer, just saying — we need to find measurements that help us discover a path forward.
A point to stress, however: This is not a puppie dogs vs. Iraq debate (see video of Sam Zell in Orlando), or a Britney Spears vs. election coverage argument (see Jim O’Shea’s farewell address). The focus on specific content subjects misses the larger point. The straw man of such supposed pandering evades the key issue.
The issue is, the current way important news is gathered, reported and written isn’t working. It hasn’t been working for several decades. It’s only now becoming a crisis, thanks to the likes of Craig Newmark, Realtor.com, AutoTrader.com and Monster.com.
As we examine what journalism should look like in the 21st Century, we should also look hard at just how professional supposed professional journalism is. Today I heard a CEO of a large insurance firm talk about the day his company eliminated 200 jobs — 200 out of 40,000. He talked about how he prepared his employees for the media onslaught he knew was coming, with anchors bellowing and headlines screaming about the downturn of the company’s fortunes. These weren’t even layoffs, but merely the elimination of unfilled positions.
There is something wrong with a journalism that can’t honestly put the context of events in an accurate light, but must play up the most sensational angle. We all know the CEO’s story is not an isolated incident, and it isn’t merely a TV-journalism condition, but something endemic to present-day journalism, print and broadcast.
If our readers so easily recognize that what we do isn’t trustworthy for its accuracy both in fact and spirit, then how can we expect to retain them as readers?
Something needs to change.
Discovering a journalism that does what journalism should do — match the needs of society rather than dictate to society what people should want from journalism — will be real hard work, and it will challenge assumptions and afflict comfortable mind sets.
I would like to think that journalists who entered this career with high minded ideals are up to the challenge.