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.
UPDATE: Josh Korr is doing some ruminating on this top. Click here for some interesting reading (and follow the links).