Five books journalists should read

Once upon a time I was a newspaper reporter. I thought of myself as being above the mere pedestrian concerns of business. My job was to get scoops and tell stories. I passionately believed the better we did that, the more papers we would sell. The penny-pinches in the corner offices just didn’t get it.

Of course, they probably didn’t get it. The problem was, I didn’t either.

Twenty years later, its pretty clear a strategy of aiming for journalistic excellence doesn’t work. The best newspapers in the world are being hammered by declining circulation as our audience scatters across an ever expanding mediasphere.

It’s time for journalists to break out of their insular worlds of Pulitzer chasing and bellyaching about shrinking newsroom budgets. The modern journalist needs to be part of the solution. The best way to do that is to gain a little business literacy. If journalists want to ensure there is a future for good journalism, and they want to understand what their roll should be in this brave new world, then they should study. They should learn about the forces shaping media today.

Here are five books I think will help:

  1. Innovator’s Solution, by Clayton Christensen. You could read the Newspaper Next report for free, but the book is better. You need to learn what disruption is (i.e., user-generated content sites, blogs and low-end media production) and why it tends to eventually crush top-of-market businesses. You need to learn about jobs to be done and to think about what audiences really want.
  2. The Search, by John Battelle. Google dominates the media today. This book will teach you a lot about how people really use the Web. You will learn about the database of intentions and the power of search and why it is hard to hold people’s attention.
  3. Don’t Make Me Think, by Steve Krug. Even if you don’t design Web sites or Flash user interfaces, this book will help you understand the power of simplicity. You will understand better why Google and Apple are so successful. You will think differently about how you produce content.
  4. The Vanishing Newspaper, by Philip Meyer. For spot-on business literacy about newspapers, there isn’t a better book. You will better understand the competitive pressures and strategic decisions that we all need to think about. This book will also scare the hell out of you, or should.
  5. The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson. This book is essential to understanding modern media consumption and how it effects us all. The competition for people’s attention is fierce and the alternatives for readers and viewers is only growing. We don’t just compete against our cross-town rival, or the evening news broadcast. We compete against the entire universe of choices.

If you take my advice, I guarantee you, you will think differently about your job and you’ll be a better journalist because of it.

UPDATE: When I made this list, I was thinking most about business books journalists should read. You’ll note that the only book on the list directly related to newspapers is Meyers book, which says some real important things about the business side of newspapers. The goal was to stretch print journalists to think about newspapers beyond content. That said, there is a very important book about modern journalism and about content, a book that speaks directly to many of the strategic challenges we face, and that is Dan Gillmor’s We the Media. This is one of the most important journalism books of the past decade or so.
[tags]newspapers, journalism, business[/tags]

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5 thoughts on “Five books journalists should read

  1. […] I read a great essay from Harvard Business Review a year ago about managing in times of change, which includes the need to communicate a sense of urgency. I recommend it to newsroom managers. In this day and age, if you work at a newspaper and value your career, you need to understand business and how things are changing. Again, I refer you to these five books. […]

  2. This post isn’t just a wake-up call to reality. It’s more like surrender. Once you abandon “a strategy of aiming for journalistic excellence” as unworkable, it doesn’t much matter what you do next. New technologies, platforms and business models only help journalism if journalism itself survives.

    Of course journalists should understand modern business pressures and learn the myriad new ways of distributing information. But if they’re not telling important stories in engaging ways — if they’re just making videos of cute dogs and blogging about bacon — then they’re no longer journalists.

    For some hope about how to be modern, interesting AND important, check out this from the Readership Institute, and read my book, Making Important News Interesting: Reporting Public Affairs in the 21st Century.”

    If you want to talk about it, visit my blog.

  3. It the epitome of journalistic arrogance, the arrogance that leaves us disengaged from our audience, and is at the root of more than five decades of circulation declines, that says hyperlocal journalism isn’t journalism, that writing about the stuff going on in communities, the stuff that people really, really care about, isn’t journalism.

    Mary Nesbitt, as always, makes good points, but that isn’t the only kind of journalism there is.

    The Church of Journalism will destroy us yet.

    Of course, your “videos about cute dogs and blogging about bacon” is a complete red herring, but it is the kind of red herring favored by the devotees of the Church of Journalism.

    Will the last Church of Journalism devotee out the door please remember to turn off the lights.

  4. […] I kind of jump on Perry Parks in the comments on this post. I don’t take lightly, I guess, to accusations that I’ve given up on journalism. Everything I do is about trying to save journalism. Our only chance to ensure there are reporters performing watchdog roles twenty years from now is to ensure that we get the business and content models right in this turbulent, fast-changing media era. And in context of Perry’s comment, on a post aimed squarely at encouraging journalists to learn and grow and better understand what is going on today, I can’t help wonder what drives somebody to defend a mode of thinking that clearly isn’t working. […]

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