Journalists should understand the distinctions of distributed media

The Daily Californian in El Cajon, Calif. was a 25,000-circ suburban newspaper with a market penetration of about 15 percent.

In other words, it was struggling.

Landmark Communications hired Paul Zindell as a consultant and later made him publisher (and eventually sold the newspaper to Kendell Communications, his company) in an effort to save it.

I told Paul once, “if you want to save the paper, improve the quality. Hire more reporters. Look at how the Los Angeles Times became a great newspaper” (or words to that effect).

That wasn’t Paul’s shtick, however. Paul wanted quantity, not quality. This is the same guy who looked at me in a staff meeting once and said very pointedly, “We don’t need any Woodwards and Bernsteins here. We can get any mother off the street and teach her how to write.”

The regime at the Daily Cal was for us to put our initials in parenthesis at the end of each item we produced for the paper (stories, briefs, obits, police blotters, weather reports, etc.) and each morning the clerk would count the items and report the results to Paul. Failure to meet quota could lead to termination.

Each week the paper would run a house ad boasting that the Daily Cal ran XXX number more local items than the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune combined.

It was all about quantity over quality.

The ironic thing is, even though the Daily Cal was a word mill, we still won awards. There were about five or six of us in the news room who worked our tails off and produced enough quality stories to win several regional journalism awards, and once during that time frame, the Daily Cal won a CNPA best newspaper award.

So, despite the best effort of Paul Zindell to out produce the competition, and our best efforts to put out a better newspaper, The Daily Californian still eventually went out of business (not technically true, but true enough — it’s court adjudication is now owned by a local weekly paper).

The real problem, I think, wasn’t with the content (quantity or quality), but with the lousy customer service of the circulation department.

Enough of remembrances of things past. That was just delayed lede to the nut: the quantity vs. quality debate is nothing new to me. I get it.

Today, if you tell journalists to engage in web-first publishing or shoot lots of video or to engage in participation, you get accused of asking them to produce or condone crap.

There’s two problems with this seemingly high-minded journalistic appraisal of the strategy. First, it’s not accurate; second, it is ill-informed about the differences between distributed media and mass media.

In web-first publishing, for example, I say “publish what you know when you know it.” No where in that statement can you find, “publish rumor or speculation,” nor will you find, “don’t run it past an editor first.” Yet, that is how many self-righteous critics read it (so much for journalistic accuracy).

That’s not to say that in a world of web-first publishing, there won’t be mistakes directly attributable to a compressed production cycle, but the blessing of the web is that it’s easier to fix mistakes as soon as they are discovered. Bloggers long ago discovered the beauty power of the strike-through. We should do the same.

There is nothing in the above graph that should be read as “settle for low quality standards.” I’m saying, that as a strategic imperative, we need to concern ourselves with other priorities — such as producing more content faster. That is a group effort. On the individual reporter or editor level, we should continue to strive for the highest obtainable quality. We simply can’t afford, however, to equate “time spent” with quality. We must move faster and do more. There is no place for a slipshod, any old-crap will do attitude, but the bigger risk lies in turning supposed quality (how many Pulitzers have you won again?) into a sacred cow.

At the Daily Cal, Paul Zindell was pursuing a long-tail strategy before there was a long-tail opportunity. The long-tail makes no sense in a “limited shelf space” world, such as a print newspaper. But online, in distributed media, the long tail is power.

That is the strategic imperative behind web-first publishing, a disruptive video strategy or getting users to participate in our news production.

Journalists who get the distinction will thrive in the new distributed media world. Journalists who don’t are merely turtles and are doing us more harm than good.

Leave a Reply