Maybe it’s journalism itself that is the problem

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,, and

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).

12 thoughts on “Maybe it’s journalism itself that is the problem

  1. Howard

    Forgive my ignorance, but how did Craig Newmark,, and contribute to our audience crisis?

  2. Aaron, sorry for not being clear. What I’m saying is that the audience crisis existed before the disruption enabled by technology; but the technology disruption has made the audience crisis much worse, or more critical. Now we’re losing real revenue and lack the audience strength to fight back. The audience crisis was masked by good economics. The disruptors have hurt the economic model, making the audience problem more apparent.

    The technology problem is largely a business problem. The audience problem has nothing to do with technology, though it contributes to the business problem.

    Unless, you consider that losing classified audience to Craigslist is also an audience problem, but then that’s not really a journalism problem.

  3. I think you’re exactly right about the audience crisis.

    So what do people want? I think it’s less reporting on what community members say, and more community members saying things. I’m far more interested in hearing from the CEO cutting the jobs than the anchor summarizing the cuts — far more interested in hearing John/Barack/Hillary than Chris Matthews or Anderson Cooper — far more interested in hearing from my city councilor than my city council beat reporter.

    This is why I think filtering and aggregating are becoming as central to journalism as reporting.

  4. Woah there. There is no audience crisis in American journalism. The Web has brought newspapers hundreds of thousands of new readers. Major newspapers’ Web traffic has grown exponentially each year. While papers still have to compete with other media today that they didn’t 20 years ago, the fact remains that Americans are not abandoning print journalism. They’re abandoning the print *medium*, which happens to be about 20 times more profitable than the online one.

    All of which is to say that mere audience growth won’t save journalism. Until online readers are worth substantially more to advertisers, it’s not going to matter how many real people are quoted in the city council stories. Newspapers’ business problems are simply that — business problems. An effective campaign to save American journalism would focus less on the journalistic misdemeanors commited in the daily newspaper and more on designing more effective, and thus more expensive, advertising.

  5. @ C. Your comment is a good one. Well worth pondering.

    It doesn’t address, however, why audiences for newspaper journalism declined so dramatically from the 1970s until the advent of online.

    Secondly, if your combined print-online numbers rely on the oft-cited data from NAA, Scarborough, Comscor, et. al … there is a problem with most of these panels … they measure 30-day reach, which isn’t really a meaningful number in any real-world sense.

    Further, even granting those numbers, overall readership for newspaper journalism is still down. The added online reach has yet to make up for previous declines.

  6. Howard – interesting blog. I was googling for viewpoints on whether feed readers like Google Reader were already considered “newspaper of tomorrow” as research for a startup idea I’m working on. It seems like you have figured out how web 2.0 fundamentally changes print and TV media, but most of your readers have not, which means we’re still in the early adopter phase of this trend. To me, the key advantage blogging has over the old model of journalism is the fact that journalists are not subject matter experts. I subscribe to over 200 blogs, all written by subject matter experts such as venture capitalists, software engineers, and other subject matter experts in the areas I work in. Their input, and the conversation that ensues, is thousands of times more relevant and accurate (to me) than the newspapers and magazines I used to read. Journalists and their newspapers will never be able to compete with that. While there will always be a place for more general-interest news, even this is better covered by bloggers who are insiders rather than outsider generalists. The NYT editor has been replaced by the ranking algorithm in my feed reader, and frankly I’m getting alot more out of the algorithm for less money.

  7. Logan, good post. I talk all the time about how blogs such as TechCrunch and GigaOm are putting publications such as Business2.0 and CNet out of business … most journalists, when they think of blogs at all, think of the half-assed political ranters, and never stop to consider that blogging is so much more than that.

  8. First, at least spell Walter Lippmann’s name correctly!

    Second, you’re right about giving readers what they want. What you leave out is that Americans love to read well written stories (book length or less) and have too many options to voluntarily read large quantities of mediocre writing unless that’s all there is a given genre. Well, as a former newspaper editor who has been reading newspapers for nearly 40 years, I would say the overwhelming majority of U.S. newspaper journalism is BORING–cliched story ideas, weak quotes, uninteresting ledes, etc., etc. (Most newspaper reporters are at our 1,450 daily newspapers are more or less hacks; I can hardly stand to read any newspaper anymore besides the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal.) Excellent, interesting writing does not have to violate tenets of journalism: accuracy, objectivity, relevance, even timeliness.

  9. Howard,
    Interesting post. I just attended a conference where Joel Kramer, former editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, ruminated on the trouble facing today’s newspapers. His take–which I tend to agree with–is that the problem is not exactly a lack of readership. There are over a million people in the twin cities that still subscribe to or read a daily paper.
    The problem with journalism is that there is no one left to pay serious journalists. The money has never come from the paper sales or the subscriptions. It has always come from the advertising, and the Web is, piece by piece, killing that. Even though there are still large amounts of people reading print, there are even larger groups online. And with so many opportunities to place an ad on the internet, print journalism (and its online sister) no longer holds a stranglehold on the market of ad consumers hoping to reach the masses. Advertising prices fall.
    One might assume that papers will be able to make up most of the lost revenue online, but that isn’t happening either. While papers are forced to sell ads at lower rates, there are many companies that are no longer interested in placing ads with a news outlet at all. Rather than firing ads, like birdshot, at a random sampling of informed citizens, the prospective advertiser would be much better off to focus their pitch through the filtering of a search engine. This also helps to explain the explosion of Google–advertising dollars.
    Simply put, with advertisers not putting up the cash, there is no one left to pay the serious journalist. Journalism’s gatekeeping ability disappears as the public, essentially, decides what will be printed.
    Kramer is currently attempting a non-profit model for journalism with the newly created MinnPost. I don’t know how it will end up, but it seems to be working thus far.
    The fact of the matter is that journalism will not be able to remedy its current maladies easily. There is no simple way out. It will involve writing for your reader and not your fellow journalist. It will involve caring about your subject and your job. And it will involve time.
    Chances are that when journalism emerges from this tunnel, it will look very different. But I hope to be here when it emerges, nonetheless.

  10. Kyle, the revenue picture is a bit more complicated.

    On the retail side, many of the businesses that once paid the bills have gone out of business, to be replaced by the likes of Wal-Mart, which is not a traditional newspaper advertiser. The biggest lose hasn’t been the ma-pops, but the department stores.

    All the while, rates have been going up, not declining.

    The Internet has been far more disruptive to classifieds. Print recruitment advertising has dropped from $8 billion to $4 billion in seven years.

    All of that is hard to place at the feet of journalists.

    However, Mr. Kramer should take a closer look at readership declines and the growing dissatisfaction Americans have with American journalism. We are hemorrhaging readers (online is not replacing print losses at the same rate, and online readers are not the kind of engaged news consumers newspapers once enjoyed), and I fear Mr. Kramer’s prescription (more “serious” journalism) is more of a call to keep spreading the cancer rather than cure the patient.

    It isn’t about how serious we are, but about how relevant we are.

    BTW: I’m also bothered by the whole formulation of that there are “no advertisers willing to pay for serious journalism.” It’s never been the job of advertisers to pay for journalism. It’s been the job of journalists to deliver readers so that advertisers get results. Advertisers don’t give a shit about your journalism, but you sure has better care about the effectiveness of their advertising — and if people are not reading the paper, or those who are picking it up are not as engaged, then journalism has a problem.

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