To save journalism, think differently about journalism

Yes, Virginia, there may be a Santa Claus, but Lucas Grindley begs to differ:

The moral of the story is always: Invest in good journalism and magic just happens.

It’s like Santa Claus. Be good and you’ll get presents. Be bad and you get coal, or layoffs. Editors who listen to this story are taught it’s heroic to cocoon into their newsrooms and block out the influences of declining revenue and circulation numbers. Report more or edit cleaner and then, magically, world peace.

To a large degree, I agree with Lucas. My impression is that most of the newsroom advocates who decry cuts, beg for money and believe that cutting profit margins to protect current staffing levels can save newspapers are those who believe that Big-J journalism has big mo-jo with readers.

If that were true, how do you explain the Los Angeles Times? Here’s a paper that consistently wins Pulitzers and just as consistently watches its circulation decline (in a growth market, no less). If great journalism sells papers, it ain’t seling the Times. Meanwhile, the tabloids in New York, which serious journalists scorn, were among the only papers in the most recent Fas-Fax reporting circulation increases.

The spend-on-journalism evangelists miss a key point, as Grindley alludes: There is more ailing print journalism than just the quality of the news coverage.

Newspaper readership has been declining since the 1930s, accelerating in 1970s, and again recently. Each new generation of Americans read newspapers less than the previous generation, and they never stop reading less, from 18 to 80. This isn’t really a chicken-or-egg argument, because it’s clear that circulation declines did not begin with staff reductions. Circulation declines begin with people finding newspapers less useful and less relevant and less convenient.

Sure, we need to do better journalism, but that isn’t necessarily your grizzled city editor’s journalism. It is journalism that fits better into people’s lives, either because of topic, delivery or presentation. It is journalism that includes conversation, makes no pretense to omniscience and exudes personality. There is still a place for traditional enterprise reporting, but we also need to reinvent journalism for the 21st Century. We need to think differently about how we do our jobs, how we prioritize our time and what we consider important.

Until we think differently about journalism, all of the money on Wall Street won’t save newspapers. Once print journalists stop thinking like print journalists, then we can better discuss how best to invest in the new journalism.

UPDATE: Related, Andrew Grant-Adamson takes on a CJR editorial calling on billionaires to take over big newspapers. He notes that rich owners want to make money, too, and are just as likely to make staff cuts as publicly traded companies. He also suggests that newspapers have fallen out of favor with Wall Street because of flat revenue, but I think the lack of confidence has more to do with the inability of newspaper companies to articular a clear vision of the future. We have been clinging to a dying business model (including how we report and present news). Related to that thought is Alan Mutter on newspaper valuation.

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