A prescriptive look at the news business

The clip above came to mind while scrolling through comments on Dean Starkman’s CJR piece, Confidence Game: The limited vision of the news gurus.

As Starkman points out, there’s two camps in the game of predicting where the news game is going and how it will survive.  There’s the Future of News Crowd, a group of academics and business elite who proclaim everything is changing, the world is falling apart and the old models will not work in the fully digital future.  The other camp is the Journalism for Democracy gang (Starkman’s phrase).  This is the group that us digital types have often dismissed as “printies,” dinosaurs who decry the changes in media markets and demand, “somebody must pay.”

I believe in, more than ever, the middle ground.

There will be no radical shift in the news business (though, I myself, fretted about it in my newspaper company executive days).  There is an evolution going on, not revolution.  Newspapers may die (and maybe they won’t), but the news business, and journalism, will survive.

The main thing both the FON and JFD groups miss is a sense of history, hence the Bogart clip.

Since early in the 19th Century, the news business has been constantly evolving, and each step of the way, there has been somebody to mourn the passing of an era, from the six-penny publishers losing out to the penny newspapers, from the muckrakers being superseded by the professional journalists, and then you had the advent of radio and TV and the death of evening newspapers, and finally, the digital age.

Each step of the way, the old school reacted with fear and loathing.

But somehow, each step of the way, new and better forms of journalism emerged.

Some of the greatest work in newspaper history came after broadcasters began competing for listener and viewer attention and local advertising dollars.

If you study the charts on newspaper readership and circulation declines, newspapers have suffered more from the changing demographics of America and changes in their own business structure than the rise of new technology.

Newspapers have been hurt by three things:

  • World Wars.  Both the first and second big wars caused great migrations around the country, mostly toward the west, as workers went to factories to find wartime jobs and military personnel found new ports of call on the coasts.  This created a less rooted society, which hurt local newspapers as people felt less connected to their communities, and therefore less interested in what the local daily or weekly had to offer.
  • Professionalization.  The rise of journalism schools and the sense that all reporters and editors needed to be “professional journalists” turned newspapers away from being interwoven in the fabric of their communities toward disconnected observers that need not be troubled with the consequences of what is covered, or not; and, more so, gave a sense of entitlement to reporters that they need not bother with the trifles of community life.
  • Chains and IPOs. Once a newspaper (or radio or television station) becomes part of a chain, it’s profits are no longer its own.  A certain layer of revenue gets sent back to corporate HQ to cover corporate expenses (corporate HQs are by definition incapable of generating revenue to support their own operations) and the local profits must be shared with corporate overlords. This means money that once stayed in the community to reinvest in journalism is now ripped away from the place where it could do most good for the health of the community and the news organization.  The introduction of publicly traded newspaper companies in the 1970s brought a whole next level of evil in the chain ownership structure.  With shareholders to please, insane profit margins needed to be maintained.  The news business — and it is a business — is not of sufficient structure to make rapid enough change or introduce new quickly commoditized products (the way a traditional manufacturer can) to maintain those profit margins.  The best newspapers can do are invest in themselves to improve and maintain quality.  In the publicly traded world, that’s not possible.

The news business was in decline before the Web came along.  Like the proverbial frog in hot water, nobody noticed how these structural changes to the news business were leading to irreversible long-term declines.  In fact, it looked like things such as chain structure (so bean counters could create “efficiencies of scale”) and a more professional work force (which also made reporters more like factory workers, more interchangeable), were in some ways beneficial (professional reporting is better, after all, than gossip mongering).

If my thesis is true — and obviously, I believe that it is — then digital represents more of an opportunity than a threat.

And the opportunity lies with those businesses that are addressing the structural flaws in the American media landscape.

  1. Local ownership.  Only local owners can address two of root causes of the news business decline. First is a connection to the community and a commitment to the community. Second is that revenue is not frittered away on support of a wasteful corporate infrastructure.  So called “scale” has no place in the news business. Local news operations by their most eloquent definition can’t scale.  Regionalism is one thing, national scale is a pipe dream.
  2. Start ups.  A start up doesn’t have the baggage that goes with legacy.  A start up can come out as a pure digital play and build a business around realistic cost and revenue projections. Digital is a different medium from paper or air. It calls for a different approach to news and business. The start up owner has the flexibility to experiment and fashion a structure that better fits the environment.
  3. Reinvent journalism. The independent editor has the freedom to change the rules of the game, re-evaluate all of the sacred cows that have been erected in the high church of journalism and decide what makes sense and what doesn’t.  The reinvented journalist can once again be a booster for his or her community, can care about the health of the local business community, can more effectively point out the rights and the wrongs in the civic sphere, and can engage his or her community in ways that are meaningful and hopefully attract more people into a new engagement with the very places they live and work.

There’s a lot of talk in the pundit class about the “sustainability” of local online journalism.  To me, it’s a ridiculous topic to theorize about.  Of course, local online journalism will be sustainable.  Each stage of journalism, from the penny press to the arrival of television, local journalism has remained sustainable.  Those who navel gaze lack a sense of history.

Think back to the original penny press publishers — they had no concept of professional journalism and certainly couldn’t imagine paying for it with classified ads, especially with big profitable verticals in jobs, cars and real estate, nor could they imagine full page spreads from department stores, nor did they think much about special sections and Sunday morning inserts — all of the things that went into making modern newspapers powerhouses of revenue and investigative, watchdog journalism were not invented for decades after the penny press was born.

We don’t know how online journalism will evolve, but it will evolve.  It will find ways to make more and more money to pay for more and more journalism.  The audience is there for it, local businesses will always want to connect with that audience, and entrepreneurial minded people will find ways to put the pieces together.

Recommended reading (books that influenced the thinking behind this post)

‘Lede’ vs. ‘Lead’

Early in my career somebody I obviously respected — can’t remember who now — told me the correct newspaper spelling of the opening of a newspaper story is “lede.”

There’s lot of romanticism and nostalgia in the newspaper industry for “lede,” like there is for “–30–.”

journalism booksHell, there’s romanticism of the literal kind around the spelling of “lede” in my own life. When Billie and I were first dating, the shared knowledge that the word is correctly spelled “lede” was just one more way we bonded.

But we were wrong.

The other thing that Billie and I shared was a love of old journalism books. Before we met, with both collected them. Today, our collection exceeds 400 titles. About 100 of the best of them are sitting at the moment immediately to my left.

Some years ago, researching the evolution of “objective journalism,” I cracked open many of these old books, and something struck me — in none of these old books did any author spell the word “lede.” They all spell it “lead.”

It was then I realized, there is no historic basis for the spelling of a lead as “lede.” “Lede” is an invention of linotype romanticists, not something used in newsrooms of the linotype era.

It’s really emblematic of today’s print nostalgia, too — like Desi and Lucy sleeping in separate beds — a longing for an America that never was, or wasn’t quite what you thought it was.

Here are some sources for you:

The fact is, in none of the dozens of old journalism books that I have examined — none of them — spell it “lede.” I can’t find the definitive first reference to “lede” but it doesn’t start appearing in journalism books until the 1980s.

The discussion about “lede” vs. “lead” on Twitter this morning seems to have been sparked by a post from Jay Rosen, on the “the best lede ever.”

I’m not sure where the conversation went from there. By the time I jumped in, Steve Buttry, Steve Yelvington and others had weighed in. (Hash Tags weren’t used, so hard to point you to the entire thread).

The explanation for “lede” was offered up as an alternate spelling for “lead” (pronounced “led” as in “hot lead” or “hot type.”) of the linotype era.

However, as the sources I cite demonstrate, journalists working in the linotype era (which started in 1896) never spelled it “lede.” It was always “lead,” as in “news lead.”

It wasn’t until linotype was disappearing from newsrooms across the nation (late 1970s and into the 1980s), that we start seeing the spelling “lede.”

The safest conclusion, then, is that “lede” is a romantic fiction invented by those who were nostalgic for the passing of the linotype era.

UPDATE: Chris Keller used Storify to aggregate and organize this morning’s Twitter conversation.

UPDATE Aug. 13, 2019: Roy Peter Clark — who is going to question RPC on journalism writing? — did his own research and came to pretty much the same conclusion, added extensive quotes to his essay, and concluded with the very good point: A good lead is crafted in the service of great writing, and if the writing is good, that’s is all that matters. Thank you to Roy for the citation of this piece in his article.

Reporters and editors should develop a reader satisfaction index

Many people referred to my MBO post as a “challenge.” That wasn’t a challenge. It was just a task list with a reward. Here’s a challenge:

Make your focus your audience. Try to figure out what readers want, not just what you think they want.

For the individual reporter: Make a three year commitment not to submit any story you report or write to any journalism contest. Insist that no editor submit any story you write to any contest. At the same time, collect every reader praise you get and track them. Make it your goal to get at least 4 reader praises per month. The praise can come through a phone call, in person, e-mail or story comment. In months that you make goal, give yourself a treat — it might be a night out at the movies, a nice dinner, a concert or whatever makes you happy but you don’t already do regularly for yourself (or your significant other). When you don’t make goal, deny yourself that treat. If you make goal three consecutive months, increase the goal by a reasonable amount.

For editors: Ban your staff from submitting articles to award contests. Start collecting reader praise. Every week, post the number of reader praises on a prominent bulletin board in the newsroom. Encourage editors and reporters to forward praise to you so you can count it (if the praise didn’t come in written form, require specifics on the nature and source of the praise). Track that number every week and graph it. When praise comes in written form, post the best of the praise. Do not give gold stars or bonus checks for praise. Don’t make it an individual contest. But do thank every staff member who forwards praise to you. Though, you should encourage reporters to do the individual measurement on their own.

BTW: Praise can be for stories, blog posts or video — any kind of journalism, no matter where it first appears or what format.

It can’t be from sources or subjects.

Don’t count complaints. Complainers about stories often have agendas, or are just zealots with an anti-media bias.

Or develop your own reader satisfaction index. The goal is to focus on the reader, the audience.

I can already hear the objections — you’re dumbing down journalism by aiming for the lowest common denominator, you’re ambulance chasing and taking journalism from the context of serving the public good.


It’s a false dichotomy to say there are only two kinds of journalism — the “holy temple of serving the civic good” journalism and the ambulance-chasing journalism. There are all kinds of journalism. Your job is to figure out what kind audiences really want.

Related Posts:

Journalism has evolved to fit society’s needs and demands

When ever I write about the need for journalists to learn new tools — such as blogging or DIY video — there’s a few hearty souls who pop up and say, “It’s not about the technology. It’s about the journalism.”

Those people are absolutely right. It’s not about the technology. Where they might be wrong is, it is not necessarily about the journalism.

What they should really say is, “It’s not about the technology. It’s about the audience.”

The audience decides what journalism they want. They always have. For background on this, see my review of Discovering the News.

Successful publishers of the past figured out what audiences wanted and gave it to them.

Publishers such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer became wealthy and built successful publishing empires by giving audiences the kind of journalism they wanted.

Even as journalists at the start of the 2oth Century began to take a greater role in defining their profession, they still had to write and report what people would buy.

What journalists mean by “journalism” today isn’t what journalists meant when they spoke of “journalism” in 1830, 1880 or 1910. It was only during the radical changes in society following World War I that the word objectivity entered the lexicon and modern journalism began to take shape.

It may merely be a coincidence, but interestingly, as journalism became more of a profession and less of trade in the 1930s, newspaper household penetration began to decline.

Real circulation losses didn’t start until the 1970s, at the apex of the rise of investigative journalism and the birth of the Woodstein era.

Is it possible that professional journalism, for all its pretense to serving society, has really been out of touch with its readership?

Is it possible that for the past four decades, journalists have produced stories to impress other journalists (aka, win awards), not please readers?

The funny thing is, Mr. Reporter, when is the last time the guy in the other cubicle picked up a paper and read one of your stories, or you one of his?

It doesn’t often happen, does it?

Now, for the first time, our audience can fight back. They can post comments, publish blogs, produce videos, and report the news themselves. Society is changing, but many journalist hide behind the notion that “technology does not change journalism.”

If society changes journalism, however, what happens to the journalist, or the newspaper, that doesn’t change to meet the new needs and demands?

If a brand of journalism doesn’t fit with the society it purports to serve, is it really serving that society?

Shouldn’t we be listening to our audience so we can figure out what they want from us?

Review: Discovering the News, by Michael Schudson

Journalism — what constitutes a story, the guiding principals and mores of editors and reporters — hasn’t changed much in my lifetime. It’s easy to think that the attitudes, aptitudes and priorities of journalists have been much the same all the way back to Gutenberg.

Of course, people who have studied journalism history know that’s not true.

We don’t spend a lot of time talking about our profession’s history, even though history might teach us a good deal about today.

A great place to start the discussion is a book I just read called Discovering the News by Michael Schudson.

Schudson’s book is thirty years old, but it covers the major changes in journalism through the Watergate era.

The primary theme of the book is that journalism has evolved in response to changes in society.

Schudson’s story begins in the 1820s, when the dominate newspapers where either organs of political partisans or served the interests of the business class. They sold for six cents per edition, but required annual subscriptions. This meant only the wealthiest Americans could afford a newspaper. Few papers sold more than 2,000 copies per day.

In the 1830s, the penny press arrived. Some might think it was technology (steam-driven cylinder presses) that drove the advent of the penny press, but it was really the rising tide of a middle class in America, and a greater sense of democratic rule over gentry rule (voting was now open to more than just land owners). The penny press met the demand for news (something the six-penny papers didn’t have) by reporting actual events, such as murder trials, rather than just political editorials.

The publishers, such as James Gorden Bennett and Horace Greeley, cranked out a lot of news, and a lot of advertising, to a middle class, trained by the six-penny papers, to see newspaper subscriptions as a status symbol. They sold a lot more newspapers.

The papers were not necessarily non-partisan, and while the reporting was informational, it wasn’t necessarily without an agenda, and they were certainly sensational.

By the 1880s, the New York papers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst took sensationalism to new levels. While the journalist of the day would believe their reporting was truthful, they were not beyond withholding information to shape a story. Consider the career of Richard Harding Davis and his role in reporting the Spanish boarding the Olivette. Davis didn’t quit Hearst not because Davis didn’t support the publisher’s position, but because the particular fictionalization wasn’t his fictionalization. Davis merely withheld facts. Hearst invented new ones.

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute the success of Pulitzer and Hearst to Yellow Journalism. At a time when New York first became a commuter city, and a city of immigrants in need of illustrated papers and simple language, Pulitzer and Hearst met the need.

It wasn’t until Adolph Ochs purchased the New York Times in 1896 that a more non-partisan, less sensational style of journalism began to take hold. Ochs’ style of journalism came along at a time when observational science was beginning to shape cultural attitudes and realism was the leading trend in art and literature. Again, Ochs was meeting the needs of a changing society, not driving innovation in news coverage.

Prior to World War I, the word “objectivity” was not part of a journalist’s lexicon. Reporting was expected to be factual, but objective was not a common news value.

With the unraveling of the world after the Great War, up through the Great Depression, people began to question democratic institution and market forces, and the very idea that facts could be considered neutral came into question. Objectivity became a counter weight to the questionable judgment of individuals, not just in journalism, but in law, social sciences and art, as well.

Walter Lippman and others began to call for and define a greater professionalism in journalism. Schools were founded and awards created. It was in this environment that interpretive reporting — putting the news in context — first gained currency.

During World War II, the U.S. government entered, for the first time, into organized attempts to control the news flow. Press agents were hired and press conferences became widespread. Reporters lost access to government officials. The relationship between press and White House changed radically in the post War years.

The rise of McCarthysm, the Bay of Pigs and the start of the war in Vietnam were all events that helped create within society a greater sense that the U.S. government, now no longer easily accessible, was not always worthy of trust. For the first time, the press began to take on a watch dog role and investigative reporting was born.

This trend reached its apex with Watergate.

The way I read the book, prior to the 20th Century, publishers (not reporters and editors) reacted to changes in society where they saw business opportunities. As the 20th Century has progressed, and journalism has become more of a profession rather than a trade, journalists have had a great say in what constitutes professionalism, but there is still a good deal of reaction to society, rather than journalists simply changing the terms of their jobs.

And now, society is apparently going through its largest upheaval, especially in terms of how it interacts with media, since at least the 1960s, if not the earliest parts of the 2oth Century.

If that’s the case, should today’s journalist react with “we should keep doing what we’ve always been doing” attitude, or figure out how journalism needs to change to meet new demands and new needs?