What will it take to fix news?

A friend of mine in summer school at UNC-Chapel Hill tweeted that she was learning more about religion in her philosophy class than she ever has in church.

I responded that that’s the difference in teaching and preaching.

That thought coincided with one I’ve been having more and more frequently, and I’m going to do some preaching: What will it take for news leadership to move more aggressively into the future? How much research into where the audience is and what it wants will it take? How many reports on what news organizations need to do to stride into the future will it take? How many financial spreadsheets on the decline of readership, audience share and profit will it take?

No question there have been efforts. When I was editor of the News & Record, we made attempts to go where the readers are, but ultimately they failed because of an unfocused strategy, weak leadership and an emphasis on the wrong things. Other outlets are pushing into the 21st century, and pockets of journalists are embracing the culture.

But they’re the minority. Newspapers have cut costs, eliminated coverage, reduced newsprint and laid off staff. They have cut circulation areas and replaced customer service with voicemail. They have ignored readership interests and needs. They have installed paywalls, littered home pages with banner ads, pop-ups, pop-unders and rich media that grab the visitor’s attention with the tenacity of a panhandler begging for spare change.

I understand the financial incentive. Owners and shareholders want profits to climb. It’s the American way. But something more important is at stake: the future of the business. And as the cartoon posted by Dave Winer points out, it’s not happen by hoping “something magical just happens.

There is no one universal answer. Each news organization needs to determine where its future lies and how to get there. I keep coming back to the idea that they must do a better job of finding out where their audience is and what it wants. I don’t think they actually know. My sense, though, is that most are moving too slowly, too conservatively and without clear direction.

Many newspapers, including the one in my hometown, have gone intensely local. But because there are fewer reporters, the tendency is to cover a lot of crime and government meetings because those are served up and they fill the paper. I’m pretty sure that that isn’t what readers want to dominate their community newspapers. People don’t live their lives around government and crime. News organizations need to redefine their vision of local.

Months ago, I suggested that investigative reporting and good news stories would be my focus if I were still running a news organization. It would, I think, cover the journalists’  public service responsibility and appeal to readers’ better selves.

But that’s just me. There many roadmaps providing direction. I’ve posted links in the third paragraph above. Here is one from the New York Times. Don’t like any of those, business writer Jim Collins has written several books that outline a course of action for business. So has Clayton Christensen. (And here’s a thought from Dave Winer, and a plea from Doc Searls.) 

Perhaps more is happening that I don’t see. I hope so. There is still time, but it keeps getting shorter.

P.S. I find myself thinking more and more about Snopes.com. Started by two people, it debunks myths, legends, lies and BS. Journalists consider themselves truth tellers. Yet, so much is published and aired that tries to obscure the truth. Jay Rosen has written about false equivalency for years, as he does most recently here. And news organizations have set up sites that fact-check political claims. But it’s not just politics; it’s in science, environment, math, religion, heath, etc.

Could newspapers carve out their own fact-checking mechanisms that debunk the crap that goes on in their own communities?

2 thoughts on “What will it take to fix news?

  1. Even Snopes has been accused of bias. It’s harder to be objective with so many alternative outlets. May be newspaper should embrace those outside and acknowledge that occasionally, they are right.

  2. Oh, it’s not just Snopes. The list is SO LONG of things newspapers should have done and didn’t because they were too busy counting basketball passes to see the gorilla (Newspaper Next readers will know what I mean). One of the ones that rankles me the most, as a former classified manager, is Angie’s List. Services were always the fourth “leg” of the classified table; Angie Hicks just figured out a way to make service advertising much more useful by adding reviews and charging for access. And voila, newspapers lost their services classifieds, after having lost automotive, real estate and recruitment. Just one of dozens of examples.

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