Ken Doctor at Neiman’s “Newsonomics” points out that the “self-asphyxiation” cycle is nearing endgame
I cross-posted a response to this on Facebook, so if you’ve already seen it there from me, my apologies.
But I’ve been watching the gradual descent of local news for most of the past 20 years, and the latest round-up by Doctor basically sums up everything that I’ve been fearing. A sampling:
While national/global news companies have cut their newsrooms, they have still maintained sufficient capacity to make their news brands valuable in the digital age. It’s not just the numbers of journalists: It’s a good mix of veteran experienced journalists who know their beats deeply and younger journalists, still early in their careers but natively more digitally inclined.
At the local press, it’s a different picture. As newsrooms have halved, older, experienced journalists have been disproportionately made to feel redundant, and then made sent off. The main reason: money. Older journalists earn more of it, and their cutting makes short-term financial sense.
The result: a disaster whose death spiral seems to be accelerating. When I’ve given talks, I’ve gotten a lot of nods from people in the industry when I show one single slide: A two-liter bottle of Coke selling for $1 next to a one-liter bottle priced at $2. That’s essentially what local publishers have done in product and pricing of print over the last five years, doubled the price and halved the product, a halving that, of course, carries through to their digital offerings.
Any company that disrespects its own products, and those who produce them, probably deserves its eventual fate.
Yes, money matters, but it’s that beating heart of the business — creating news that local citizens need to run their governments and better their lives — that still has to be an antidote to the single-minded financial view of local news. (If “the market” won’t support local news, many have said to me, than maybe it isn’t needed. I ask them: If the same were true of education, the arts, or even roads, where would our struggling democracy be?) [Ed. note: emphasis mine.]
Where is the moral center of the local news industry — a moral center that long rested, if sometimes uncomfortably, alongside the demands of running a successful business?
While I agree with all the points Ken makes, there is one bit that jumped out: his equating of the news with schools, roads, bridges, etc. Yes, we all agree that we need a group societal effort to build & maintain these things, and that as a result, we all benefit from their existence. Thing is: the average citizen can SEE the roads/schools decaying, and is motivated to action. Lack of local news coverage only becomes a crisis when suddenly we wake up to lead in our water. The news industry, if it is going to transition from ad-supported to a more direct “charge the readers” model, is going to have to get on the stick and market itself better; make a case to the readers that they NEED local news coverage as a form of insurance policy.
Because meanwhile, over at the Shorenstein Center, we’ve got Walter V. Robinson talking about the “Spotlight” movie about the Catholic Church’s coverup of sex predator priests, and how the erosion of business models has particularly devastated investigative reporting. And yes, full disclosure, I started my career as an investigative journalist before going over to the digital zoo, so I have perhaps a skewed view of how important enterprise/watchdog/investigative journalism is to the health of a democracy. Still:
Unfortunately, investigative reporting is threatened in many cities, said Robinson. Although the Globe has partnered with Participant Media and other funders to offer a new investigative reporting fellowship, many local newspapers will no longer invest the time and resources required for stories that can take months of reporting, said Robinson.
“The prevailing view among editors is ‘investigative reporting is a luxury we can no longer afford’…The fact is, investigative reporting is a necessity that we cannot afford to do without.” Robinson said that in the face of declining revenue in the past decade, cutting investigative reporting was a “fundamental mistake.” Readers “almost always” rank investigative reporting highly in surveys, said Robinson.
“The amount of investigative reporting being done now in most cities is a small fraction of what it was in the year 2000,” he said. “In many communities even city hall doesn’t get covered. So the whistleblower who knows about official corruption in city hall has no one to go to…that’s a really serious problem for our democracy right now.”
So here’s my thought: what would be the best way for journalists and news organizations to start making a case for themselves? We’ve seen how well fear-mongering via news outlets works for moving the public to devote spectacular amounts of time, money and energy into heading off perceived threats. The Iraq war, Ebola, the wall at the border with Mexico, the gold standard, handgun seizures … all “crises” driven by media coverage that spurred Americans to either demand the government spend billions (trillion?) to kieep them safe, or got them to reach into their pockets, pull out their wallets, and spend a sizable percentage of their disposable income on something that would Keep Them Safe.
I don’t think we should get as crude and manipulative as many of these campaigns have been. But could there – should there – be a reminder in the middle of each news broadcast/article/infographic, making it explicit that this coverage just saved ordinary Americans from “X” and that to continue to do so, we need you the viewers/listeners/readers to support us in this manner.
And then lay out what might happen if the audience does not. Make it explicit, in the way that a collapsed bridge, or gradeschool on fire, or highway full of potholes does for the average, distracted American, who only has time to respond to direct threats to his/her existence.
Our audience is starved for time, and thousands (millions?) of new digital experiences are screaming for their attention (and money). News is too often marketed as “cod-liver oil” – it tastes like shit, but it’s good for you. I think we need to revisit that paradigm, and start figuring out better ways to make people appreciate what the news, and aggressive, honest local news coverage, does for them.