New approaches to journalism

foxes by mikebaird
[Via Bench Marks]

As a quick follow-up to this posting, a colleague sent along a review of a new book called Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, which rightly points out that the “death of journalism” isn’t a murder, it’s a murder-suicide. Yes, readers are abandoning print newspapers and magazines, preferring to get their information online (with an assumption that such things are free). At the same time, this abandonment is being driven by a decline in quality of the old media, as the owners seek to cut costs and increase profits. From the review:

“The most basic function of journalism, in Davies’s view, is to check facts. Journalists don’t just pass on what they’re told without making an effort to check it first. At least, in theory they don’t. In practice, contemporary journalism has been corrupted by an endemic failure to verify facts and stories in a manner so fundamental that it almost defies belief. The consequences of that are pervasive and systemic…Journalists report much less than they used to, and much less than they should, as the papers have switched over to a reliance on columnists and opinion…Stories need to be cheap, meaning ‘quick to cover’, ‘safe to publish’; they need to ‘select safe facts’ preferably from official sources; they need to ‘avoid the electric fence’, sources of guaranteed trouble such as the libel laws and the Israel lobby; to be based on ‘safe ideas’ and contradict no loved prevailing wisdoms; to avoid complicated or context-rich problems; and always to ‘give both sides of the story’ (‘balance means never having to say you’re sorry – because you haven’t said anything’). And conversely, there are active pressures to pursue stories that tell people what they want to hear, to give them lots of celebrity and TV-based coverage, and to subscribe to every moral panic.”

I do strongly believe that people are still willing to pay for quality, but as this review points out, that’s not what’s being offered by most of our media outlets. The book looks interesting, definitely worth a read.

Few current newspapers are owned by families anymore. They are owned by large corporations where the search for greater profits often runs up against the cost of doing good reporting. Just as TV news has gone south after they were forced to become profit centers, so too with print media.

I would present the hypothesis that the problem with most companies today, in any industry, is that the people who actually control the company have very little experience in what the company does. The head of GM used to run Home Depot. There are countless examples.

People are turning away from most print media, even when it appears online, because it has become harder and harder to be informed. Most people read the paper for sports, comics and maybe a little business. I red the news online to really find out, usually relying on interested bloggers who I have come to trust to provide some perspective and to inform me on the subject.

The one thing a paper could do well, local news, is often given short-shrift because it costs money to have real people report.

The latest meme is the idea of non-profit newspapers as discussed in the New Yorker. The St. Petersburg Times is anexample, perhaps. Some small, young but strongly focussed newspapers that are not-for-profit are also starting to make some noise. They certainly check facts.

Could these be the beginnings of a new rise in objective, information-driven news reporting? They will if the big guys continue to lose focus on what their mission truly is. I think it is very likely that in 10 years a lot of companies that are currently for-profit will be in the non-profit sector.

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One thought on “New approaches to journalism

  1. Once again the HBS strikes. Remember “a good manager can manage ANYTHING. He doesn’t need knowledge in the business because he is managing people not things”

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