09 March 2009

I come to praise newspapers, not to bury them. OK, maybe I do come to bury them.

This is a rant - the first part of a 2-post gig. I'll offer my solutions to save investigative journalism tomorrow.

Watching and listening to the news industry's collective hand-wringing and navel-gazing about the impending or actual demise of some of its most storied names - Rocky Mountain News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Seattle P-I, Chicago Tribune, McClatchy, and so on - leaves a rather bitter taste in my mouth.

This isn't going to be one of those posts about how the blogosphere killed newspapers. (I wrote about corporate media's five stages of grief nearly a year ago.) It didn't. Dozens of factors led to this decline. It will take dozens of significant steps to save the most important thing newspapers give us - investigative journalism.

To me, the bottom line here is simple - the quality of the product has diminished. Instead of being truly innovative, the corporate leaders of the news industry has taken one model and driven it into the ground - and in the process they've lost credibility and effectiveness. Here are just some of the ways they've done that.

The fundamental lie of being unbiased. There isn't a single news outlet - not today on in the history of mankind - that has been unbiased. Not even close. It's just not possible for a human to exist without bias of some kind. (for the record, the media does NOT have a liberal bias, or a conservative bias. It has always had a NEGATIVE bias.) So every time a news outlet claims to be "fair and balanced" or giving "just the facts" or "no bias, no bull" they lose a bit more of whatever credibility they have left. Everyone has a point of view. Just say so. People look for news to fit their world view. They really do. Let people know yours and let the market decide. I'm guessing there's plenty of variety there for multiple outlets to grow and thrive.

An amazingly thin skin. I've been in politics and communications in one way or another for nearly 20 years now, and I've seen my share of politicians and businesses bristle at criticism from journalists. But I've also seen how rarely newspapers correct their mistakes - and when they do, it's in a small section near the back. I've witnessed far too many "media panels" where journalists do the same type of back-slapping and excuse-making that politicians and CEO's do. If I hear one more reporter call for a "blogger ethics panel" I'm gonna puke. Look in the mirror.

Dropping the ball. I'm biased here, but I don't think it's a stretch to say a lot of corporate media did more cheerleading than reporting in the lead-up to the Iraq war. I'm amazed at how hard news outlets today are advertising the fact that they'll be "keeping the Obama Administration honest" and I keep wondering where that sentiment was in 2002 and 2003. Perhaps you can't go back in time and maybe the best thing you can do is keep government accountable moving forward, but it's not as if the Bush Administration is ancient history. I still think there are plenty of good and important stories that deserve resources and attention. We need to know more about issues such as torture and secret renditions, and the politicization of the Justice Department, and the decisions that led to America's greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression. If the corporate media spent half the resources on these issues as, say, earmarks that anyone can find by reading the damn bill, then I'd think much more highly of them. News outlets really don't have a lot of fans among conservatives. The light touch they gave the Bush Administration for so long lost them a lot of supporters among liberals as well. They still don't have them back.

Bad business decisions. Hey, I'm not a corporate whiz. But it occurs to me that when you have substantial revenue and relatively fixed costs, you should be able to turn a profit. Most newspapers still have decent revenue, and have the same kinds of cost issues that other companies do. When corporate parents take on the kinds of debt they did, that's a problem. When they do nothing but complain when consumers found other sources of information, Charles Darwin smiles and says "I told you so."

Still thinking it's a lecture. This is the fundamental point that many newspapers and corporate media outlets still don't understand. Brian Williams still doesn't like the fact that he has to compete against Vinny the basement-dwelling blogger and he doesn't get Twitter. That's fine. Brian Williams is smart, works hard, and is a really good journalist who tries to be creative and deserves the success he has, so he doesn't really have to worry about Vinny or telling people what he's doing. The problem is when his network and so many other networks out there want to use the tools that bloggers use but still want to own and control all the content. Everyone gets to talk and everyone should listen now. Brian Williams shouldn't try to control the discussion. He should take heart that he's offering the best stuff in it. But if he tries to denounce Vinny or suggest his opinions or contributions are somehow less important than others, Brian is in trouble. Let the contributions and opinions speak for themselves. Cream will still rise to the top.

Tomorrow, how we rescue investigative journalism from the news industry.


Chris Milton said...

Nice list of "where print media went wrong".

In the round, you're right... print media has had a long, slow, painful decline which (in the UK at least) seems to parallel political decline.

Web2.0 has been the largest, final nail in the coffin, nothing more and certainly nothing less.

But how to we rescue investigative journalism? This stuff costs time and lots of it. Web2.0 still doesn't pay for that time.

This is the question which needs to be answered.

Prof Mark said...


This is a wicked awesome post. You have hit the nail on the head, and speaking of heads, I still think that WHY print media is dying has not penetrated the skulls of many in the industry.

The point I liked best is that of bias - it is on both sides of the political aisle, yet many outlets still cloak themselves in a veil of "objectivity." Look at the pictures that appear. Look where the "pro" quote appears and look where the "con" quote appears. Sure, a writer can present both sides of the story, but how and when reveals the true bias.

Awesome piece.