Friday, February 15, 2008

Selling a Social Good

SPJ President Clint Brewer -- of the Nashville City Paper, which has been a free daily for years, and recently announced it would become an online-only E-paper-and-Web-site operation only -- writes in The Quill that journalists have to take charge of their own destinies.

He notes: "Journalists are going to have to consider the prospect of no longer depending on the business models of yesterday's journalism and take the matters of publication into their own hands.... For professional journalism to survive and thrive again, the profession and its loyalists need to assume an entrepreneurial spirit, using the democratizing tools of the Internet to create new products to serve their communities."

(I can't tell from the City Paper's site if it is electronic-only or not yet; it lists a guide for pickup locations. Maybe it's a slow transition. This piece on the editor of the Tennessean makes an oblique reference to the City Paper's lack of heft, but seems to indicate it still exists in print.)

Who could argue? One would seem to be a churlish Knight Ridder beancounter. But who are these loyalists? Brewer notes: "I do not mean people working as journalists who might want to continue in the profession if they can find the right job -- or they might get into something else if the hours and salary are right. I mean people committed to the social mission of being journalists.... People who are determined to give voice to the voiceless. People whose conscience gives them little choice but to wake up every day in order to seek truth and report it."

It is not maligning those people at all to worry about what business model they might invent based upon whom they believed their readership to be and its economic prospects. It is not maligning journalism to say that much of its good work is done by people who might do something else if the hours and salary were right. The old newspaper movie "30" -- as I remember near the end, someone says to the Crusty Old Editor (William Conrad) what a wonderful job this is and could you ever imagine doing anything else, and he responds, "Yeah. Every day."

Marketing 101 -- the customer is not you. By going into a field such as this you show that you are different than the customer. When I was a kid the Louisville Courier-Journal was widely praised for its reporting on Appalachia. It was able to do this not only through the largesse of the Binghams, but because people were buying it for the comics and the ads and the sports and the social notes and a whole bunch of reasons that also included its reporting on Appalachia. The number of people who were going to buy it mainly to read about Appalachia and other social issues was not terribly large.

I was also inspired by the story of I.F. Stone's Weekly. As Victor Navasky writes: "He embodied the romantic idea of one man pitted against the system. " As Izzy himself said, his mission was "to write the truth as I see it."

I.F. Stone was the iconic loyalist. He was a blogger before blogs, but he was more; he was a reporter as well. His newsletter was self-published and he could not have paid his fellow loyalists well. At his peak, in a far less competitive arena than today, he claimed a weekly circulation of 70,000 across the entire nation. His journalism was influential among a core group of the committed, the concerned and the powerful, and largely unknown outside it.

Is that what a daily newspaper should be? Can it exist as that? Is a newspaper simply about journalism, or does a newspaper exist to enable journalism?

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

As for presses: Don't you think that in just a few short years it's going to seen as insane that an entire industry is based on chopping down large parts of Canadian forest, pulping that mass, turning it into paper, trucking that paper south, running that paper through presses, distributing bits of that paper to just a portion of the addresses in a city, so that in less than 24 hours that paper becomes garbage?
The newspaper industry is more similar to the beverage business than to TV, radio or the Internet.
The beverage business sells its customers two things: a liquid and piece of garbage.
Customers consume the liquid and then, having just paid for it new, find they have an empty bottle -- a piece of waste -- for which they must now pay to dispose.
Same with the printed newspaper -- even with lovely fonts and stunning Euro-style layouts. Read and then find your the one that's got to haul it away.
Internet, TV and radio -- all clean, digital information -- and no garbage piling up in the kitchen.
Change means loss. Changing newspapers will mean losing the paper part of it -- Unless, that is, you want to charge a nickel deposit on every issue.

Jim Thomsen said...

"Journalists are going to have to consider the prospect of no longer depending on the business models of yesterday's journalism and take the matters of publication into their own hands.... For professional journalism to survive and thrive again, the profession and its loyalists need to assume an entrepreneurial spirit, using the democratizing tools of the Internet to create new products to serve their communities."

I am living and breathing this quote. And to do so means leaving the newspaper industry.

I'm working on developing a business in which I report and write about crime of a lesser seriousness than most media and true-crime writers. It's pretty much an open field and Web hits all the country show that there's an insatiable appetite for it.

I'd be a fool to think I can control my future and still work at a newspaper.

I think in many markets, the paradigm will be turned on its head: There won't be many "staff journalists" for much longer, and newspapers will instead buy many of their local stories from former staff writers who sell work on their particular areas of expertise or interest on the open market — either on a piecemeal or contract basis.

I want to get ahead of that curve before it gets ahead of me — and sweeps me out the door before I'm ready to go.

Newspapers will survive. Just in a form we probably can't clearly see right now. And that lack of clarity is scaring me right out of the staff masthead.

Davisull said...

I'm interested that anonymous posted on this specific entry, given that while the theme of this blog is certainly on preserving print, this original post could be read either way.

Journalists could misjudge the business model of an all-electronic news site just as easily as one involving print.

But it does state an essential question. A soda in a can, a bottle, a cup, is still a soda. The question is whether a printed newspaper is simply a container for something or a product in and of itself.

My feeling is that it is a mere container to some people and a product in and of itself to others.

Sara said...

I was with you, David, right up until you decided Waco's front page is something to shoot for. It looks like an ad man designed it. For the sake of having a huge photo, quality is not considered. And not all of the stories deserve the big bang treatment. As for me, I will quit looking when every story and photo is treated like JFK was assassinated.