Friday, September 19, 2008

Listening to Jonie

Howard Owens has been writing about his experiences trying to create a paperless local newspaper for Batavia, N.Y., a site selected by Gatehouse apparently because they determined that the local newspaper was totally clueless about online. He falls into the camp of those who believe that newspapers' problems come initially from their abandonment of local community news in pursuit of the highminded, abstract solutions presented to a community by people who did not live the same lives as most residents.

Jon Talton, of course, would say that he is just as interested in coverage of the local community as Howard is. But I expect that they would have an interesting in-person discussion, with Howard eventually seeing Jon as one of those highminded abstracters not in touch with typical community concerns, and Jon seeing Howard as a slave to focus groups that preach the gospel of local-local at the expense of inconvenient truths. Or I could be wrong and they could spend the night happily buying each other round after round.

Doug Fisher and I had many interesting go-rounds until it sort of hit both of us that he was talking about journalism and then talking about how printed newspapers would fit into its future with myriad and seemingly limitless technological opportunities, and I was talking about printed newspapers and how journalism would fit into their future amid myriad technological opportunities. And then, of course, there are the Kens and Marks who say that print fits into no future at all. And then Tribune Co. is trying to make the reading of a print newspaper more enjoyable, at least as it sees it.

And sometimes the discussions about whither journalism in an era of print decline act as if journalism barely exists outside daily newspapers and weekly newsmagazines, which has always struck me as odd -- journalism has always existed in books, broadcasting, movies (Frederick Wiseman to Michael Moore) and other forms; journalism always takes advantage of whatever communications media exist, adapting its presentation to the medium, and newspapers are both a medium for journalism and a consumer product. So in a purist sense it does not matter in the long run to journalism if they do not exist; but it does not matter if they do exist, either.

Journalism is full of theories -- there used to be the four theories of the press (totalitarian, social-responsibility, etc.), there used to be op-width, balanced vs. circus layout. So I'm going to propose my own for talking about journalism, newspapers, whatever in the future, because I'm a blogger and therefore I can.

And that is that we're talking about Jonie. (I tried to keep it to Joni so we could hear from both sides now, but it was leaving something out.)

Jonie is, in newspaper terms:
J -- Journalism. Capital-J journalism. Investigations, major takeouts, Barlett and Steele, pulling back the curtain to show what's there, locally or nationally -- usually, the bigger the game, the more important it is seen as.
O -- Opinion. Editorials, most blogs, letters, anything whose thrust is "here's what I think about that."
N -- News. Galveston nearly destroyed. McCain says X, Obama says Y. Man helps community baseball league. Mostly just saying here's what happened; you can look behind the curtain, but you don't pull it back completely. It accepts the world as it is and reports on it.
I -- Information. Listings, community events, theater times, business promotions, garden columns.
E -- Entertainment. Not just news about entertainment, but things that entertain the reader -- Hey Mabel stories, comics, Ask Amy, those Monday features on well-meaning local people not doing anything in particular that exist to fill the bottom of the B page.

This just pertains to news. You could drop the J and the rest holds up for advertising, too: Opinion (Exxon should be able to drill for oil, Exxon advertises), News (on sale today!), Information (Dr. Marcos has moved his office), Entertainment (any Volkswagen ad).

Newspapers in the 20th century took Jonie as their guide. Now, many pieces of content did two or more things -- a news story can entertain, the line between information and news is small -- in fact, everything was able to be covered under the rubric of "news," except "opinion" got its own pages except when the publisher wanted to write a front-page editorial or the editor wanted to put a piece of commentary on A1. (News was broken up into news, sports, women's... but it was generally still news.) But the point is not to propose textual analysis, "This story seems like N with a dollop of E." It's just that when people talk about the future of newspapers, they are not talking about the same thing.

So much discussion now is about what emphasis to give to the different parts. Owens writes:

"If local communities are less coherent today than 60 years ago, well certainly mobility and network television play a role, but so do newspapers that fired their community correspondents, stopped covering Eagle scout promotions and tea socials, concerned themselves more with the process of local government than the community impact of its decisions, and tried to be the only indispensable source for all the news of all the world, instead of the one indispensable source of Little League news."

OK, textual analysis, I lied. The community impact part is putting J over N when it comes to local government. But Owens is also saying, in other areas the daily newspaper should have given I more emphasis than J, or at least given I more emphasis than it did. Many bloggers berate newspapers for not immediately combining N and J in the same story, if not O as well. I suspect Talton's view is: Lots of J, less of mundane I. And E? Well, over here we have Lee Abrams, and over there we have -- oh, lots of people who think that J cannot exist with E because E means pandering and cheapening, we are not here to please, we are here to enlighten, and enlightenment is thirsty work.

Much of the despair about newspapers' shaky financial future comes down to: "Without gobs of money, newspapers can no longer do J. They can only do some N and probably more I. Since I see the prime role of newspapers as J, and got into newspapers to do J, they are useless to me. MacArthur Foundation, where are you?" For others it's: "Online can more easily present I and a lot of N. With a strong Web site doing this, the newspaper is for people who are interested in J." Juan Senor of Innovation in Newspapers largely made this point in Australia recently. Does J work better online or in print? Does N have any role in print? If N has no role in print, what is the point of a newspaper? And on and on.

It would be far easier to save newspapers -- in whatever format -- if we could figure out what we were trying to save, or at least group ourselves into parties based on what we think is important and then try to save that. As it is, one person points to a zebra, one points to a hippopotamus, one points to a crocodile, and all say: There's our problem, the newspaper. Let me post a response to your hippo in which I talk about a rhinoceros.

So which newspaper problems are you are mainly trying to solve? The rapid dissemination of news? The provision of information? The full employment of the opportunities offered by digital communication? The establishment of a central community reference? The continued existence of printed journalism? The invocation of a community to act on public issues? The death of obsolete tchnologies and their drain on the corporate purse? The satisfaction of the reader in buying a physical product? The enlightenment of the public on social issues? The preservation of your business? The free expression of opinion? The role of a people's champion? (Think how allowing unlimited posting on every story, as opposed to presenting a selection of edited letters, both supports and undermines the interrelation of those two.) And we haven't even gotten into the advertising problems yet.

You can pick more than one, because some are philosophies and some are tactics. But while they can all fit under the rubric of "reinventing the newspaper," all will not lead to the same solution. And in the long run, it is probably beyond the capabilities of most journalistic organizations to solve all of these problems, even though most are being told that their only future is to try to cover every base in every medium.

As for me, I think newspapers should try to solve the invocation of a community, the establishment of a central community reference, and the satisfaction of a reader in buying a physical product. Through their geographic reach they create, bind and define communities; through their journalistic work they create the most comprehensive databases that could exist; and, as Barney Kilgore said, the first duty of a newspaper is to stay in business. To do that you need to sell something to someone; print products maintain a brand, and newspapers know how to disseminate and distrbute information through print, and charge people for doing so, better than anyone else does. Then whatever else you do has to support this. That's my zebra.

1 comment:

tanyaa said...

As Rhino was putting together her Dreamland collection in 2004, we had the opportunity to sit down with Joni and get her thoughts on each of the tracks and how they were chosen. As always, her insight is astounding as she riffs on the music industry (a favorite topic) and shares stories involving such contemporaries as Bob Dylan and Neil Young.A diving accident in 1967 left Joni Eareckson Tada a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. Today, she is an internationally known mouth artist, a talented vocalist, a radio host, an author of 17 books and an advocate for disabled persons worldwide. In this audio story, you’ll meet Joni and hear how she struggled to accept God’s design in her paralysis.
Internet Marketing