Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mario Looks at the World

Mario Garcia -- certainly the dean of newspaper redesign experts at this point by longevity if nothing else -- had some comments recently on why U.S. newspapers are starting to lag behind the rest of the world in some areas. Whether or not you will agree with Mario, he certainly has the international contacts and context to comment, having redesigned newspapers all over the world.

While noting that U.S. newspapers excel in professionalism, he adds: "American newspaper editors, unlike their European or Asian counterparts, may have a heightened sense of mission. They see their role as that of producing the type of journalism that not only reports, but also exposes and investigates. It is the idea of the journalist as a missionary. ... As a result, editors are extremely protective of what they consider to be 'serious journalism,' and with this comes a negative reaction to anything that, like innovative advertising, could create a notion of compromising editorial values."

Well, you're either with Mario by now, or you're not.

"...Some American newspaper editors have a greater sense of the printed newspaper as king, with online and digital editions being less important.... This belief is more prevalent in U.S. newsrooms than anywhere else in the world." He then quotes a U.S. metro newspaper editor as saying: "American journalists are too often absolutists or even fundamentalists. They regularly defend a form of top-down, tablets-from-the-mountaintop journalism. Any changes either to that approach or even to the surrounding content or the relationship with readers is seen as unacceptable compromise...."

He then goes on to note that papers overseas are more liberal in where they will let advertising be placed, and says focus groups are overused. But you can see the flip side of this coin in the belief that "journalism as we know it must survive" even if no one wants to pay for it or underwrite it. It is our holy mission. The problem is that many readers -- and I do talk to some of them -- think we have been preaching at them for decades, and they really don't like it. They find us haughty, one-sided and arrogant -- and not just because they do or don't watch Fox News. The sort of collapse the newspaper business has had does not come from just the existence of an alternative. People have to actively want to not use your product, because otherwise inertia rules. Many, many people have been alienated from newspapers for some time, in my view.

What I found most interesting was that I have always thought of newspapers in other countries -- not Britain so much as the Continent and South America -- as even more opinionated, polemical, etc. as we are. But I will trust Mario that this is not so. It is in many ways coincidence, but the sense of newspapers not as crusaders -- which goes back to the beginning -- but as missionaries in the sense we know now begins at about the time their circulation started to fall off in relative terms, in the 1960s. And yes, I am an unreconstructed liberal. But more to come.

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