Thursday, April 3, 2008

Newsrooms and the Corrections

Online Journalism Review recently ran this piece on advice for "what smart journalists need to do to survive, and do great work, in the Internet era." It was directed at individuals. The first two items work just as well for newspapers, and indeed, if newspapers had been doing them for the last 30 years, Online Journalism Review would not be addressing an article to thousands of out-of-work journalists.

"Step One: You must create content that readers will value highly.

"Step Two: You must promote your content to individuals most likely to value it highly."

(The third step was: Make yourself the brand. Not applicable to an institution as much.)

A store my wife shops at sends her an e-mail coupon every week. An interview in the WSJ with the new head of Burger King said that they are turning the company around by asking their core customers what they want. Newspapers often don't even think they have core customers, and when those customers do ask for things, like "no jumps," they ignore them. Like the managers of wanna-be upscale department stores, they assume their core customers are people just like themselves.

Sam Zell's famous F-bomb came when an Orlando staffer challenged him on giving readers what they want. The interplay (I found it here):

"Fajardo told Zell that 'what readers want are puppy dogs,' presumably referring to soft feature stories. She added, 'We also need to inform the community.'

"Zell shot back: 'I’m sorry but you’re giving me the classic, what I would call, journalistic arrogance by deciding that puppies don’t count. . . . What I’m interested in is how can we generate additional interest in our products and additional revenue so we can make our product better and better and hopefully we get to the point where our revenue is so significant that we can do puppies and Iraq.'"

It's unfortunate that Zell didn't hear the "also" and reacted just to the disdain for puppies. Because actually they were not far apart, whereas in some newsrooms inserting the caveat of "also" would be nearly heretical. We need to inform the community, Sam, and you think puppies have any role in that, well, F- you too. You are not worthy to employ us.

Remember when Jonathan Franzen single-handedly put an end to Oprah's original book club? She picked "The Corrections" as her book of the month and Franzen was seemingly horrified that his piece of art would be read to hoi polloi and be put on the same bookstore tables as Dean Koontz and Janet Evanovich. Now, Farrar Straus may not have been horrified, but once Franzen was in high gear there was little they could do about it.

From the blog linked above: "One imagines he fears ... that if too many housewives and middle managers pick up his book, then Wallace and Antrim and Pynchon and DeLillo might shun him as too bourgeois." (Links in the original.) One also images that if one's journalism runs in a publication that spends a lot of space running photos of pets, one's sense of oneself as a high-media-culture professional could be sullied. If I work for you, and you do X, then I must be X by association. But I am Y.

The heck with whether anyone buys it.

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