Friday, June 25, 2010

It's Not the Paper. It's What's On It

A Nieman Lab post by Dan Froomkin said a reason newspapers are failing on the Web -- a debatable proposition, so let's phrase it as "the reason newspapers are not as dominant players in the post-online news ecosystem as they were in the system that preceded it" -- is that the product they're providing doesn't work online. Some quotes:

"We’re hiding much of our newsrooms' value behind a terribly anachronistic format: voiceless, incremental news stories that neither get much traffic nor make our sites compelling destinations. While the dispassionate, what-happened-yesterday, inverted-pyramid daily news story still has some marginal utility, it's mostly a throwback at this point — a relic of a daily product delivered on paper to a geographically limited community. (For instance, it’s the daily delivery cycle of our print product that led us to focus on yesterday’s news. And it's the focus on maximizing newspaper circulation that drove us to create the notion of 'objectivity' — thereby removing opinion and voice from news stories — for fear of alienating any segment of potential subscribers.)

"The Internet doesn't work on a daily schedule. But even more importantly, it abhors the absence of voice. There's a reason why opinion writing tends to dominate the most-read lists on our 'news' sites. Indeed, what we’ve seen is that Internet communities tend to form around voices — informed, passionate, authoritative voices in particular. (No one wants to read a bored blogger, I always say.)...

"One option might be to imitate cable TV, and engage in a furious volume of he-said/she-said reporting, voyeurism, contrarianism, gossip, triviality and gotcha journalism. But that would come at the cost of our souls. The right way to reinvent ourselves online would be to do precisely what journalists were put on this green earth to do: Seek the truth, hold the powerful accountable, expose the B.S., explain how things really work, introduce people to each other, and tell compelling stories. And we should do all those things passionately and courageously — not hiding who we are, but rather engaging in a very public expression of our journalistic values.

"Obviously, we do some of that already. But I would argue that even then, we do so in a much too understated way. We stifle some of our best stories with a wet blanket of pseudo-neutrality. We edit out tone. We banish anything smacking of activism. We don’t telegraph our own enthusiasm for what it is we're doing. We vaguely assume the readers will understand how valuable a service we’re providing for them — but evidently, many of them don’t."

For years, people have been saying that this hasn't worked in print either. The Internet merely opened the door for new competitors who could enter the market without learning to do things the way a newspaper demanded. But as noted here and elsewhere ad infinitum, people have been moving away from newspapers for years, in part because they often are filled with often-boring, often-incremental, often-insider-oriented stories.

They became filled with those stories not just because of a commercial imperative to reach the most people. In fact, newspapers were often more interesting when they were competing with others to reach the most people to fulfill a commercial imperative. When almost every newspaper realized it was the Only Game in Town and likely to remain so forever (as it seemed in the 1970s and 1980s) was when they most felt the pressure to be "objective" (a word I think Froomkin misuses here in terms of the way it was meant by the people who defined it in the mid-20th century, but nevermind). By that time they had already largely maximized circulation. At that point, yes, they certainly wanted to maintain their large circulations. But they also wanted to be seen as fair and impartial truth-tellers, not as activist, enthusiastic, passionate voices. (Eugene Pulliam and William Loeb were activist, enthusiastic, and passionate.)

The debate we have been having is not a debate over whether newspapers will be printed. That's a debate, but the debate is over what I'll call for now "freewheeling journalism" vs. "institutionalized journalism." (Those are sucky labels.) When the Arizona Republic devoted its front page to an editorial on the controversial "ask their status" law, it had to be aware as well that someone could now say, "Your reporters cannot possibly be seen as neutral on this because you as an institution have already taken a stand." But it was certainly an opinion. We could argue church/state about the editorial page's role, except that this was the front page.

When the Republic was owned by Eugene Pulliam, who was known for front-page editorials, it would have been clear that it was the view of Eugene Pulliam. Newspapers spoke for the powerful people who owned them. Was the Republic's view the view of Gannett Co.? Was it the view of the local publisher? The editorial board? In the end it was the view of an institution called the Arizona Republic. But the reporters work for that institution.

Print and trucks and distribution cycles create their own problems, but journalists are engaged in a debate over what constitutes "journalism." Is it saying what happened, or saying what should happen? Is it being a neutral observer who stands back, or an engaged participant who calls it like he sees it? Is it speaking to a general audience, or speaking from a specific standpoint to those who get the point? It's not that Froomkin is wrong. It's that Froomkin's journalism does not fit into a mass-market journalistic organization -- regardless of how whether it's printed or broadcast or posted. And the debate continues to be -- is this better?