Journalists must change thinking to change industry

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein

When I read this Einstein quote (which was posted in an office at my kids’ elementary school), I thought: Wow! Einstein could have said this today about the newspaper industry. To me the quote sums up so much of what is wrong with the news media’s fumbled attempts to re-invent itself. We need to change thinking, or we can’t change actions. So simple, but so true.

The quote dovetails with the message of Jeff Jarvis’ thoughtful post about journalists needing to add value in what they do. Jarvis, who is on the City University of New York faculty, argues on BuzzMachine that the key question for journalists and news organization is: “Are you adding value? And if you’re not, why are you doing whatever you’re doing?” 

I agree with him. Why do anything if it doesn’t add value? I’d urge you to read Jarvis’ post because it gets to the heart of the inefficiency that plagues much of the news industry, an inefficiency that as Jarvis points out we can ill afford these days. Much of what gets done in newsrooms is reflexive — done almost without thinking: We do it because we’ve always done it. We do it because that’s what newspapers do. We do it because we don’t want to have to come up with our own ideas. We do it because we don’t want to get blamed if a higher-up complains that we didn’t do it.

Jarvis cites useless standups of a CNN reporter in his post. I’m more familiar with newspapers, so I’ll draw my examples from there.

Ask yourself, how many times you or someone you work with has:

  1. Covered a routine event just because “we always do” or “we can’t not cover it” or if “we don’t cover it, we’ll catch hell.”
  2. Written a full story on something you’re even bored to tears with because “well, we can’t just write a brief.”
  3. Regurgitated a news release and turned it into a story rather than used the release as a starting point and created something real. Or better yet, just linked to the release online, so readers could digest it themselves.
  4. Blogged about something that’s off-niche out of guilt or a sense of requirement.

I challenge all journalists and bloggers — and I include myself in this — to ask Jarvis’ question — Am I adding value? –  before doing anything on the job. In my experience, the hurried newsroom culture doesn’t encourage deep thinking. In my 20 years in a variety of newsrooms, I’ve found decisions on what to cover or how to cover it are often rooted in journalistic routines, which is a fancy way of saying “that’s how we always do it.” These routines become almost a straight-jacket that stops us from inventing, innovating, creating, experimenting. We fear the odd look from a co-worker or the bristle from an editor who feels his or her ideas are being challenged.

I say: Challenge away. We’re fighting for our lives here as an industry. We can’t afford to do anything that doesn’t add value, and figuring out what adds value must be tied to the reader.

That brings me to my second, related point: We must listen to our readers.

Ask most journalists, and they’ll tell you they are “thinking about the reader.” I’d argue much of this thinking is really guessing what the reader wants based on what we — journalists — think the reader should have. I think we forget that readers aren’t necessarily like us.  In many ways, newspapers have served their advertisers more than their readers because the advertisers are what kept them afloat financially — not the readers, Jarvis notes in his new book, “What Would Google Do,” page 76. And now, of course, advertisers are bailing on us, causing much of the current “troubles” in the industry.

We forget that we’re a service industry: We’re in the business of helping readers make sense of their world, not of selling them news. And like any business, if we aren’t responsive to our customers, we’ll die,

 So how do we listen to the reader? We ask them. We talk to them. We gather their ideas on blog comments and e-mails and phone calls. We set up newsletters for readers in a our niches. The subscription list can serve as mini-focus groups to help us see what stories they want to read — and which they don’t. We open up our blogging data to our bloggers, and we analyze it again and again over time and assess trends.

And then we listen. It does nothing to know what the reader wants and ignore it.

I’d submit we don’t listen enough. A question has been buzzing around my newsroom, and I think it goes to my point. If we knew only 25 people out of thousands of subscribers were reading a particular news story in our print publication, would we stop writing it? 

My answer: Yes, stop writing a story so few are reading or at the very least figure out how to tell the story so people will read it. We can’t afford to waste newsprint and journalists’ time, our two most valuable commodities, on something that’s adding so little value. Print by its nature is one-size-fits all and can’t be adapted to each customer (Jarvis, page 71, “WWGD”). Part of why newspapers are struggling is because they are set up to be a mass medium in a world where a mass audience really no longer exists. The audience is now a “mass of niches,”  Jarvis says on page 63, 64 of “WWGD.” And the Web is uniquely suited to tailoring information and news to these niches, which means the Web can be our savior if we let it.

So why don’t we listen to readers? I think part of the reason is we assume readers don’t really know what they want or we think what they want isn’t good for them.  That paternalistic model, frankly, hasn’t been working for decades. We expect the reader to want ice cream and soda, and we see ourselves as the high-minded intelligentsia shoveling up broccoli and whole-grains to the toothless masses. I think we sell the reader short. I think we need to realize that if readers don’t get the stories we think are important — the economy, politics, war, genocide – we’re not telling them in the right way. We need to fix ourselves; we can’t fix the reader. And if we really listen to readers and really give them choice, I think we’ll be surprised at how smart they are.

Now some worry that giving readers what they want would mean porn, freaky headless animals and nonstop celebrity gossip. I think that’s a needless worry. Readers can get plenty of all of that on the Web; they don’t need a news Web site for that. The Web allows anyone to publish, so it opens the gates to lots of junk, but also to lots of value. As Jarvis notes in “WWGD” page 84, “abundance breeds quality.”

We need to use the best of our journalistic reporting, investigative and enterprising tools to be part of the quality. As I said in an earlier post, dumming down won’t save the media. We need to change our thinking, get closer to our readers and really listen. We need to put the readers’ ideas first — not our own well-worn routines. We need to change the thinking that created the problems we have now.


14 thoughts on “Journalists must change thinking to change industry

  1. “That paternalistic model, frankly, hasn’t been working for decades.” — excellent post, I think you’ve got a good handle on what’s wrong with media today.

    Furthermore, there are pathologies on the Web that print media perpetrate, when they say to themselves, “we need to get onboard with this ‘online’ thing.” That self-same “paternalistic model”, when brought to the Web, is like fingernails on a blackboard.

    Example: I once happened across a video on youtube from _Car and Driver_ magazine, in which they referred to one of my favorite cars on the market as an “econobox” (which it isn’t). Another video of theirs was a comparison of cars in the same class…but left out my personal favorite, as well as another company’s fleet, both of which have cars that are arguably better than some of the cheesy vehicles they had in their taste-test.

    Ha: that kind of rhetorical disinformation might have worked when they had, essentially, a stranglehold on the information they published…but now we have the ability, online, to criticize C&D w/out them being able to stop that.

    Further, for folks who know better than the folks at C&D, they are just as apt to fire C&D, in fine Donald Trump style. Car and Driver: YOU’RE FIRED!

    In my case: I saw the misinformation and disinformation, and said “I’ve had enough of this.” Not just as a source of videos online, but I won’t touch their print media, either. And indeed, I can get _better_ information about the vehicles _I_ care about, by just poking around online.

    That’s just one example of a print publication whose days are numbered…and that’s not even a matter of investigative journalism. In the newspaper realm, I can think of a paper here in the SF Bay area that has fallen on bad times…but even as early as in the 80′s, my dad had already “fired” them. And when they called him once, trying to get him to re-subscribe, his answer was: “Why should I subscribe? You’re just another Hearst newspaper.”

    And so on. Sorry to be long-winded about this, but I think these problems to be systemic all over the world, for _all_ news organizations,…but most especially for cable news channels, and most especially here in the U.S.

    Here, “news” — that is, reliable *information* — is considered “product” which is “sold”, both to the “consumer”, as well as to attract advertisers. That isn’t an effective model for journalism, especially in today’s world of readily-available information.

    Indeed, this idea of “corponews” never *was* an effective model for disseminating information…it’s a pathology in itself, and any news organizations that cling to it will eventually find themselves following other failed newspapers into the Abyss.

    That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Thanks!


  2. @Scott Doty

    Fabulous point about news media taking that paternalistic model to the Web. I see that. I fear that.

    The thing is, as you point out, it was annoying in print to see that paternalistic attitude. It’s worse on the Web because there are so many options, readers don’t need to stay with us. We need to be so much more than in the past or else, as you say, we’ll get fired.

    Thanks for adding to the conversation.

    – Gina

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  5. GREAT article. I couldn’t agree with you more. I love to write, and it is my goal to do it in a personal, effective manner to continue to support my local community. For me, I am way too subjective to be a “real” journalist. lol

    If it is written with heart, it has value.

  6. You make so many excellent points here I can’t list them all. I do want to quibble with the notion that there’s something wrong with attempting to cater to a mass audience. The beautiful thing about a newspaper, done well, is that the print edition exposes readers to information they didn’t know they needed or wanted. Holding a print newspaper in your hands forces you to at least glance at the headlines and consider the stories as you’re “on your way” to other sections or stories in the paper.

    For instance, if you asked me if I’d want to read about volunteer firefighters, I’d probably say no. But give me a terrific tale about a conflict between adjacent volunteer-firefighter districts, one that’s both entertaining and useful, as the Post-Standard did a few months back, and it’s a “must-read,” water-cooler fodder as surely as the most recent episode of “Lost” is.

    That’s what’s lost when local newspapers move to the Web–that common, democratic connection made when everyone is reading the same thing and talking about it.

  7. @Reid Sullivan

    True … there is the beauty of serendipity in a newspaper, finding a story by accident that’s a great read or moving. Totally agree.

    And newspapers, especially general-interest ones, will continue to write for a mass audience in print. They have to, and they should.

    But they also have to and should make strong efforts online. The online audience fragmented in the same way the TV audience fragmented as cable stations proliferated.

    Take your own publication, for example. It’s a niche. A very important niche in my mind, but it works because it tries to appeal to that niche and not reach everybody. A see a lot of value in that approach as all our audiences continue to fragment.

    Thanks for sharing.

    – Gina

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