“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:
- 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.”
- Written a full story on something you’re even bored to tears with because “well, we can’t just write a brief.”
- 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.
- 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.