Sunday, October 21, 2007

Quick hits

From Reason magazine, "Amusing Ourselves to Depth," an interesting look and rumination at The Onion and what lessons it might hold for newsrooms trying to find an audience. This snippet ought to give you some idea:

At a time when traditional newspapers are frantic to divest themselves of their newsy, papery legacies, The Onion takes a surprisingly conservative approach to innovation. As much as it has used and benefited from the Web, it owes much of its success to low-tech attributes readily available to any paper but nonetheless in short supply: candor, irreverence, and a willingness to offend.

While other newspapers desperately add gardening sections, ask readers to share their favorite bratwurst recipes, or throw their staffers to ravenous packs of bloggers for online question-and-answer sessions, The Onion has focused on reporting the news. The fake news, sure, but still the news. It doesn’t ask readers to post their comments at the end of stories, allow them to rate stories on a scale of one to five, or encourage citizen-satire. It makes no effort to convince readers that it really does understand their needs and exists only to serve them. The Onion’s journalists concentrate on writing stories and then getting them out there in a variety of formats, and this relatively old-fashioned approach to newspapering has been tremendously successful.

Are there any other newspapers that can boast a 60 percent increase in their print circulation during the last three years? Yet as traditional newspapers fail to draw readers, only industry mavericks like The New York Times’ Jayson Blair and USA Today’s Jack Kelley have looked to The Onion for inspiration.

Hmmm ... but read it, because it should get you thinking. Does good journalism have to be dull? Where is the line?

Earlier this week, of course, came the news (more from E&P) that Paul Steiger, soon-to-be former Wall Street journal managing editor, was creating a nonprofit investigative journalism center, Pro Publica. Bravo, but ...

I've been chewing on this all week, and not to be the downer at this party, but I'm just troubled by what it signals. Yes, private, nonprofit groups have been helping newsrooms do investigative projects for years (think of Chicago's Better Government Association and all the projects it was involved in with media outlets there, such as the famous Mirage Bar). But this is different. This is doing almost all the heavy lifting and then just handing a project over, turnkey, to a media outlet.

News organizations by and large already have handed their training functions over to nonprofits like press associations and Poynter. Their R&D, such as it is, is largely done by industry nonprofits. Now, the watchdog function. On one hand, of course, it's good to see the commitment and craft flourish somewhere. On the other, it's deeply troubling for what it says.

So, good luck, but pardon if there's a touch of melancholy in the "best wishes."

If you haven't read it, read Howard Owens' "Twelve things journalists can do to save journalism." Make sure you read the comments, too. Owens rips the scab off some deep-seated feelings about journalism, but it should get you thinking.

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At 10/23/07, 6:33 PM, Anonymous Howard Owens said...

Thanks for the link.

As for your comment about the Onion -- maybe the problem is the line.

At 10/24/07, 5:27 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Well, I think there's got to be some demarcation if for no other reason than to say, hey, we're getting a little close to the "reasonable person" standard here. Nothing says it can't be a moving line, however, or an imutable one. I like to think of it more like a guardrail to keep you from falling off the edge of the cliff.

At 10/25/07, 3:43 PM, Anonymous Gordon Hirsch said...

Let's remember, too, that corporate takeover of America's newsrooms underlies much of the so-called need for "newsrooms to find an audience." It's more about the need for media companies to find new vehicles for advertisers, with banal content to match. God forbid that the content should offend.

If most "news" is dull, perhaps it's because provoking an audience can be bad for business, while pandering is profitable. In the end, most media companies are more accountable to shareholders than the profession they have degraded.


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