Saturday, November 12, 2011

2 important reads into the state of things and how we got here

Dean Starkman has two important pieces to read in the Columbia Journalism Review - important because the first one should get you thinking, at least, about the sometimes squishy base on which so many future of news predictions - including a few made here - are based and the second should get you thinking hard about whether newspapers (and to some extent mainstream news organizations, including broadcast) were ever structurally, organizationally and psychologically capable of avoiding what has befallen them.

In his first piece, "Confidence Game," Starkman takes aim at Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis - the thinkers and proouncers - and Journal-Register head John Paton, who is trying to translate many of those thoughts into practice.

Shirky, Rosen and Jarvis are (or, more correctly, at times can be) important voices in the discussion. My thinking has certainly been influenced by them (one of the most important being Shirky's observation that we may well be in an interregnum similar to that following the invention of the printing press where the only certainty is uncertainty until some new kind of form, process and equilibrium are found (and that probably should be forms and processes, since one size is rarely likely to fit all going forward).

But they tend to be, how to delicately put it, at times full of themselves. That's to be expected - one does not venture out on such limbs without a certain hubris and certainty of one's position. On the other hand, Starkman does put a pin to some of the over-inflation of the future-of-news (FON) crowd:

Jarvis and Shirky in particular have reveled in the role of intellectual undertakers/grief counselors to the newspaper industry, which, for all its many failings, has traditionally carried the public-service load (see for a laundry list of exposés—on tobacco-industry conspiracies; worker-safety atrocities; Lyndon Johnson’s wife’s dicey broadcasting empire; group-home abuses in New York; redlining in Atlanta; corruption in the St. Paul, Minnesota, fire department, the Rhode Island courts, the Chicago City Council, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball program, and on and on). But their vision for replacing it with a networked alternative, or something else, is hazy at best.

Meanwhile, FON’s practical prescriptions—what it calls engagement with readers—have in practice devolved into another excuse for news managers to ramp up productivity burdens, draining reporters of their most precious resource, the thing that makes them potent: time. ...

FON thinkers, who emerged only in the last few years, represent a new kind of public intellectual: journalism academics known for neither their journalism nor their scholarship. Yet, the fact is they are filling a void left by an intellectually exhausted journalism establishment, and filling it with crisp, readable—and voluminous—prose that offers to connect journalism to the technocratic vanguard.

Starkman spends many words decrying the idea that news is a commodity, if for no other reason than that much of it is local:

Framing the news as a commodity and ultra-abundant makes it easier to give away. It also suggests a lack of understanding of what it takes to produce great beat reporting, let alone accountability journalism. ...

Seeing news as a commodity, and a near valueless one (Paton above says its value is “about zero”), is a fundamental conceptual error, and a revealing one. A commodity is the same in Anniston, Alabama, as it is in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Whatever local news is, it’s not that.

But in doing so, Starkman falls into the same tar pit that traps many journalists - assuming - without testing - that geography remains a definer of value. There are beginning to be some signals that may not be the case. (Yes, especially as to the last, I know there are flaws in the methodology; that, to me, is not a reason to reject outright the possibility but to find ways to test it more effectively).

So he asserts value without really effectively answering the question: If it is not a commodity, then why are newspapers and broadcasters needed anyhow? If every story produced has intrinsic value that can be effectively captured, why do the journalists doing the work need or want a third party to intercede with the audience, and by implication siphon away some or all of the value, for them?

One can imagine Starkman answering that if the institutions did not exist, they would have to be invented to provide the aggregate fire power (journalistically, legally and financially) needed to stand up to the other "big three" - government, business and, until rather recently, labor.  (As he writes: "I’ll go further and posit as axiomatic that journalism needs its own institutions for the simple reason that it reports on institutions much larger than itself.") While the Fourth Estate has been atomizing, government and business have been consolidating, centralizing and amassing more power and resources.

The FONers have never effectively answered that challenge, in my reading of them. But Starkman doesn't really, either. 
Now that we’re done panicking, it’s time for journalism thinkers to turn to the real task: how to re-empower reporters, the backbone of journalism, whoever they are, wherever they may work, in whatever medium, within institutions that can move the needle. (That sound like the same kind of squishiness he accuses the FONers of.)
 He talks about journalism that is "institution-centered, network-powered" using an example from The Guardian's coverage of the News Corp. scandal.

"In that case, traditional investigative reporting broke the story, while social media propelled it to the stratosphere—heights the paper never could have achieved on its own," he writes. (An idea, I would add, that is not new at all but is embodied in Paul Bradshaw's "news diamond" idea of 2007.)

All well and good, but Starkman does a bit of the same that he accuses the troika of - throwing out some idea with a certain hope but no real sense of how to get there.

Starkman, in a response to a comment from Paton, says: "And while I appreciate your credentials, candidly, I don't see how they are relevant here. My piece is about ideas. I expect people to feel free to disagree with mine without feeling the need to interview me."

Which is why, on that level, I recommend reading it. It is a piece about ideas and their clashing. These are important ideas, and sometimes it is important to consider them on a philosophical level divorced from practical reality. Starkman's piece, if you approach it that way, is a valuable stimulant.

His second work, on the rise and fall of the San Jose Mercury News, can be seen in a way to contradict at least some of the underpinning of his first. At least part of his take-away seems to be that while audiences for the Merc's online operations saw little value in the general local news report (how's that not make it a commodity?), they were more than willing to pay for, essentially, utility - access to the archives and to News Hound, an early aggregator of other sources as well:

The Merc dropped the fees in the hope of generating more traffic, and with it, more advertising, even though the revenues from those online ads were a seventh of their print counterparts. The decision not to charge for content reflected an electronic version of the business model built on amassing the largest possible audience, not on cultivating niches

And yet, the niches were there for all to see. By the late 1990s, Chris Jennewein told me, the Mercury News was finding audiences well beyond its circulation area—online readers as far away as India eager for the Merc’s tech news. And while Knight Ridder began trying to build audiences for its NASCAR coverage in Charlotte and the auto industry in Detroit, it was reluctant to dedicate the people necessary to create the content for those niche markets. “Our newspaper roots,” he wrote to me, “held us back.” 
 That last sentence is what makes this an important read. As much as anything, the Merc (and Knight Ridder in which it operated) is the embodiment of institutional news orgs', and especially newspapers', past 25 years. From mediocre to soaring on monopoly and booming-economy profits invested in the best way in make-a-difference, award-winning journalism to watching its economic core - classifieds - be eaten away in a decade, the Merc's story is that of Newspaper Agonistes writ larger.

Starkman ends with this observation:
Disruptive technology is only half the story of what happened to newspapers. There is also the response. The disruption opened the path to change, and not just for small companies unburdened by legacies of success. The change could also come for those older newspaper companies willing to accept that what was happening was not so much an existential crisis in journalism as it was a catastrophic assault on the most prosaic aspect of the newspaper business: the classifieds. Tough to do in any circumstances. Even tougher at a time when things feel as if they are going better than ever.

There was no better time to produce journalism and make a profit for newspapers than in the period journalists like to think of as the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, and which their colleagues on the business side might prefer thinking of as the Era of the One-Newspaper Town.

Mary Jean Connors of Knight Ridder, reflecting the sensibilities of so many people who insisted that, in the end, they were newspaper people, had told me, “You cannot change who you are.”

It is a noble sentiment, reflecting the diminished glory of a noble enterprise.

But it is not written. 

I'd like to agree, but I can't. More like a flawed Shakespearean character, the newspaper industry was a prisoner of its own traditions, history, mindset and people, a potentially lethal psychological and economic cocktail. It continues today in many ways and in many newsrooms I visit or work with and among many journalists I talk with. Yet, given their sociology, I can't bring myself to lay all the blame on them.

The industry's one-time strength, it's localness, quirkiness and fierce independence (which too often operationalize as resistance to change or even to recognize it outside the organization), can be harnessed for good (cut across the bureaucratic crap) or deadly at a time of fast-moving external change. Starkman details the internal publisher-led struggles against Merc initiatives that K-R wanted to roll out chainwide and resistance of other papers to standardization online at a time when advertisers were scaling up to digital and increasingly saw audiences as national or at least regional (there's a reason all those big-box chains emerged at about the same time).

He also leaves behind a bit of a warning tale about "big iron" and "big vendor" (my terms), noting that in many ways K-R's Real Cities initiative was strangled partly by being ahead of the systems commonly used in newsrooms. Coding changes, things that in online publishing systems today can take just a few minutes, required extensive time, for instance. (On today's content management systems, for instance, some of that inter-paper quirkiness and power prerogative might have been accommodated with a few keystrokes while still being within an overall structure.)

And his portrayal of Tony Ridder, the man who sold Knight Ridder to McClatchy and who has been largely vilified, suggests that Jim Batten, Ridder's predecessor who was revered as the journalist's journalist might have gotten it a little less right and Ridder a little more so (what kept him awake at night? "Electronic classified.") than the popular meme would have us believe. (Follow that earlier link and you'll find Jon Fine making a similar point in 2006, though the vilification continued in the comments.)

This all makes this an important story, one that should be required reading in journalism schools and newsrooms. It is at once both a hopeful and cautionary tale. It makes us think about the role that both personal and institutional foibles play, what it might take to overcome them and whether they actually can be effectively overcome short of the major upheavals we have seen in this and other industries. Approached that way, without the usual finger-pointing, we may well learn something from it.

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