Friday, July 15, 2005

Papers can't get the details right

And William Powers of the National Journal isn't talking about the facts in a story. He's talking about the product -- the paper (and accompanying Web sites) -- the things that everyone in a newspaper, newsroom included, should be responsible for.

The companies that thrive in this economy are those that work hard to please the fetishists, by getting all the details right. Starbucks not only designs your coffee the way you want it, it gets it exactly right almost every time.

The epitome of fetishist culture is Apple Computer. Americans love their iPods not just because they play music nicely -- that's the least of it. It's the exquisite perfectionism of the design that drives people wild and makes them line up to pay hundreds of dollars for a totally discretionary gadget.

If those companies can get the little things right, why can't American news outlets do the same?

Lately, journalists are flummoxed and depressed by their diminishing popularity in the marketplace. The public has made it clear that it doesn't want to pay for online news. Many Americans apparently wouldn't mind if the old-line news outlets -- daily papers, network newscasts -- went right down the tubes.

And the reason is right in front of us. Too many of these outlets don't get the details right -- or, rather, they get too many of them wrong.

I'm not talking about factual accuracy, which remains the core mission of all news outlets. But in a world of fetishists, the core mission is not enough. Just as coffee isn't just a hot drink anymore, the news isn't just a bunch of facts strung together on deadline. Both are experiences.

A good read for everyone -- reporters, editors, clerks. (Thanks to Romenesko for the pointer.)

The experiences theme has been echoed by the Readership Institute's studies, and much as I'd like to poke at some of what I think are too-sweeping conclusions, the trend toward "experiencing" as a theme for our lives is undeniable.

We aren't above the fray. Everyone has a stake in the paper's/Web site's success. That means frank, open discussions of what we are trying to accomplish each day, but it also means clear vision and mission from the newsroom leadership of how to do that and still maintain the core of our journalism values.

The best newsroom I ever worked in was the old WOWO in Fort Wayne, Ind., where news director Dugan Fry had a clear vision -- get it fast, get it right, get out into the community and have fun. Of course, being a 50 Kw station helped, but there's a reason that news department kicked butt.


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