A couple of days ago, on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits weblog, I posted an item that attracted an interesting and varied discussion: Has News Competition Outlived Its Usefulness? (Check out the comments to that post.)
I was deliberately provocative in that article, and now I’m moving that discussion over to this weblog so I can be a bit more, eh, “Contentious” about it. 😉
Right now, commercial news organizations and the field of traditional, professional journalism they largely support have good reason to worry about their very survival.
Personally, I want traditional journalism to survive. As much as I’m a champion of alternative approaches to news and media (such as citizen journalism and conversational media), I also believe that if ethical, trained, motivated, skilled, professional journalists could no longer make a living we’d all be in a ton of trouble.
So I think there’s room and a strong need for both approaches to news. In fact, they’re deeply complementary. But the way most news organizations are heading, we might actually end up killing a profession I value.
Part of how we can save traditional journalism, I suspect, lies in overcoming the deeply competitive culture of newsrooms at least enough to allow for more constructive collaboration between news organizations.
Here’s what I mean…
First of all, let me be clear: I’m NOT saying that all journalistic competition is bad. When news organizations compete with each other, whether locally, nationally, or globally, excellent journalism often results. Especially when enterprise reporters vie for honors such as the Pulitzer Prize.
…Crappy journalism often results from competition, too. How many times have you seen news organizations pass along blatant errors or unfounded rumors as hard news all in the name of “scooping” the competition? How many times have broadcast news operations sensationalized their coverage during sweeps week? How many times have you seen news organization after news organization cover the same big story in basically the same way, all because none of them wanted to be accused of missing that story?
The truth is, news organizations are not one-size-fits all. Nor should they strive to be. Every news organization has its own character, with unique strengths and flaws.
NEWS VENUES AREN’T REALLY SEPARATE
Recently, in a follow-up to my Tidbits article, journalism instructor Mark Hamilton made a cunning observation. In Getting Over Competition, he wrote, “Increasingly, the internet is becoming one big all-inclusive publication.”
EXACTLY!!!!! Thanks, Mark, for summing that up so well.
In fact, this echoes the point I covered in Tidbits on May 10 about recent Jupiter research on news portals. Jupiter analyst Barry Parr found that “Portal sites [such as Yahoo! News] are the only online news channel whose usage increases for younger readers. This could represent a major shift in primary news preference and therefore in the competitive online landscape for news organizations.”
When people encounter and experience news increasingly through a medium that functions as one big publication (or venue), collaboration among news providers which formerly viewed each other mainly as competitors suddenly starts making a lot more sense.
Remember, in any media the audience’s perspective always matters most. If the audience views your news venue as only one part of a larger news system, and not an island of news unto itself, it makes sense to make your content as uniquely valuable and constructively complementary as possible. That can help you leverage other people’s news to attract new readers.
In contrast, the purely competitive approach to news, while occasionally producing greatness, more often yields virtually indistinguishable commodity-style coverage. That’s fine if your audience mainly goes only to you for news but how common is that these days? And how common will that be in years to come, especially as today’s teens become tomorrow’s core news audience?
Who wants to read basically the same news story 15 times? Or 150 totally identical times, in the case of wire service stories? From the perspective of someone browsing an online news portal, that level of redundancy represents a gross waste of space, time, attention, and resources. Collectively, news organizations that supply redundant coverage start to look less smart, I think and hence, less valuable to audiences.
MY CHALLENGE TO NEWS ORGANIZATIONS:
I think it’s time for news organizations to take a long, hard look at themselves, clearly define their unique strengths, and leverage those collaboratively as well as competitively.
The most obvious unique strength of most news organizations is defined geographically that is, you can bet the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News will probably cover Colorado’s Front Range region better than, say, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But I’d like to challenge news organizations to think beyond the geography in defining their unique value to a national or global news audience.
Many news organizations are well known for their excellent coverage of certain beats such as the environment or public health. Other news organizations gain recognition for their skill in certain news techniques, such as enterprise, undercover, narrative, or data-driven reporting. And in some cases, specific people (reporters, photographers, editors, columnists, cartoonists, graphic artists, audio/video staff, etc.) command substantial audience loyalty or professional respect.
If you work for a news organization, what unique value (beyond mere geographic focus) does your venue offer? What’s your strongest contribution to that “great big publication?”
Once you figure that out, then start imagining how your organization might constructively partner with other news organizations that offer complementary strengths, in a way that attracts attention and loyalty to all news organizations involved.
This could be a one-time project, such as the New York Times’ 2003 collaboration with the PBS show Frontline to produce an excellent investigative series on workplace safety. (Thanks to Dan Gillmor for the tip on that.) But it also could be an ongoing project, such as several reporters from around the nation or world collaborating on a beat blog (similar, in some respects, to the approach demonstrated by RealClimate, a popular weblog on climate change authored by scientists at various institutions).
LONG-TERM SURVIVAL STRATEGY
Opening up more to project-based collaboration could help news organizations in the short term. However, there’s also a long-term benefit to greater collaboration among more effectively differentiated news organizations: survival.
I’m serious. Look at it this way huge chunks of news organizations’ traditional business models are crumbling. Craig’s List is kicking everyone’s butt in the classifieds realm, and there are other substantial threats. In response, news venues are consolidating into more monolithic, less distinguishable umbrella organizations (such as Gannett). They’re also shedding staff like a winter coat.
It’s natural, if heartbreaking, that there will be a lot of downsizing in news organizations. However, I’d like to see news organizations downsize intelligently, in ways that preserve and enhance their true unique value, and that increase their flexibility and ability to collaborate.
For instance, instead of wantonly giving experienced, creative reporters and editors the axe because they’re costly, maybe consider finding ways to share their salaries across organizations. Maybe three news organizations could jointly fund an investigative reporting team that someday wins a Pulitzer Prize.
Or, while most TV stations are clamoring for the same shots and sound bites at a staged White House press conference, maybe a few could opt for a distributed series of in-depth interviews and backgrounders, complete with cross-linking. This would add much-needed context to breathless, redundant, mindless, instantaneous reporting.
Even better, more news organizations could actively collaborate with citizen journalists, or with entire communities via conversational or social media.
…These are just a few thoughts. I apologize for the length of this article, but I needed to lay this out for discussion. I’m pretty convinced that when news organizations focus on competition at the expense of uniqueness and collaboration, journalism as a whole suffers.
In some ways, the competition-driven culture of journalism is killing us because when good journalism dies, freedom and democracy are likely to follow.
IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE ME, HERE’S WHAT PEW SAYS
I realize I’ve said some things which longtime news professionals might find hard to swallow especially regarding the long-term shifts in news audiences and preferences.
Here are some recent studies which I believe support my points:
The audiences of news organizations (and, indeed, all kinds of content creators) are increasingly moving online. According to an April 26, 2006 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, currently 73% of U.S adults now use the net up from 66% in January 2005. And 42% of Americans have broadband connections at home. Also, the results of Pew’s Jan. 22, 2005 Generations Online survey indicated a fairly steady increase in the prevalence of internet use among successively younger age groups. For instance, 87% of Americans aged 12-17 currently use the net. This figure remains at 80% or above through age 39, and then drops to 76-55% for ages 40-69.
Meanwhile Pew’s March 22, 2006 report on Online News found that “by the end of 2005, 50 million Americans got news online on a typical day.” Looking at that another way, 43% of Americans are now getting at least some of their news online (compared to 57% from local TV, 49% each for both radio and national TV, and only 38% for newspapers). The internet portion of news consumption shot up dramatically among people with broadband at home a circumstance that is fast approaching ubiquity in the US.
And, as I mentioned above, on May 8, 2006, Jupiter Research published a report, The New Demographics of Online News which underscored the growing prevalence of news portals in the online audience’s experience of news.
All food for thought.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issues I’ve raised here. Please comment below.