Is Journalism Giving Away its Brand?

Daily newspapers, these days, find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The dilemma has to do with how should they gather the news and then where to put it:  in the traditional (printed) newpaper, or online?

Up to now, most publishers have made a Solomon-like choice to do both.  Reporters cover stories and events, but what’s written goes online first on the paper’s website.  A fuller version, presumably, appears in the next day’s print edition. This is the established procedure at Gannett papers and probably most other news organizations, but there are growing indications that this process is neither profitable nor sustainable. Increasingly, print paper circulation is declining, and with it, ad revenue.  Newsrooms have suffered widespread staff reductions, leaving many newspapers reliant upon wire copy — or simply not covering much in the way of news. Online articles are shorter, deficient in background or perspective, and difficult to find underneath the pop-up ads that now dominate publishing company websites.

The debate over going digital, however, masks a much more fundamental problem for journalism.  Content can come from anywhere, not just — or not even — the newsroom.  News, feature items, commentary, restaurant reviews and nearly everything else that was once the purview of experienced, seasoned reporters and editors is now generated increasingly by, well, anyone. Consumer-generated content appears everywhere, as well:  on special interest websites, in the blogosphere, on Twitter, Facebook and dozens of other social media channels that promote (and profit from) citizen “conversation.”

Not surprisingly, the journalism establishment is struggling to cope, but the proverbial horse is clearly way out of the barn.  One of the more prominent bearers of bad tidings is John Paton, who runs NewsMedia Group, the nation’s second largest publishing empire.  Paton, recently featured in the New York Times, is steering his company away from daily publishing and into digital; eventually, he envisions, what we call journalism will be divvied up this way: a third of the news will be local content produced by professional journalists, a third will come from readers and community input, and a third will be aggregated from other news gathering sources, blogs, etc. Another industry observer, blogger Mathew Ingram, touches upon the same point:

“Newspapers as a distribution system just aren’t equipped to handle news as a process; (Ingram writes) printing a single version of a news event with no links and no updates (until at least the following day) fundamentally doesn’t make sense in today’s news environment. Looking at the news from a blogger’s point of view — as an amalgamation of Twitter and Storify and video and photos, with comments and updates and links — makes a lot more sense, but it doesn’t translate well into a print-focused culture.”

The transition from print to digital, and the corresponding increase in non-professional content generation, may make “news” more instantly available to the millions who surf the Internet.  But what’s being lost is credibility, and in this regard, newspapers have been slow to react.  The material consumers access online today is a mish-mash of truth, fiction, market-driven manipulation, rumor and propoganda.  Much of it is anonymous, and a significant portion of what is conveyed as fact is in truth little more than agenda-driven screed. In a very real sense, journalism is giving away its “brand” — reliable, objective information.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  There is still a sizable audience in cyperspace eager for credible reporting and in-depth analysis, and apparently, it’s an audience that doesn’t mind paying for it. What’s desperately needed is a renewed commitment to excellence by publishers, editors and reporters. For journalism’s survival, it will have to commit to quality standards for the content it publishes, or else see its business fade into digital irrelevance. Success will come to those publishers and news organizations who emphasize the reliability, credibility and perspective of their work product, whether that product appears on the printed page, a website, a blog or a tweet.  Signed articles, sidebars that describe how the article was put together, and reader-reporter dialogues are just a few ways that news organizations can rebuild their market share, by making believability their brand.

In the digital era, in others words, tradition can be a good thing.

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