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January 4, 2005

Top Ten Ideas of '04: "What Once Was Good--or Good Enough--No Longer Is."

"Decline in quality caused by staying the same: In the commentary and opinion category, standards have gone up because of competition from the blogs and other venues, especially the political mags. Compare 10 minutes of scrolling with Atrios to 10 minutes with a Richard Cohen column."

If you’re catching up: Background is PressThink’s Top Ten Ideas for 2004. (“The year in press think, as it were.”) I’m explicating them. I’m on Number 7. Number 6, about content and its container, is here. Number 5, about news as a conversation is here. Number 4, open source journalism, is here.

7. “What once was good—or good enough—no longer is.” I borrowed this remark from author Virginia Postrel, who does The Economic Scene column for the New York Times. On Nov. 30th she wrote:

The local newspaper faces the same essential problem as the independent bookstore, the local theater group (competing with the movies and TV), the local music scene, and so forth. What once was good—or good enough—no longer is. Newspapers, journalists, and their critics have to start by recognizing that circumstances have changed and strategies must change as well.

When what used to be good enough no longer is—because circumstances have changed—the people who had for years been doing “good enough” journalism suddenly have to recognize that demand for their services is growing thin. That’s hard. Either they raise the service level (the quality) or start fading away.

Ex-newspaper editor Tim Porter calls it intentional journalism. (Which could have made my Top Ten List.) He writes about “an editorial process that is regularly more haphazard than thoughtful, more opportunistic than planned, more luck of the daily draw than drawn from a long-term strategy.” To be intentional you have to defeat that.

Let’s take one example of a decline in quality caused by staying the same: In the commentary and opinion category, standards have gone up because of competition from the blogs and other venues, especially the political mags. Compare 10 minutes of scrolling with Atrios to 10 minutes with a Richard Cohen column.

By simply transfering the dreary old newspaper commentary section online, your typical American newspaper, led by your typical American editorial page and executive editors, never bothered to ask if the genre “middle-of-the-road newspaper column” or “op ed piece, unadorned with links” had the right information density or communication style—any value added at all—on the Web.

The narrow goal was to “re-purpose” existing content, stretch it over a second platform. Made sense to the people who thought of it. Efficiency! They couldn’t imagine how they were lowering standards in an expanded marketplace simply by taking “good enough” work and re-using it online, where there are more competitors, including an army of amateurs, many of whom are at least as sharp as your local columnists.

But wait a minute. If I can see that, you can see that, and a fellow press blogger like Tim Porter has vowed to keep hammering because he sees it too, then why don’t they—the editorial minds in question—see it?

There are some answers. One has been given by the Readership Institute, a think tank at Northwestern for the newspaper biz. They say a big factor is newsroom culture, also a constant theme at First Draft, Porter’s weblog. People at the Institute thought that long term declines in newspaper readership were not only a result of “trends,” but also a puzzling failure to rally forces and act.

“Readership Institute felt there must be an internal, organizational factor at play that was keeping newspapers from doing the things they knew they should do.” What was it?

Generally speaking, newspapers have an Aggressive-Defensive culture, where people are expected to approach tasks in forceful ways to protect their status and security. The primary behavior style (the way employees are expected to interact with each other) is Perfectionistic. Persistence and hard work are valued. People feel they must avoid all mistakes, keep track of everything and work long hours to meet narrow objectives. (Link.)

In that atmosphere it is hard to rally, and easy to never act. The culture defeats almost everyone who goes up against it. Drift is the norm. Even before the sea change in competitive standards brought about when daily journalism joined the larger content universe of the Web, there were quality problems in the old news factory. Porter explains:

The technology transfer of the last two decades that brought the backshop into the newsroom created an assembly-line environment on news and production desks that emphasizes speed over quality, and the development of secondary news products such as zoned editions means these news-hole beasts must be fed, resulting in demand for breadth (quantity) over depth (quality).

Lots of people know about these problems. They were ignorable for a long time. They always are. Until one day they’re untreatable. Porter’s current post is about the estimate by Peter Zollman that Craigslist is yearly siphoning off $50-65 million in potential classified ad revenue from the Bay Area newspapers. Porter used to work in that market:

To put that number in perspective, I’d estimate the San Francisco Chronicle has, after its current cutbacks, about 450 newsroom employees who earn on average about $60,000. That’s an annual payroll of $27 million. In other words, the money being lost by the Chronicle, the Mercury, their online operations and other Bay Area newspapers could pay for enough journalists to staff two Chronicle newsrooms.

Poof. There goes the money for two newsrooms, lost, ladies and gentleman of the press, to this site, which delivers community, quality, connection. Clearly, in classified advertising, what was once good enough no longer is enough to sustain the franchise. When that day comes in news it will be the reply to Virginia Postrel’s wake up call.

September, 2003: In publishing this op-ed piece with the Los Angeles Times, I had the strange experience of penetrating the newspaper’s online operation to fix something. Despite assurances, they had failed to include a “live” link to PressThink in the bio lines. But they did print the url itself with the http:// and everything; and so I called the city desk to try to speak with an editor. Found there were no editors available who understood what a link was, and why it mattered, or what the url meant. The “web guys” knew. Different silo.

By suggesting that my own call be transfered, I finally reached the kid on duty who was running the site live. He changed it for me in 30 seconds, though it took 30 minutes to get to him. He wasn’t a journalist, he was a geek, and all alone there. Or so it seemed to me. I felt like he inhabited a Los Angeles Times future that was a ghost town.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links

A much-awaited document is here: the Alexander Plan. See PressThink, Open Source Journalism Comes a Step Closer in Greensboro: A Plan is Shown. “Open and free archive. Bloggers at editorial meetings. Long tail ad network. New ‘always link’ policy. Obits as a blog. Those are some of Lex Alexander’s ideas for the Greensboro News & Record as it moves a step further into blogging, citizen journalism and the site as public square. The highlights…” Go.

Tim Porter, sitting in at Morph, the blog for The Media Center at API, pens The Times Buys Another Container. Says the New York Times Co. is hedging its bets by buying a half interest in one of the free dailies in Boston that competes with the Boston Globe— “another container,” when the action is going to be with the content. Porter:

Adaptation, flexibility, innovation, intentional decision-making, distinctive content, recognizable point of view – these are the qualities of the news organizations that will flourish in the coming decade. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic, self-preservational culture of most newspaper companies is fallow breeding ground for these characteristics. That is why I continually push leadership change as the starting point for newspaper change.

Corey Pein in the new Columbia Journalism Review: Blog-Gate: “Bloggers have claimed the attack on CBS News as their Boston Tea Party, a triumph of the democratic rabble over the lazy elites of the MSM (that’s mainstream media to you). But on close examination the scene looks less like a victory for democracy than a case of mob rule.” See too Jonathan V. Last’s critique of the CJR article in the Weekly Standard.

Citzen journalism works, she says. Debbie Galant of, a hyper-local Jersey blog, e-mails about posts (here and here) on a fire caused by downed power lines:

I was alerted to the event by readers, who then started feeding me pictures and other details. It was like being a rewrite man at a big paper. Five or six different readers (most whom I’d never heard of, or from) participated. The e-mails just kept coming.

I know it’s just a fire, not a story about political corruption or anything. A fire is pretty much the definition of local news. What surprised me was the how many people, seeing a story right in their front yards, thought of Baristanet as a place to file.

Another blog story for you. Few months ago I’m cruising around and come to a weblog on “the social customer manifesto” where I find this post linking to what Jeff Jarvis said in complaining about the Web company Real Networks, maker of Real Player: “Real Audio sucks. Real Video sucks.” The blogger, Christopher Carfi, quotes Jarvis and adds a lame joke, “So Jeff…get off the fence. How do you really feel about it?”

I leave a comment at his site saying what a lame post! (I despise Real) “I’m surprised you don’t have something worthwhile to say,” I write. “This is your beat! Isn’t Real the opposite of everything you stand for? I depend on a blogger like you to get to the bottom of Real Networks and the origins of their ‘abuse the customer’ philosophy.”

That led to a reply post, where Carfi promised to investigate and “see what, if anything, Real has done to address any of the issues raised.” Bravo, I said in comments. That was on Dec. 6. Now comes his post Real Jumps the Shark (Jan. 2), which is full of interesting stuff about Rob Glaser’s aggressively anti-social company. I commend it to you. Someone needs to do a business school case study on Real, the use of force, and the mind of Glaser. (See this Slashdot Q & A with him, and this hilarious and cynical attempt by Real to create a community site. No comments permitted, of course.)

John C. Dvorak in PC magazine says that the problem with newspapers is all that untargeted advertising cluttering up the pages. “The fact is, I don’t want this junk in my house. And that’s what today’s newspapers have become: Junk. Clutter. Who needs it?”

The Washington Post folks will focus-group the heck out of this “problem” and it will never dawn on those running the paper that maybe this newly discovered rejection has nothing to do with their product, but has everything to do with its packaging. This moment of enlightenment will take forever to come. The people at these papers are too corporate and dense to ever figure it out. Instead they will dumb down the content or add a column by Snoop Doggy Dogg to throw a bone to the demographic group they want to get on board.

My comment on the latest Pew Internet and American Life study… showing that blog readership jumping to 27 percent of Net users from 17 percent in February ‘04. (Here.) It amuses me that to balance off this good news it is said to be bad news—evidence of trend weakness, I guess—that 62 percent don’t even know what a blog is. How can that be bad news? To me it means that three out of five Americans on the Web have not been introduced to blogging yet. And that suggests continued growth. (See Jarvis on the data.)

The series so far:

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 4, 2005 1:02 AM