McGuire on Media

This I believe about journalism, newspapers and the future of media

 

Tim J. McGuire, May 30, 2012

I believe it’s important to pause every now and then to write down my values and thoughts. That’s especially true in the ever-fluid media world where nothing is standing still. This missive will attempt to take stock of where my thoughts are on media on May 30, 2012. I first wrote it a few weeks ago for my colleague Len Downie. We have been discussing a book and I wanted to organize my thoughts. I share it, not because I think it is an earthshaking pronouncement, but rather because it might allow other folks to engage in the same exercise. In fact, I think it can be so beneficial to one’s own thought process, I plan on assigning this same exercise to my graduate students this fall.

This I believe

For me everything starts with appreciating that we are in Schumpeterian Moment.

A lot of things we know and love are going to be destroyed, but a lot of wonderful new things will be created. In a meaningful way, I believe the Schumpeterian moment offers a personality test that will tell young people if journalism and media are for them.. If a student looks at our current news ecosystem and sees promise, excitement and energizing challenge then the media world is for them. If they look at that same ecosystem and rue the loss of what we had and see only doom approaching, that person needs to exit the media world quickly.

Institutions are not in control anymore. The digital revolution has given guns to the deer, and they don’t hesitate to use them. This loss of control has rocked media but it has penetrated all of society. Just ask Netflix, Bank of America and scores of other corporations. Look at insurance, real estate and auto dealers for more examples of how the middle man intermediary has been hammer-locked by consumers in control.

I believe the democratization of just about everything is a good thing, but practically every conflict we read about centers in some ways on institutions desperately trying to hang onto control. Politics, business, education and media are being transformed against their will.

The change in the media world has been fundamental and earthshaking. In old media the formula was simple. We edit. You read. The interactive web made that forced relationship a joke. People can talk, share, argue AND do business with each other.

The newspaper was edited on a 24 hour cycle. You read when we said you could read. TV brought you news on THEIR schedule. We “pushed” news on readers and reader options were limited. Now you read, watch, and search whenever you want and you demand immediacy. Audiences now “pull” the news.

I edited a newspaper in a world where the media controlled the message. All pretenses of control are gone. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook advocacy sites etc end that control completely. Again, this is not a media issue. The digital revolution diminished control of every industry you can mention—-including politics and government!

Most media organizations still too often act as if they are in control. They act like they still guard what Phil Meyer once called the ”information and advertising toll gate.” That’s fantasy. There is no toll gate to be controlled. Readers and viewers can access information and advertising messages at will.

Information and advertising have been commoditized. The big gatekeepers are unnecessary in a free-flowing information world. The smart companies will abandon all pretenses of gatekeeping and start facilitating, guiding and leading consumers through the overwhelming mass of information. Digital First’s frequent commentator, Steve Buttry, describes the new task beautifully.

Journalism is not dead. Print is not dead. Advertising is not dead. Absolute proclamations that they are dead, come from people who can’t sort lofty visions from evolution.

I believe traditional newspapers are profoundly troubled, but not necessarily doomed. Some will go to publishing a few times a week. Some will die and that will be okay. Despite my life-long love affair with newspapers I believe the market will successfully sort itself out. Medium and small newspapers may well survive a long time and newspapers who figure out how to be indispensable will survive albeit, in a weakened state. News operations that find the right blend of digital, print and device-centric content will thrive as long as they yield more and more power to audiences. Publishers must collaborate with their audiences or the market will tell them they are unnecessary.

Print will not go away for some time but it will be not be the primary game very far into the future. Operations like Digital First are smart efforts that need to be studied and parts of their operation need to be copied.  I agree with most of what they write and preach.

However, Digital First is not necessarily the Holy Grail and I will be more comfortable when they lead more by example than by mocking. Preaching collaboration in your work environment and then giving the finger to the industry seems short-sighted. I like it when they modulate and take this approach. The news industry desperately needs constructive leaders, but I do understand the frustration when print publishers don’t follow because they are desperately clinging to the past.

As the media world finds its footing, creativity and innovation must be prized. That does not mean that everything that has gone before is lunacy. Certainly, the Schumpeterian moment says things will be destroyed, but that should not mean that just because we adopt certain elements of our past that we are turning our back on innovation.

By the same token, the idea that legacy media can find a silver bullet such as tablets, or pay walls, or reinvigoration of old advertising models is silly and reckless. The only silver bullet is dramatic reinvention.

I believe a middle position is required on consumer revenue. Being “pro” or “anti” pay wall makes little sense to me. I am convinced the term pay wall distorts the conversation. It is nuts to think that in a commoditized news world publishers can use a pay wall like a traditional subscription fee. If publishers think a pay wall is a seamless re-creation of the past they are indeed on the road to perdition.

Increasing consumer revenue from people willing to pay should be the central idea and that only comes from adding value. Adding value to news products needs to be far more targeted than it has been. There will be several ways companies will add revenue. One is through disseminating their product for a fee on any mobile device that will have them. Added-value content in areas like sports, business and lifestyle will offer another opportunity. I believe there is revenue to be had in local news, but I find those efforts right now are largely misguided.

Covering city council meetings and boring feature stories on school principals will not cut it. Successful news operations will redefine local news as true accountability reporting in local areas. They will make the issues from that city council meeting relevant to people concerned about the livability of their city.  That will require real reporting resources and it cannot be done on the cheap.

Newspapers and TV news operations need to face that fact that they are not nearly as good as they need to be. There is too much content that’s simply not compelling in major regional newspapers. Hell, much of it is boring.

Consumers only deeply care about their communities when: a) their self-interests are at stake, b)their sense of justice and outrage is piqued, or c) stories of their neighbors truly touch them. That sort of story has to go way beyond a 15-inch bland feature and it requires knowledgeable, skilled reporters, d) names. The old-fashioned community journalists who understood that names sold newspapers and built a sense of community were smart and we were dumb for failing to recognize their genius,e) special interest material like sports.

All this adds up to differentiation. Only when news organizations focus on making themselves fundamentally different thant the commoditized news aggregators and become true curators of the genuinely important stuff in their community will they excel.

News site publishers need to understand one crucial element of Econ 101: Abundance and scarcity. Old time journos loved life when news, information and advertising were scarce commodities. Newspapers had the presses and nobody else did. Publishers controlled access, information and the channels of delivery. When things are scarce prices and rates are high. The digital age had made information abundant and information is now cheap. The smart entrepreneurs are going to understand that and the operators who choose to act as if they are still in a world of scarcity face almost immediate extinction. Advertising inefficiencies are being replaced by efficiency.

I believe we all waste our time when we look for culprits in the demise of mainstream media. In the same way cars replaced horse and buggy 100 years ago and changed our world, the digital age replaced the industrial age.  Our media world was disrupted and blaming the leaders on duty at the time or wishing for yesterday is a fool’s game. It happened. Get over it.

I believe we set about forging a new journalistic future by doing a lot of things differently than we’ve done them in the past.

At the top of that agenda we must find new ways to measure every thing. The search for metrics to gauge audiences, effectiveness and most of all engagement with our audiences must be one of our most important quests.

We have to find new imaginative ways to serve advertisers who want to attract new customers. That may include selling them classic advertising but we have to change the mission to helping advertisers draw customers. Once we do that I believe a lot of new opportunities will emerge. Steve Buttry has some great revenue ideas that serve advertisers. Ken Doctor has some important ideas too.

The goal of finding new revenues should not be to return to the Golden Days of 30+ percent profits. The goal should be funding quality journalism while we make a profit consistent with that of other industries. Capitalism is great. Greed sucks.

I also believe a key to the  mainstream media future is the successful integration of two groups of citizens we have held in disdain for too long. The first are people from outside the news industry. We have to let go if we are going to reinvent. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We need new blood from other more entrepreneurial fields.

Second, we need a massive infusion of youth. Students in today’s best journalism schools, such as my own Cronkite School, are doing and thinking important stuff. We need to stop offering them jobs we designed 40 years ago. We need to get them into our organization and urge them to invent. We need to offer them freedom, challenge, entrepreneurial opportunities and veteran wisdom and then watch them go like hell.

Journalism education needs reinvention too.  I’d love to see a series of conferences on how to redesign the entire process and this dramatic speech by Eric Newton should be the centerpiece of that discussion.

Every aspect of our business model must be rethought. We must think differently about content, costs and revenue sources. Delivery channels, partnerships, collaboration and competition also need to be re-conceptualized.

I believe newcomers to the media world are acing us out of investment dollars because they are fresh, exciting and see no boundaries. We have to look more like a startup and less like plodding behemoths.

I continue to believe government funding is a very bad idea. We have to be capable of more creativity than that. In fact, I believe we have to start teaching creativity in universities and make it an essential part of every training curriculum. I am going to do two weeks on Creativity and Invention for my graduate 21st Century class this fall, but my dream is to introduce such a course to the regular journalism curriculum. I’d also make critical thinking a part of that dream course. 

I believe that as we reconsider journalism, our values and ethics are going to become a major battleground. Already, ethics are under assault and the temptation to follow the Gawkers and Deadspins of the world is becoming irresistible to many. But rather than holding our breath until we turn blue hoping that old ethical values will return, we need to enter into a dialogue about how ethical values should look in the future.

I believe we have to change our mindsets to welcome the idea that digital innovation has unleashed a plethora of tools that can make journalism more exciting and effective. As my colleague, Dr. Leslie Jean Thornton says, “we have to appreciate that the tools are not the products. They are tools.”

We should not get hot and bothered about Twitter and Facebook, those particular brands could be passing fads. Social media and the power of citizen conversation is not fleeting and we need to respect and appreciate that our society has been deeply changed by that power. 

I believe it is negative to focus on the fragmentation and commoditization of news. It is far better to realize that a diversity of voices, a diffusion of power and a democratization of media tools should lead to more robust dialogue and, with luck, better citizens.

Social media has great power and potential, but only as a tool to allow us to manage, curate and invent.

I believe journalistic organizations have to be more proactive in thinking about and developing standards for the future. The very definition of news is under attack as we get overtaken by the journalism of political beliefs, personal opinion, special interests, public relations, hidden agendas and advertising. I read somewhere that there are now four PR people for every newsperson in today’s news ecosystem. I can’t find that anywhere on the web, but assuming it is true, it makes quality accountability journalism all the more crucial.

I believe quality news organizations should view the current taste for affirmation rather than information (aka Fox versus MSNBC)  as a premier challenge. Rather than passively accepting the ugly fact that too many citizens are enamored of this kind of affirmation, responsible news organizations need to contrast and compare their performance.

In the same way, I believe the significance of verification, context, independence, ethics, motivation and journalistic accountability are essential and we must fight for to preserve them.

It is easy to condemn the role of gatekeepers in our journalistic past, but there were victories too. Again, I believe a debate over the appropriateness of that function is fruitless. That gatekeeping world is gone, The debate now must be over what role a responsible journalistic organization can play to serve audiences best.

I believe those who view an unorganized world full of citizen journalists as idyllic are smoking something or they are so idealistic they ignore the reality of well-funded special interests.

I believe corporate media is in deep trouble and facing deathly ice floes because they cannot turn their ships in time. Yet, I believe that those who believe the loss of corporate media will be a good thing are terrifically naïve.

Right now news media ownership alternatives are not all that pretty. I believe one realistic option is going to be vanity owners who might attempt to return us to the autocratic days that are happily past.

On the other hand, giant internet companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft, equity investors, non-profits, bloggers, and thousands of upstart media entrepreneurs are now fighting to own the news in a battle unlike anything traditional media could have ever contemplated.

I am not particularly concerned that right now the American public seems unconcerned about the murky future of journalism. Some polls indicate many Americans might be happier if the press dried up and blew into the prairie, but I truly believe that journalism may be like trash collection. It gets little respect on a day-to-day basis but if the trash sits in my garage for three weeks during a strike my attachment to trash collectors increases dramatically. I believe if Americans were suddenly deprived of enterprise and accountability journalism, meaningful local coverage and engaging story-telling, attitudes toward journalism would change almost instantly.

I believe the future of the news is good because I believe the tools of our age give us more opportunity than destruction.

This I believe, for now.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted June 1, 2012 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    This is a balanced article making valid points. The problem is that the cheapening of news brought forward by the digital revolution has backfired for professional writers who are expected to write for very low rates or even free for self promotion.

    Media organisations in the UK tend to hire young people so they can capitalise on their enthusiasm and keep rates down. Even in specialist fields like subediting (copyediting in US), the rates are the same as 10 years ago if not worse.

    No wonder many journalists turn to PR, marketing and the corporate world, where writing skills are rewarded and there is still some respect for quality standards.

  2. Vito Gallotta
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    I agree on the point. It’s a time of big change, but we have to ask if people in the world want less or more informations. I tink people want more informations. So we have to face the change and find the better way of using new technologies to give more and better informations. We have to work on a world level to make this approach operative. And we should discuss deeply through the networks created by journalist blogs of these questions.

  3. Posted June 1, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Thanks Tim. I found your post through Steve Buttry. What a great way to start my day. I feel better about everything after reading it. Curious and intrigued about your thoughts on a creativity course.

  4. Gordon Helm
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Excellent! It is good to know that the future of so many prospective journalists is in your capable hands.

  5. Perez
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Fine piece, Tim. Hope it gets traction. Best, -Skip.

  6. Posted June 1, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for writing this, Tim. I am going to share it with my network on Twitter and Facebook, and recommend it, as well.

    I endorse almost everything you have written here.

    There were two spots I found myself groaning a little, and one where I thought you over-simplified.

    Yes, Digital First is not the Holy Grail, but no one said it is, no one except writers making the obvious point that it isn’t. So I don’t see how it adds to your argument.

    Similarly: who in this debate thinks a citizen journalism idyl is out there as a reasonable replacement for what is being destroyed? To me you’re talking to phantoms there, but if there are such arguments being made and some take them seriously when they shouldn’t, let’s hear about it.

    The over-simplification was in this graph: “I believe quality news organizations should view the current taste for affirmation rather than information (aka Fox versus MSNBC) as a premier challenge. Rather than passively accepting the ugly fact that too many citizens are enamored of this kind of affirmation, responsible news organizations need to contrast and compare their performance.”

    There are several problems with this. It’s convenient, it feels good, and it makes argument easier to claim otherwise, but I do not think Fox and MSNBC are the same, journalistically, even though the temptation is to see them as matching twins and there are many aspects of their performance that confirms it.

    This for example would be unthinkable at MSNBC, but it is routine for Fox and its leadership.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/post/roger-ailes-attests-to-fox-newss-factual-perfection/2012/04/13/gIQAQSi6ET_blog.html

    But more than that: “people want to hear news that confirms what they already believe” is just way too pat an attitude to take toward this issue. You have to also look at the fact that viewlessness and “balance” and “leave it there” journalism have failed, and their failure expands as the partisan divide grows.

    David Gregory avoids the sins of Fox and MSNBC; he is also helpless, hopeless and completely at sea in interviewing, say, Ed Gillespie and David Axelrod, which he does routinely. I think the failure of that ritual and the “quote both sides and leave it there” model, such as the AP still uses, deserve more of your attention.

    But…. These are small objections. Overall, I think your observations are accurate, shrewd, insightful, supple and even at times courageous in the way they depart from what many in your peer group tend to believe about the present moment. I appreciated especially the moments of blunt talk.

    Thanks for an important and remarkably complete assessment of where we are now. Cheers, Tim.

  7. Clarence Bartram
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    You cannot talk about “real reporting resources” without having some kind of gateway. A good piece, but you’re all over the place and I’m not sure you know where the deep end is in the pool. If you think the gatekeeping function must be dissolved, then you are “ignoring the well-funded reality of special interests” and “an unorganized world of citizen journalists” is what you’ll have. Without gateways, the cats will have to herd themselves.

  8. Neal Justin
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Tim: I’m recommending this manifesto to all J Camp grads and the class that will be gathering in New Orleans later this month. Good stuff!

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] than talking about those changes and what they mean. That’s why it’s so refreshing to read what long-time newspaper editor, Pulitzer judge and now journalism professor Tim McGuire thinks about where the industry is and where it is going — and how it should get […]

  2. […] rather than talking about those changes and what they mean. That’s why it’s so refreshing to read what long-time newspaper editor, Pulitzer judge and now journalism professor Tim McGuire thinks about where the industry is and where it is going — and how it should get […]

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