McGuire on Media

Let's not make the death of newspapers self-inflicted

I’ve made little secret about my belief that Tom Friedman’s book The World is Flat is crucial to any understanding of the business and future of journalism.  It was a must-read in my class on that subject last spring. I believe it should form the basis of every newspaper executive’s strategic look toward the future. 

Friedman’s contention on page 15 of his book is that because everything can be outsourced more efficiently and more cheaply, Americans must focus on their value-add. On that same page he discusses the dining out experience and quotes a fellow as saying “”there are whole parts of the dining out experience we can decompose and outsource.” In the same way newspapers and TV stations have to figure out where and how we can decompose the news gathering and presentation process and then add value to each part of that process. ”

It should be obvious to all of us that the news has been commoditized 24/7 on television and the internet. News folks have to figure out how to ADD value and CAPTURE value. 

I am struck when I talk to my students about their claims that they don’t read newspapers, watch television or even view the internet regularly. And yet, when you ask them about important news events their knowledge is substantial.  It’s almost as if there’s a news “ether” that’s being absorbed subconsciously. So, students and most readers and viewers these days have a broad outline of basic news events that interest them to the point that it’s hard to tell them something “new.” 

Web reporting is putting renewed emphasis on immediacy and speedy “sense-making.” Yet, in any intelligent conversation with news executives there is usually  quick agreement that the days of who, what, where, why and how as the main function of news organizations is gone.  Right?

Pull out your daily newspaper right now and start thumbing through it. Or, pay careful attention to tonight’s local TV news broadcast. I am going to go out on a very solid limb  and tell you that if you thumb through that newspaper page by page and think “Value-add’ as you read each story you are going to be massively disappointed.  After the front page in the two big regional newspapers I read regularly, I see almost no real “value-added’ stories until I get to the Sports section. 

Sports readers have been watching the events on television for thirty years so sports editors and reporters seem to legitimately understand how to add value to stories. But outside of sports, I page through the A and B sections of the newspaper only to be routinely confronted by mattter-of-fact Associated Press stories that do not go one step beyond what I read on the web in the 6-18 hours prior to publication.

The most basic tenet of the newspaper business since I started writing sports for the Mt. Pleasant Daily Times News in 1967 is to tell people “stuff “they don’t know. Today, our readers inherently know a lot more “stuff'” courtesy of the web and cable television news. That does not get us off the hook.  We still have to tell readers “stuff” they don’t know even if that is a heckuva lot harder than it ever has been. 

There’s a lot of talk about the death of newspapers. Newspapers may die, but let’s not make that death self-inflicted. We have to figure out ways to make the daily newspaper and our web sites more valuable to readers.  Our work has to make readers and viewers “smarter.”  They have to come away from encounters with our products feeling as if they have made exciting news discoveries. ESPN does it on SportsCenter.  Even if you don’t like the opinions expressed on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown you have to admit he adds value to commoditized news.  He makes it fun, interesting and he uncovers tidbits I do not find in my morning newspaper.  That’s adding value.

Newspapers do that regularly with great investigations, wonderful tales and gripping life-drama.  John Faherty and The Arizona Republic on  Sunday Sept. 2 produced a dynamite piece of work about the painful choice a family faced concerning their autistic son.  A drama-filled piece like that definitely adds value, but in too many newspapers these days that work is the exception and not the rule. And, finding added value on local TV newscasts would be like finding the Hope diamond under your couch cushion. (Minneapolis TV newscasts offer delightful exceptions.)

If newspapers are going to be vital to readers two or three stories of the outstanding caliber of that autism story must be in every edition. Each story printed in the paper needs to go beyond the barebones of an AP presentation. Every story needs to provide context, every story needs to tell readers where they can find more sources of information and every story needs to explore background, and future implications. 

If, as an editor you can look at your newspaper and say,  “I saw this on the web in the last 15 hours in the same form I see it in my newspaper,” you have failed your readers.  You must edify, you must explain. You must add value, or that death of newspapers is going to be self-inflicted. 

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