McGuire on Media

The “religion of journalism” and how do we break from it

The second item in Wednesday’s Need to Know from American Press institute was worth savoring. The Harvard Business Review article on thinking like a customer rather than a manager is so simple yet so powerful.

The author, Graham Kenny, makes the powerful point that if a management team develops an strategic plan it is probably an operational plan in disguise because the managers know operations. He says a plan only becomes strategic when we view our company from “outside-in,” that is from the customer’s perspective.

I remember an incident 20 years ago when I was trying to make changes at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. A talented reporter told me, “Tim, our job is to write and edit the paper and the reader’s job is to read it.” I responded gently, “but they don’t have to take that job.”

I believe practically every journalist has passed that stage now and knows that the competitive environment requires us to be compelling enough to challenge Buzzfeed, Vice and Big Bang Reruns for our reader’s time.

And yet, what I call “cultural beliefs” of journalism hang on as tightly as firmly held religious ideas in any church you want to name. For example, the belief the article is really the only legitimate way to tell a story. This Poynter story and this provocative Mashable piece propose ways to rethink story telling  but when I see the occasional experimentation it seems as rare as a purple squirrel.

But as Kenny says the real experts on how we should tell stories should be the customers. As I read newspapers and watch television I have a difficult time believing customers want to be bored by stories that don’t matter to them.

Thomas E. Patterson in his fine book Informing the News says journalists make a mistake in thinking people have a need for the newspaper or newscast when “in fact, what people have and what they have always had, is a need to know.”

Patterson discusses the fact that readers don’t care about policy and politics until if affects them directly. Patterson specifically addresses  a “cultural religious belief” when he writes, “Journalists’ sense of the audience  is wrong side up. What’s happening at the top as it affects the fortunes of those at the top is not what interests most people. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel note, ‘Journalists need to focus on people and their problems, not on politicians and theirs.”

I know a lot of journalists nod in assent at that advice but so much of the journalism I see seems to ignore it.

If a newsroom made people and their problems the center of the news report their individual articles would look fundamentally different and so would the overall report.

Again, certainly the process of rethinking everything we once believed has begun in many places. But starting over and shoving our “cultural beliefs” aside would not describe the approach most journalists prefer.

If I could be so bold, let me share the three things I am going to tell my students this semester as they attempt to reinvent public television and the new digital State Press.

1. What are the things you absolutely KNOW about journalism? Assume those things are wrong. Now where does that lead you?

2. What do your aunts, cousins, parents and non-journalism friends care about?  Dig deep into their health, emotions and fears. Does your publication reflect those concerns?

3. Audit your news product and ask a simple question: What percentage of your output is compelling, really compelling? What would it take to increase that percentage?

Let me know if you use the process.