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The Trust

Restoring the Trust

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The Wake-Up Call:
Are the Mass News Media in a Death Spiral?

Phil Meyer, Knight Chair in Journalism,
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Author of "The Vanishing Newspaper:
Saving Journalism in the Information Age"

Are Newspapers in a Death Spiral?

The answer is yes, and there’s probably nothing we can do about it. This is a picture of the death spiral—it’s not a spiral, it’s more of a straight line. I showed an earlier version of this chart in this same hotel about ten years ago, to a meeting of newspaper feature writers, and one of them looked at that and pointed to the chart and said, “No, that is not happening.” Denial is a pretty good way to deal with something like this. As Garrison Keillor once said, “Some problems are so bad, the only thing to do is to look at them and deny them.”

Well, the main argument of my book is that credibility does make a difference, and this is about as close a relationship as I can get. In these 21 [newspaper] markets you can see that credibility increases the ability to hang on to their circulation in their home counties over a five-year period... That’s the good news.

The bad news is that not even the best newspapers in terms of credibility were able to hang on to all of their home county circulation and penetration in that time. So, credibility makes a difference but it’s not going to turn things around unless we somehow get beyond the quality ranges that are historic for the newspaper business. We’ve got to break out of the established ranges and do something even better. And since that costs money and since the industry is still in cost-cutting mode to maintain its historic profitability, that’s not likely to happen.

The End of Newspaper Monopolies

There has also begun a revisionist school of thought. A reporter for the Washington Post wrote a piece for American Journalism Review attacking my thesis. And when I read his article, I got that same sinking feeling I get when I read a book report by a student and realize that he or she hasn’t read the book. His main arguments were (1) newspapers were okay because they still make lots of money. Yes, that’s the problem—they make too much money. They’re so busy making money that they’re destroying their products.

And his other argument was that newspapers still have a monopoly. No, they don’t have a monopoly. As sure as Craig Newmark is sitting in this room, they don’t have a monopoly on classified advertising, and there’s lots of other stuff they no longer have a monopoly on. They have a monopoly on being newspapers. But that’s not the point. The point is that the services they provide are being provided cheaper and more somebody else. I first met Craig at this meeting and I shook his hand and I said, “Craig, you are what the Harvard Business School calls a bad competitor.” A bad competitor is somebody who will provide a better service at a lower profit margin. Since Craig isn’t interested in any profit margin at all, he’s about as bad a competitor as you can get. And this is going to continue.

Youth Audience Is Lost

A lot of people still have a picture in the book of people drifting away from newspapers. That’s not it at all. It’s just that newspaper readers are dying off, and each new generation that comes along has a lower reading habit than the one before. I spent three years in a windowless room in Miami trying to do readership surveys for Knight Ridder that would lure readers back, until I realized that readership habits are set by the time a person is old enough to be interviewed in a readership survey. And so the problem of luring people back is not the problem at all. ... We’re going to need some new institutions if we’re going to save journalism. Forget about saving newspapers. They will survive in some truncated, less-frequent form. But we’re going to need some new institutions to cope with the things that are replacing newspapers.

The Decline of the Mass Media

If I can just give you a bit of historical perspective on this: The demassification of the media did not start with the Internet. It didn’t start with blogging. It started pretty much after World War II, and John Merrill and Ralph Lowenstein noticed this in a book they published in 1970. Everywhere you looked, the more specialized media were doing better than the more generalized media. And sociologist Richard Maisel did a nice piece about five or six years later documenting this in all kinds of media, even theater. The smaller the audience, the better it was doing.

The Internet is bringing us the ultimate extreme in individual messages. And we’re going to need new institutions to cope with that. And democracy can do that because some of our best institutions simply arose out of a need. Political parties, for example. The Founding Fathers did not make any provision for political parties in the Constitution—in fact, they didn’t like the idea of political parties. They hoped they would go away. Of course, they are needed to mediate between all of the different interests in the body politic and the government. The government is so big and complicated, and citizens’ needs are so diverse, we can’t keep track of them. But political parties bring interests together so that the voter, individually, at least knows whether he’s going to support the ins or the outs in any given election.

And that’s a very important and absolutely necessary service.

Bloggers, Competence and Values

Now, I love watching the bloggers. I am not a blogger myself, nor do I intend to become one. But I think what they’re doing is very important. And that a natural organization is going to arise to harness all of this activity. Two things that need to be harnessed are some controlled management of moral values and subject matter competence. And I’m going to give you a silly little personal example of a moral value of blogging that’s been bugging me for some time. It’s this: Every time a blogger makes a mistake, he or she preserves it in the record forever, as though it were something precious. It reminds me of those people who have fender-benders on the highway, and they won’t move them from the road . . . why can’t we get bloggers to move their mistakes, because they interrupt the flow of information.

I’m going to show you a mistake that drove me nuts. Here’s a quote from John Robinson’s very good blog at the Greensboro News & Record—he’s the editor and I greatly approve of what he’s doing. But here’s what he said about me in his blog: He called me Dr. Meyer twice. This is a terrible thing, because one of the worst things that can happen to an academic is to be accused of inflating his credentials. I never set foot in a Ph.D. program. I am not any kind of a doctor. And anytime somebody calls me a doctor, I have to stop the conversation and correct them. . . So I sent him a nice note and asked him to please fix it. This is what he did: I’m still there as Dr. Meyer. Twice. And at the end, he says “Updated correction: Meyer is not a doctor.” It sounds like I was inflating my credentials and he caught me at it!

Here’s another one. This one is from Tim Porter’s blog. I love Tim Porter’s blog because he reviewed my book, chapter by chapter, and got a lot of people interested in it. But in the very first review, he calls Hal Jurgensmeier, who’s the guy who invented the Influence Model concept, and called him Hans Jurgensmeier. And so, given what happened with John Robinson’s blog, I’ve thought very carefully how to direct Tim on this. I sent him a note, and I was afraid he was going to put in a correction that would sound like it was my fault that he called Hal Jurgensmeier Hans, so I was kind of direct. I said, “Good introduction to the concept, Tim, but out of respect of its originator, I’d like to correct your fumble on his name—it’s Hal, not Hans.” He put that at the very end, so you still have to read through his whole review of the first chapter—it’s still Hans at the top—and at the very end it says, oh by the way, it wasn’t Hans Jurgensmeier, it was Hal.

Why? Why do that? I don’t know, but it seems to me that bloggers, if they really want to preserve their mistakes, if they’re that precious to them, they could at least have a footnote at the bottom saying that in an earlier version of this report, I called Phil Meyer a doctor; he’s really not, and it was my fault, and I’m sorry. Wouldn’t that do the same thing? But I would be just as happy if they would just fix it and then not tell anybody about it.

When I was a newspaper reporter, and I was helping Knight Ridder invent a very early pre-Internet electronic information system, I fantasized about all the times I made a mistake in the newspaper, and I’d think, wouldn’t it be great if I had a rubber band attached to all those newspapers in the street and in all the homes in my community, and I could yank them back and fix them one by one, I felt so bad about the error. And the main advantage of electronic information systems, I thought, was that you could do that. But it’s not being done.

Need for a competency accreditation society

Well, the other area is subject matter competence. There needs to be some kind of organizational activity to help identify people who have competence in a subject matter. This is from Nelson Antrim Crawford’s book on ethics. He had a cynical but very realistic view of that. He said: “Real knowledge of modern economics is less likely to gain promotion for a reporter on the average paper than the ability to write an interesting but largely untruthful story about a street fight over a custard pie.” And I think that, as the old media monopoly disappear—and they have to disappear because the physical basis for their existing no longer exists—it’s possible to create another kind of monopoly, which is the position in the user’s head of being a trusted source of information. People with things to sell know to go to Craigslist, and it may be that reporters who are good and competent in specific subject matter areas can get reputations that will create, for a website, the kind of monopoly that used to be available only through the physical ownership of the means of production. I think Russell Neuman’s idea is right on, and that might be the wave of the future.

So what would we call whatever organization that would do this? Well, my working title is The League of Extraordinary Journalists. . . and after I’d prepared these remarks, I was following the case of Jim DeFede at the Miami Herald and looking at the list of 500 journalists who said that the Herald ought to change its decision to fire him. Why couldn’t there be an organization that would look into cases like that, and if they found that a journalist had been treated unfairly or unwisely, could do what the American Association of University Professors does, which is to censure the institution and say that we don’t recommend that young journalists go to work for that body. Why couldn’t we do something like that? And the same sort of thing could be done in establishing who has the technical competence to write about economics or other topics.

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