Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The high price of skinflint journalism

The idea of splitting news coverage among the three principal newspapers in south Florida is journalistically and commercially dangerous.

As discussed previously here, it is clear why the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach Post want to collaborate on “basic” local coverage, whatever that is. They want to save money by generating more content with fewer people.

While this may seem like a rational strategy at a time of slumping sales and profits, it can’t help but degrade the coverage at each publication and make each newspaper less relevant to its readers (and the non-readers they covet).

That’s not just bad journalism. It’s bad business, too.

Story sharing is journalistically ill conceived, because many of the best features, investigations and other distinguished projects come directly from the beat reporting that produces “basic” coverage.

For the most part, the beat reporters who produce “basic” stories are in the best position to develop the relationships that lead to juicy information from helpful insiders and fruitful tips from disgruntled outsiders. If a newspaper relies on “basic” reporting from another newspaper, it isn’t likely to have access to very many scoops.

The only way editors can make a story-sharing plan work efficiently is by huddling several times a day to tell each other what they are working on.

If the papers have no secrets from each other, then the lack of competition stands a good chance of turning the reporting from “basic” to “routine” to “boring.”

And that would be supremely antithetical to producing original and ground-breaking coverage.

Now, more than ever, originality matters to the business of the newspaper business, because the electronic media have usurped and commoditized the coverage of most “basic” news.

The only way for newspapers to retain the patronage of their dwindling number of readers and advertisers is by publishing must-read information that people can’t get anywhere else.

Notwithstanding recent budget cuts, most newspapers still have the staff, time and space to dig deeply, reflect thoughtfully and report movingly on the issues that matter most to the communities they serve.

If they give up on that “basic” mission, there won’t be much left.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You raise very good points, but I took this arrangement (and similar ones elsewhere) to be not only about squeezing out every penny, but also about challenging the AP.

As we've discussed before, the AP's transformation from a sharing service for newspapers to a distributor taking newspaper content and selling it to online aggregators is a problem for newspapers both journalistically and financially.

Assuming the AP doesn't change its ways, it seems likely that newspapers will look for other ways to get shared content without losing it to the aggregators. This seemed like a first step, but the journalistic issues you raise are troubling.

Is there a way newspapers can share content with peers -- increasing the content they offer to their readers by picking up stories they would not otherwise cover -- without either falling down the slippery slope of cheap coverage or watching their expensive content get resold to competitive aggregators at a cut rate price?

8:25 AM  
Blogger Alexandra Kitty said...

It's bad enough when press releases are used as legitimate sources and when wire service news is printed without proper verification, but there something very unsettling about this. No competition or fresh perspective.

There are better and more innovative ways of presenting the news in an Internet Age -- this isn't one of them.

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

xxxIf they give up on that “basic” mission, there won’t be much left.xxx
They have already given up on their basic mission, and there already is not much left. Take a closer look at each of these three newspapers and you will discover what thin and toady really looks like.

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd take a slightly different route. Why not start a news bureau staffed by reporters from each paper? This could free up reporters from the three papers to concentrate on, as Alan said, the stories that make a difference. City news bureaus worked successfully in a number of cities, but for the most part have now died out. Maybe there is a business opportunity for someone to start a for-pay bureau?

12:30 PM  
Blogger Adam Kempler said...

If you are talking about print only, then you are partially correct, but for online readers I think the exact opposite is true. Sharing content can free up resources within each newspaper to focus on the coverage that is most important to their readers (true for both print and web) while online it can provide access to external content that can be targeted to readers based on personal topics of interest.

When I read a news site, if there are sources of content from external parties that are targeted to me based on my interest, everyone wins.

6:07 PM  
Blogger button said...

Alan, thank you so much for your comment on this issue. Please see my recent blog entry "Bailed Out" about the Herald and Sentinel reportage on the James Wonder case.

7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

News is everywhere. Strong journalism is growing scarce. The competition that matters isn’t among three newspapers but among dozens of media, most of whom aren’t spending much or anything on journalism. First, newspapers consolidated in their own towns, then invaded adjacent towns. Now that competition, too, is coming to an end (mostly through retreat). They need to quit being sprawling monolithic metro papers with massive press operations and expensive distribution networks. They need to focus on doing really distinctive work in the markets they still dominate.
I live in Tallahassee, was an editor and board member of a daily newspaper company long ago, and until recently wrote occasionally on state government for a non-daily publication. I watched news conferences and press avails with the state’s political leaders, attended by a dozen or more reporters and videographers (including AP) producing largely indistinguishable stories. Readers would have been better served if at least half of those generally talented reporters instead spent their time digging into issues that were not producing canned press conferences. ? When the talented Tallahassee reporters found time to do that instead of the daily mush, things happened in state government.
If newspapers – or, let’s say, local news organizations – are going to survive, they are going to have to be distinctive. You have recognized that. The old joke is that editors carefully separate the wheat from the chaff and keep the chaff. Sharing the chaff won’t hurt nearly as much as losing people who refine the wheat and give depth and understanding to what is going on.

8:35 AM  

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