3. The Opportunity: The Medium or the Message?

News organizations have responded to the new media environment in several ways. Many are:

• Going tabloid. Instead of beating their entertainment and propaganda competitors, many journalists are joining them. The increased competition spawned by the new technologies has led some traditional news purveyors to “go tabloid”—increasing coverage of celebrity gossip, bizarre crime, and sex scandals to try to retain their mass audience. Television news and magazine programs, in particular, have loosened their standards and definitions of what makes news.(26)

• Adopting new technologies. As newsprint costs rise, computer costs are dropping. Newspapers and magazines have rushed into online and other new media formats, hoping that new clothes will attract new customers. By the end of 1994, more than 450 publications were available in online (computer) versions. Experiments with CD-ROM have not proven as successful for journalism.(27) Broadcast television news purveyors also are making deals to deliver their products on addressable cable and multimedia or in online forums.

• Inventing “public journalism,” family-sensitive programming, and other audience-focused news. News professionals at dozens of local newspapers, television stations, and public radio stations have chosen to court their distracted audiences by inviting them into the newsroom. They are creating public journalism, convening citizens as partners to redirect both the content and the role of journalism in community life. In addition, family-sensitive television news at WCCO in Minneapolis and elsewhere attempts to reduce the amount of meaningless violence depicted in the news.

These practices have stirred impassioned debate within the news business; very few news organizations are simply carrying on as they once did. Some struggle to survive as new technologies loosen the journalist’s control over the timing, space, place, sources, and uses of news.

As news organizations react to these new technologies, many are concentrating on the look and feel of their delivery systems, trying to figure out how they will sell what is basically the same old content in new media formats. This may be the wrong focus. Digital technologies now free the news from any fixed delivery medium, enabling consumers to convert content instantly into video, audio, or text.(28)

Computer, telephone, cable, and other businesses almost certainly will provide the new media delivery systems. However, the one thing they will be hard pressed to produce is the “brand name” content—the valuable product that journalists offer. This is why so many delivery businesses have been seeking partnerships and contract arrangements with existing news and entertainment content providers.(29)

While journalists are experts at creating massive quantities of content every day, they cannot assume that what they offer now as news will “sell” in competition against pseudonews providers, even if they present their content in dramatic new formats.

The journalist’s challenge isn’t the medium but the message. As consumers start experimenting in cyberspace, journalists need to address more urgently not the delivery format but the quality of their core product: reliable and useful information on which citizens can act. Conscientious journalists fear that their work already is losing its mandate, and they are right. The problem is not the strength of the competition but the weakness of today’s journalism, hobbled as it is by formulas, attitudes, and habits that alienate many customers.

Many journalists would vehemently deny that their product is in trouble. Certainly some of the best journalism ever practiced is the work of the current generation of news professionals, and some highly successful news offerings—“Sixty Minutes,” The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” “Nightline,” and “All Things Considered”—prove that audiences still appreciate high-quality journalism.

It is unfair to lump all “journalism” together because it ranges from the tabloid extreme of The National Enquirer to the respectability of the National Journal. However, even at its best, most journalism fails to differentiate itself clearly enough as a valuable product in the new media marketplace. It becomes increasingly clear that the formulas and approaches that characterize a large share of “serious” American journalism need an overhaul if the news is to survive as something different from propaganda or entertainment.

If this sounds harsh, consider the evidence. The new media are customer-driven. And in the words of Donald Kellerman of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, which has tracked the increasingly negative public opinion of the news media for the past decade, “Familiarity with the media seems to breed contempt.”(30) As trust in most institutions has plummeted during the past 20 years, the journalism watchdog has lost favor too. According to the Yankelovich Monitor, 55 percent of citizens had “a great deal of confidence” in news reports on television in 1988, but by 1994 that number had dropped to 29 percent. Concurrently, confidence in newspapers dropped from 51 to 24 percent, and confidence in magazines fell from 38 to 14 percent.(31)

Not only have journalists failed to maintain their credibility with the average citizen, but 71 percent of the people polled by the Times Mirror Center in 1994 said they believe the press interferes with society’s ability to solve its problems.(32)

“The American media produce a product of very poor quality,” says author Michael Crichton. “Its information is not reliable; it has too much chrome and glitz; its doors rattle; it breaks down almost immediately; and it’s sold without warranty. It’s flashy, but it’s basically junk. So people have begun to stop buying it.”(33)

This is a moment of truth for the major journalism organizations. They cannot rely any longer on their most precious assets: a monopoly on defining what’s news, exclusive access to official sources, and the public’s trust.