9. Conclusions: The New Marketplace for News
Polls show that trust in the news has plummeted. Strategy and negativity formulas separate the news from its audiences, and tabloid content overwhelms verified, objective reporting with unfortunate effects on audience loyalty and American political life. Armed with so many alternatives, customers may opt for mere tabloid content, when entertainment is what they’re looking for, or they will look for a more clearly-defined news product, if information is what they want.
• With ever-increasing ease, customers can bypass news packaged by professional news organizations, relying instead on bits and pieces from many sources assembled by their customized computer news “guide.”
• News content, as it is formulated today, is ill-suited to the niched marketplace, where specialization is an asset to brand strength.
• A more strategic approach is to clarify the kind of news being offered and to build trust by ensuring that the quality remains high.
The objective is to create a trustworthy product that adds value to the raw data readily available in the new marketplace. Such a product would save the customer time by identifying only what is relevant and verified.
• As they lose some of their simultaneous mass audience, journalists can compensate by using new technologies to improve both the quality and the impact of their work.
Because of their ease of compression, archiving, and accessing, new digital media technologies create a bottomless news hole. They also eliminate a fixed news deadline and create easy access to databases and an indefinite shelf life for news content. These changes allow journalists to offer more in-depth information, to craft the information more carefully, and to extend its reach. Stories that once sank into oblivion after they were broadcast or published can be recycled now into different formats and revisited by consumers when they are of interest to them.
• Addressing a “public”—rather than an “audience”—may be essential to the future of news. The smartest new journalism is both interactive and proactive. It acknowledges that if it is to be successful, news cannot count on captive or random audiences. News must be selected as an option. Instead of shutting ordinary citizens out of public debate, journalism can open doors for citizen engagement.
Specific Strategies for Reviving the News
To establish a solid niche in the new media marketplace, a news organization might find some of the following strategies useful:
• Clarifying the journalist’s mission and standards so that journalism will have an identity of its own in a confusing, crowded marketplace. The serious news provider should specifically and openly disclose its attempts to provide objective, verified, and relevant news in lieu of “infotainment” or propaganda.
Such clarification might consist of a regularly published or broadcast statement of purpose with an accountability process for consumers. Additionally, one could offer better labeling for different kinds of news, putting “Tabloid Titillations” under one heading, “Congressional Action” under another, and so on. The Washington Post’s Digital Ink online news service relegates trivia and rumors to an “Is That True?” segment that will include entertaining rumors and gossip, preventing them from displacing the real news of the day.(111)
• Dropping self-defeating strategy, insider, negativity, and tabloid habits. News organizations can begin to build trusting, loyal relationships with their audiences by eliminating some existing bad habits.
Instead of repeating cliches and myths, news organizations can try to determine whether assumptions are true or false, as ABC’s Aaron Brown did in his story on federal spending. When discussing public policy, news organizations can examine realistic options and consequences without falling prey to the cynical assumption that all motives and compromises are base. Finally, although “family-sensitive” news should not sanitize reality, it can eliminate gratuitous gore that has no real informational value.
• Opening up and connecting news with citizens. Interactivity means that the public will control much about the information it receives including when, where, and in what format it receives the news. People can second-guess journalists by reading original documents or by watching news conferences on their own. It would be wise in such an environment to make both standards of quality and the processes of creating the news as transparent as possible.
When St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editor Bill Woo invited citizens into daily news planning meetings, he discovered that many brought negative stereotypes about the news business. “It’s good to have people in to see us as a quite ordinary collection of men and women figuring out what we’re going to do. It breaks down the notion that we are working in some kind of cabalistic fashion,” he says.(112)
Inviting a limited number of citizens into news budget meetings; holding open houses to meet the public; and welcoming feedback and story input through email, pizza parties, town hall meetings, and other venues are all potential vehicles for launching or establishing a more comprehensive, connected news agenda.
Making the news more of a public experience is good public relations, but it also is good for our political culture. In 1992, simply by running a daily page-one box that counted down the time left to register to vote, the Charlotte Observer helped create a noticeable surge in voter registrations, according to a local election official.
• Being accountable. Clarifying standards and opening doors to the public will exert strong pressure on other news organizations to be more formally accountable for the decisions they make. News organizations should expand legitimate coverage of the industry’s lapses.
The journalist’s comeback—that disgruntled consumers can “turn off the television” or stop buying the newspaper if they don’t like what they see—is suicide in a buyer’s market. Admiral Bobby Inman, burned by press coverage when he was a proposed nominee for Defense Secretary, suggested that when a columnist wrote anything about him, he should be allowed equal time directly adjacent to the column. Inman’s scheme goes too far, but the news would gain credibility if people had better opportunities to respond to issues being discussed and to characterizations created by professional journalists. Letters to the editor are far briefer than the stories in question and aren’t always published. Although journalists’ errors in framing and judgment are common and may be even more damaging than some errors of fact, there are no established avenues for correcting them. “Talk back” features should be routinely available to aggrieved news subjects and other relevant parties. To demystify the process, journalists might produce occasional “inside the news” stories explaining how their understanding of an issue developed or how they came to frame a story in a certain way. Washington Post columnist David Broder is one of the few journalists who regularly writes a column confessing his bloopers for the previous year. This practice has hardly hurt his credibility; if anything, it has strengthened his reputation.
• Being neutral and fair. In the new media, the market will be so saturated with diverse points of view that the voice of a professional, open-minded, objective observer will have added value amid the cacophony. Instead of avoiding discussions of values and meaning, however, journalists might be wise to increase the diversity of viewpoints and sources used to create the news. When appropriate, a journalist should disclose biases and make it clear that the professional goal is to hear from all sides. “Public” journalism is not “advocacy” journalism. Public journalism invites participation in public discourse and the news agenda and offers information about citizen involvement and potential solutions to problems. Journalists should protect their objective watchdog function to help enforce fairness and political accountability.
Lani Guinier provided this definition of fairness to the American Society of Newspaper Editors:
“In my view, fairness means a balance of perspective, not the absence of a viewpoint. In my view, fairness means intellectual diversity, not merely racial diversity. In my view, fairness means inclusion, not exclusion, of all relevant viewpoints… fairness does not mean simply looking for extremes on either end of the spectrum in order to present a controversy, but being prepared to show the nuance, to show the complexity, to show the range of viewpoints that may enlighten, not just entertain.”(113)
• Getting it right, instead of worrying so much about getting it first. Journalists’ obsession with scoops and deadlines often weakens the quality of the news; there is no commercial rationale for this in the new marketplace.(114) Developing a trustworthy product is the first priority for building the brand that draws the loyal niche audience.
• Balancing news about problems with news of problem solving. The news could create a more accurate picture of the day’s events by balancing reports of problems and disasters with thoughtful accounts of problem solving. Journalists could make celebrities out of people whose actions deserve honor and public recognition instead of focusing so exclusively on Beauty (Nancy Kerrigan, Nicole Simpson, Julia Roberts) and the Beast (Tonya Harding, O.J.Simpson, Susan Smith, Jeffrey Dahmer, et al.).
• Teaching media literacy and citizenship in school. News organizations could help people understand how journalism should work, how they can evaluate the differences among media options, and how they as citizens can engage in public life. If they don’t make these efforts, journalism could well end up as “roadkill on the information superhighway.”(115) Wichita Eagle Editor David Merritt recently lamented that journalism may lose its purpose. Practitioners would do well to take his words to heart:
“Rather than accurately diagnosing the problem and devising a useful remedy, journalists set out in frantic pursuit of the departing audiences. Concerned about our weakening commercial franchise, we ignored our truer and far more valuable franchise: the essential nexus between democracy and journalism, the vital connecting with community, and our role in promoting useful discourse rather than merely echoing dissent.”(116)