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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Newspapers Can Have a Bright Future If ....

Check out today's op-ed page in The Wall Street Journal. There you will find this excellent piece by media properties guru Jack Liebau. The title tells the tale - "No Substitute for Excellence." Follow that maxim fully and take advantage of the newspaper industry's continuing strengths, says Liebau, and profits will follow.

What are those continuing strengths? Liebau's answer points to the basics:

"On an average weekday, 77% of adults in the top 50 markets read a newspaper at least once daily, as do 68% of 18- to 34-year-olds. And in general, newspapers have successfully embraced the Internet; they operate 11 of the top 25 online news and information Web sites - at a time when one-third of the entire Internet population visits newspaper Web sites."

So it's not like newspapers don't have significant marketing advantages, even after two decades of declining circulation and the emergence of digital communications and consumer expectations. But there are challenges, especially from the Internet, so how should newspapers approach the future?

That's where the title of Liebau's op-ed becomes the key recommendation:

"So what should a newspaper manager or investor now do? First, publishers should concentrate on what they can control: Along with increasing circulation, editorial excellence is a prerequisite. In an age of media scandal, 'Fair and Balanced' must become more than a slogan.
"Ultimately, stock prices will follow business results (although, with the exceptions of Gannett, Knight Ridder and Tribune, newspaper companies generally have split classes of stock, which hinder takeover attempts).
"Fairness, credibility and a commitment to the community are vital to a sustainable and growing franchise. Any owner who views a newspaper strictly as a 'cash cow,' without regard for declining circulation, hastens the demise of his business.
"But farsighted managers who make the newspaper broadly accessible and indispensable to readers can create a virtually impenetrable economic moat. The best example is McClatchy Newspapers, which has defied industry trends, building a 20-year record of ever-increasing circulation."

Unfortunately, most of the major and medium circulation dailies have for the past decade and more been on an efficiency binge designed to reduce operating costs to a minimum while maximizing shareholders' return, regardless of the impact on editorial quality.

The resulting job losses long ago took care of anything remotely resembling union feather-bedding and aging favorites in newsrooms and began cutting deeply into the muscularity of essential editorial structures.

The sad plight of the Knight-Ridder papers in Philadelphia is only the most extreme example of how this long-running binge has harmed the ability of concerned publishers and editors to do what Liebau recommends, which is report the news as professionally, thoroughly and comprehensively as possible and in a tone and temper that doesn't insult, alienate or ignore those in a community who don't share a Blue State perspective on political, economic and cultural issues and concerns.

Most reporting staffs are down, hundreds of experienced desk editors have taken buyouts or been laid off and newsroom resources such as training and investigative budgets have been trimmed or eliminated entirely. Even where the editorial will is present, taking "Fair and Balanced" seriously will mean re-growing editorial strength, which takes time. And it costs money to recruit, retain and retrain genuine talent.

But there is another factor here that complicates the issue - the ideological blindness of so many in mainstream media journalism. It is extraordinarily difficult for those who cut their journalistic teeth on the idea of being a reporter "to help bring about (i.e. liberal or progressive) change" to now understand that "Fair and Balanced" is not simply a Fox marketing slogan meant to obscure a different (i.e. conservative or reactionary) agenda for change.

For too many MSMers, I fear the ideological blinders will render impossible even the most determined editors' campaign to pursue genuine excellence in reporting and editing the news. That failure will continue to encourage the migration of serious and casual news seekers to newspaper alternatives on the Internet.

Still, there is always hope where there are listening ears. Liebau's wife - Carol Platt Liebau - is a blogger of note, so it appears the Liebaus are solidly positioned in the old and new media. She thinks her husband is "brilliant." Smart newspaper industry strategists would do well to take her word for it.

HTs: Hugh Hewitt, Romanesko


A position for a healthcare reporter is advertised for a medium-size daily. Given the increasing importance of issues like Medicare and Medicaid reform, as well as the aging of the Baby Boomers and their growing concern about health, such a beat would logically be viewed as a significant one, right?

Here's how the journalist leaving that position for another publication described the reality (the name is removed to protect the individual's anonymity):

"During my time at the ------, I was never fully tasked to the health beat; and, in fact, covered everything from aviation to food service to motels to - well, the position was, in truth, a general business reporting position."

This is indicative of the situation in virtually every daily newspaper newsroom in America - beats are more or less mostly titles. Everybody ends up having to cover everything, which means most of the time nothing among the major beats gets covered as thoroughly as it should. It is impossible to assure excellence in such an atmosphere.