Monaco Media Forum: Quality and news

I just finished listening to a panel discussion titled News 2.0 here at the Monaco Media Forum. It was depressing on a number of levels.

There is a pressing question in the news business right now: What is the business model that will support ‘quality’ journalism? That is usually how it’s phrased. Putting aside the issues of quality for the moment, let’s just talk about the business model of news. I have colleagues in the news business who envy the companies that I’ve worked for: The BBC and the Guardian. The BBC has a huge war chest based on the TV licence fee, and the Guardian has the Scott Trust so that it’s not completely based on profit motive. It’s nice not to worry so much about the money side of things.

Newsgathering is expensive. There is just no doubt about it. I was just thinking back to my former BBC colleague Jonathan Baker who said that the Beeb spends about $2.5 million a year to pay for coverage in Iraq, most of the money going to pay for security. Jonathan was really honest about what that $2.5 million buys in terms of journalism: A lot but not nearly as much as any journalist would like. But the bottom line is that it’s very, very expensive. Newspaper readership is declining, and newspaper readers pay a lot more into the coffers of newspapers than online ads do yet.

And let me be very clear about this, I believe that journalism is very important in a democratic society. Odd as this may seem for what I do and have done for 10 years, I was trained as a newspaper journalist. I still prefer newspaper-style journalism over most broadcast journalism. Mostly because it fits my news consumption patterns. I can scan a lot of text a lot faster than I can quickly scroll through video. I like video news for certain things, but I have to say, it’s not for 24 hour news. I want that kind of news on demand, not every 15 minutes. I just don’t have time to wait, and the presenters telling me to wait for the story that I really want to watch just pisses me off.

But notice, I said newspaper-style journalism. I want information. I want insight. I don’t have time for shouty commentary. It’s of little value to me. But it’s just the style of journalism, I’m not hung up on the delivery medium.

One of the panelists talked about a Latin American newsroom of 1400 journalists. Wow. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. It takes time and investment to do investigative journalism. But recently, the Dallas Morning News ‘right-sized’ their newsroom to deal with current economic realities. Newspapers are trying to reinvent themselves, but it’s painful work.

But what troubled me in this conversation is the issue of quality and what separates what professionals from amateurs in gathering news. Personally, I’m trying to get closer to my audience, not further separated from them. I had another journalist tell me: Well, certainly some of what we do must be telling people what they should hear. I agree with that. I’m not going to write stuff just to please my audience and keep them blissfully ignorant. What I have a problem with is that I’m really uncomfortable having the final say in what my audience thinks is important. When I was a cub reporter, I learned that listening was a pretty important part of my job.

I am just really uncomfortable with this obsession, this almost divine right that some journalists feel in setting the agenda and determining what is important. It’s the gatekeeper role of journalism driven by ego and arrogance. I’m probably going to get frogmarched out of the Fourth Estate for saying that. But it plays into this whole debate about quality, which is really just about control. And I think it’s simply a defensive position that is largely unhelpful in dealing with the real problem of adapting the news business model. Newspapers really need to hop onto the Cluetrain.

Involving your audiences isn’t pandering. Listening improves the quality of your product, and in this Attention Economy, there is no shortage of information, quality or otherwise.

And personally, while they were trying to figure out ways to defend the purity of the Fourth Estate, I was happy to get on with News 2.0, writing my blog post, uploading the video I took with a consumer digital camera that cost £140 and being very happy about my new job.

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