Duty to buy a newspaper?

Roy Peter Clark at Poynter certainly has kicked off an interesting discussion with a column on the journalism centre’s website in a call to journalists to dig into their pockets and buy the newspaper. His full argument is worth a read, but the essence is:

I owe it to hard-working journalists everywhere — and to the future of journalism — to read them. It’s no longer a choice. It’s a duty.

And here’s why: There is one overriding question about the future of journalism that no one can yet answer: How will we pay for it? Who will pay for good reporters and editors? Who will pay to station them in statehouses, or send them to cover wars and disasters? Who will finance important investigations in support of the public’s health and safety?

Poynter has done a great service in collecting some of the blog posts that comment on the column. I’m not going to take aim at the original column. There are plenty of people who have done that.

My information diet

I’ll be honest. I can’t remember the last time I actually bought a physical newspaper. I get them from time to time on flights and at hotels, but the last time I put down money and bought a newspaper. I’d have to think hard about that. I think I bought a Guardian right before I joined the newspaper.

But I’m drowning in information. If this diet were food, I’d be the size of a small block of flats. Super-size me. I actually have to do a lot just to filter and sift the massive amount of information available. I’m constantly looking for signal in the noise. No one news source does it for me, and I compare a lot of news sources because they all have a point of view.

Before I leave the door, I have Sky News and BBC Breakfast on the laptop TV, more for background noise than information to be honest, although it’s good to know what the domestic (read British) media and press are exercised about today. I can’t filter TV news so I don’t ‘use’ it much. It’s too time consuming for what I get out of it. To be brutally honest, sometimes I get so pissed off at TV news for wasting my time I flip the channel to Everybody Loves Raymond. The BBC TV news podcast isn’t updated until I’m at work or else I’d just watch that and skip the fluff. If there is a good piece of video, I’ll see it. If a politician or presenter says something of note, I’ll see it repeated a million times during the day or in the papers.

Now, on my half hour commute in the morning before I hit the Tube, I listen to the NYTimes Front Page podcast and the hourly NPR news update downloaded to my iPod via iTunes. I just can’t find a good top of the hour headlines podcast in the UK. I haven’t checked the BBC lately. I wish they would produce a World Service headlines podcast. If I have time, I also listen to podcasts from On the Media, the Economist, the BBC’s Pods and Blogs (which I used to contribute to) and This American Life (although Suw and I usually listen to that together over breakfast on the weekend).

On the Tube, I usually skim stories from four newspapers: The New York Times, the Washington Post, the International Herald-Tribune and the Guardian. If I see something I need to read, I’ll mentally bookmark it for when I get to work. I also check on the headlines the BBC News website and do a quick check on CNET and Wired. I’ve been doing this for years on my Palm handheld using a service called Avantgo. The screen is great, and I don’t really have this fetish about paper. It’s just information, and it’s easier to organise this way. And it’s much easier to deal with on the Tube. I also have an RSS reader on my Palm, QuickNews, which I wish was better. That gives me headlines from Marketwatch and a half dozen blogs.

Most everyone else on the Tube reads the Metro free-sheet. I don’t. It’s just a rehash of what I’ve already seen on Sky and the BBC, and unlike most everyone else, I’m not interested in celebrity news. Besides, I never have to go looking for celebrity gossip. It’s everywhere. I also have an environmental issue with all of those free-sheets. What a waste.

When I get to work, I fire up my RSS reader, NetNewsWire, and look through the blogs and traditional news sources. I check Popurls.com to get a quick filter of social news sites, video sites and aggregators. I usually have NPR on in the background and give a quick check to NBC’s evening news via iTunes. I get e-mail newsletters from the Washington Post – my old hometown paper – and the NYTimes. I also get an e-mail from NewsTrust and SimplyHeadlines.com, aggregators of different sorts. I also get a morning e-mail from Global Voices giving a great roundup of global blog buzz. Friends are always sending me links via Del.icio.us, mostly to do with new media journalism, and I get things passed along directly via IM.

A former colleague at the BBC said that someday everyone will consume their news like me. I’m not so sure. Very few people actively seek out as much information as I do. I don’t extrapolate my own behaviour too much. I am a very wired news junkie. It’s my job to know what’s going on. But there are a lot of people doing one or more of the above.

But as some people in the Poynter discussion have pointed out, lack of information is not my problem. Lack of time and a limit to the amount of attention I have is more of a problem. I still don’t think this is an issue that most journalists have grokked. There’s who, what, where, when and why, but too many journalists don’t seem to think they need to explain to readers, viewers, listeners: Why should I care?


Again, this is one of the posts where the comments are worth reading. Steve Yelvington in his post, A troll in scholar’s clothing, echoes one of the sentiments in the post which is that news has to be relevant to consumers, the audience in order for them to buy it. Steve says:

Quit blaming the Internet. There’s nothing wrong with paper. It’s your journalism that isn’t relevant. … We’re not going to get meaningful content and services from journalists who spend their time reading each other and sniffing around each other’s scents like a pack of dogs.

Don’t compare your journalism with that of another newspaper. Compare it with the needs of the community.

Amen brother. As Steve has often pointed out, newspaper audiences (in the US), have been declining since the 1970s, when the Internet was still in the lab.

I love the depth of the style of journalism that newspapers have traditionally done. That’s not to say that television is not capable of it. TV documentary units in Britain and long ago (and long since dead) in the US have produced some excellent journalism. But now, what is the business model for this content? What pays for this relatively expensive work? That’s the crux of the original post.

For a number of reasons, most people aren’t like me. They don’t see the reason in their busy lives to seek out news and information like I do. I grew up with newspapers and watching the evening news every night with my parents. I knew that to make economic, political and any of a number of other everyday decisions, I needed quality information. But I am in the minority, and as long as I am in the minority, newspapers and the kind of journalism that they represent will be in decline in the developed world.

I think the issue of relevance is at the heart of newspapers decline. Why should most people care about news? Journalists take it for granted, but I fear that it’s only occasionally obvious for our audiences.

When I was back in Washington this March, I struck up a conversation about world affairs with an IMF employee on the Metro. She got off a couple of stops before me, and an African-American man had overheard us and came up to me after she got off. It was after the wobble in Chinese markets had sent stocks swooning the world over. He wondered how something in China could affect the US economy because suddenly it had affected him. I had to get off at the next stop and didn’t have time to say that the Chinese and Japanese held a majority of the United States’ foreign debt. Anything that impacted the appetite for the debt would hit the US, possibly hard. And that’s just one link between the two countries. China and the US need each other economically for a myriad of reasons. China has its own finely tuned balancing act in terms of growth, inflation, internal stability, resources and the environment.

The man on the Metro represents, to me, a failure of journalism. It was a failure by journalists to explain to everyone in our communities why the story was important. Until our journalism really is essential to people’s lives and we make that case, newspapers will get crowded out by a dizzying array of information and, yes, entertainment choices.

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