Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The media needs to do a better job of reporting on itself

In an article in Adbusters about the state of journalism, titled "State of Emergency," Sean Condon writes:

"If the media wants to find a solution, it's going to have to start doing a better job of reporting on the problem."

I couldn't agree more.

One of the things that has baffled me the most is how traditional reporters who can provide the most incisive analyses of other industries often seem fundamentally incapable of viewing their own clearly.

If they were able to view the newspaper industry clearly, we wouldn't be having a lot of the debates that are currently going on in journalism circles. Instead, we'd all be able to see--and agree on--the following things:

  • Slashing jobs without revising your product strategy has always been a direct path toward collapse.

  • Continuing to produce the same product when your customer base (ie: the demand for your product) is shrinking is similarly a direct path toward obsolescence.

  • Declaring you are a public good entitles you to nothing. (If it did, we'd have fully funded health care, education, and job training programs.)

So why doesn't the traditional media take as cold-eyed approach to the shortcomings and challenges within their own industry as they do with, say, the current crisis in the automotive industry?

It's not malfeasance or misdirection. Instead, it's simply human nature not to be able to regard something clearly in which you are personally vested. Some journalists so deeply believe certain "truths" about the newspaper world, that they can't see that those truths are more mythology than reality. For others, the problem is that their identities are too wrapped up in a very specific idea of what it means to be a journalist. To have to look that idea in the face, and accept that some of it is (irrevocably) broken, means having to let go of that thing that has defined them and their place in the world.

These are perfectly human responses. But from a pragmatic point of view, they are hampering traditional journalists' ability to clearly understand what's happening to their industry, and thus, armed with that clear understanding, to help it move forward.

So what can traditional reporters working at newspapers do to develop the ability to see--and report on--their industry clearly?

  • Put the fear on the shelf.
    Seeing the industry for what it is is scary for someone living inside it. You'll feel fear just looking at it. Maybe even panic. Accept it, but don't let it get in your way. Feel the fear. Put it in a box. Put the box on a shelf in the back of a very deep closet. And leave it there. It's a natural feeling. But it's not going to do you any good right now.

  • Ask yourself: If this were a different industry, what questions would I be asking?
    If this were the health care industry, the automotive industry, the industry that produces incandescent light bulbs, what questions would I be asking to determine whether the industry had legs, whether it could survive, and what other industries were emerging to challenge it? And then ask those questions.

  • Ask yourself: If this were a different industry, who would I be talking to?
    Who would I be interviewing to get their reading on the state of that industry? Then get their reading. And give that reading as much credence as you would give to their reading on any other industry.

  • And then write the story as if you were writing about another industry.
    If it helps you quell the fear, and get through the first draft, substitute "the automotive industry" for "the journalism industry" and write what you've learned. You might be surprised by what you produce. And you more than likely end up doing a huge service to everyone--your colleagues and those on the outside--who are trying to figure out how to enable journalism to survive, even if newspapers themselves are dying.

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