Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Stop The Press! Newspaper's Are Not DOA

Pronouncing newspapers as 'dead' is, I think, a bit premature.

With all due respect to Scoble and others who are wise in their detractions of the old print media ~ detractions which are given top priority placement, unlike like newspaper retractions which are buried and virtually meaningless ~ I'm not convinced newspapers (or any 'old' media) is doomed to go the way of dinosaurs and Dodo birds.

Extinction is based upon the inability to adapt, and while newspapers sure have been slow to learn, I am not convinced they are incapable of adapting. Slow is often synonymous with corporate giants; their learning curve steepened and hampered by conformity to what they know, what they've always done. But this does not make newspapers nor the people that run them and work for them doomed to follow some well-worn path right off a cliff. They still posses the instinct for survival, even if they aren't sure about the 'how to' part yet.

The detractions have become assumptions that newspaper behavior is set in stone; that what actions they take (or do not take) are immovable, genetic factors ~ in this case limitations. But behaviors are not givens like 'cold-blooded' or 'height.' Behaviors are not irrefutable biological imperatives, but are learned ~ and unlearned. And newspapers are organizations, not organisms, and so are made of many beings which can unlearn, learn and move the individual business (as well as the industry) off the beaten path which heads off the cliff. It takes just one person with the right ideas (either in the right place or access to the right ~ or left ~ ear of the CEO) to save them. Their ways are not set in stone; neither are their futures.

Newspapers themselves are a far cry from stone tablets, even if they lack some of the fluidity of our digital age. What newspapers must do is what many business and individuals must do in this age of changes ~ not all of which are prompted by technology itself but rather by the humans (and their desires) which not only create but use the technology ~ they must change.

Newspapers may seem like a funny thing to write about in a marketing or PR blog, but the Fourth Estate is a large part of the work we (should) do. And it works nicely within concepts and issues which I'll be getting to soon (so bear with me ~ or better yet, don't passively read but get involved in the discussion) which are about our cultural shift in desires. Americans, generally believed to be bereft of any 'Culture' with a capital 'C' still have a general culture; and we as the collective culture are demanding some fundamental changes in the way things are done.

This is not a new thing. We have a long history of change and rebellion. Not just from the old crown of England, but along the way we've demanded, cultivated and changed many of our own ways, behaviors and institutions. Where it was once fine for a man to beat his women, we began to slowly change laws ~ first things like "no man shall beat his wife with anything thicker than his finger," and then onto better (if not always enforced) laws saying no beatings at all. It's still a work in progress. But we said, 'no more,' and we changed.

Now newspapers and other media must change.

The problem with newspapers isn't that they are outdated simply by being printed; they are not offering the readers that which we want to consume. As I said in the interview with Nicki Arnold, there is a great tactile and human response to reclining in chairs or on couches to read from paper. It's not the digital delivery vs the delivery boy; not 'instant' blogger vs it-takes-time paper. It's not that they must change because of technology, but because of the way we've used technology to reflect & voice our desires for change. We've used technology to change our culture.

So it's not simply about how newspapers publish but it's about what they publish; it's the content of their publications which has the outdated problems.

Here are some changes newspapers must make which have nothing to do with how or where they are published (technology) but have to do with culture (what consumers want).

#1 Let me enjoy reading. Do away with the stupid, antiquated inverted pyramid. Stop making me read more only to find out less. And stop writing for grade school readers ~ unless you run a grade school publication or are targeting those who have had little education. And don't you dare give me the 'facts' regarding the average reading level in this country ~ those people aren't likely to buy and read anything anyway. Aim at your damn target market! (Hint: It has something to do with 'readers'.)

#2 Make me care. Do away with the out-of-date and inaccurate thinking that 'journalist = impartial'. History shows us that some of the first and best journalists were those with the biggest biases. What made them work, what made them popular, was the fact that they were passionate. They cared enough to rant and rave and they were honest and open about their bias. Think this is crazy? Look at the popularity of FOX news and blogging in general.

This whole issue reminds me of that Lou Grant episode where Lou and female reporter Billie clash about "women's reporting." Lou tells Billie how 'in the old days' female reporters came in, removed their gloves and sat down to type stories to make people cry. Billie responds with a "Is that what you're afraid I'll do?" And Lou responds, "No, I'm afraid that's not what you're going to do." I'm paraphrasing (butchering), but that scene's principle is etched in my mind all these years because Lou's ideals in print would be a paper I'd want to read.

In other words, journalists should evoke some response in their writings. I personally tire of and am saddened by reading about drive by shootings and when done, I don't give a damn. At the end of that piece I should be crying. Crying for the people shot, their families, and the communities which live in such conditions. And yes, crying at the fact that the these cars full of humans have lost hope and humanity to the degree that they feel this is an option ~ that they think they should do this.

We as readers are not (completely) desensitized by violence or the frequency of such acts, but by the means in which we are told these things. The current name of journalism is as void of emotion as it can be. This makes for publications void of any meaning. If you read it and think, "Who cares?" why would you buy it?

#3 Give me the facts but... Facts do not really exist, not completely on their own anyway. Facts and statistics need interpretation, which involves the human mind. Humans have biases, impressions, reactions ~ these color facts and should be mentioned. Facts do not exist in a vacuum, so stop trying to present them as such. But then again, do not ignore facts, stats, data ~ including those either from, or interpreted by, 'the other side.' It not just a 'tactic' to appear 'fair,' but by presenting those who disagree you show some passion and concern regarding the topic or issue. You can debate the 'other,' or simply present it; but don't be lazy and ignore it. Others who care about the topic are going to know these other points of view and if you don't point to it your credibility diminishes two-fold: 1, you must not care enough and 2, you are lazy in your research.

#4 Tell me what's important. Everyone is bitching about the amount of press given to Anna Nicole vs. real issues like the war. I doubt this was any different when Marilyn Monroe died ~ 'we' love our celebrities. We all know WWII wasn't given much press ~ in part because no one wanted to know anything so 'we' wouldn't have to do anything about it. Newspapers and the media have a long tradition of selecting what they think the people want. Being one of the few sources of the news, they tried to please (pander) to everyone.

One thing we do know with this digital news delivery is that we can get the news we seek somewhere. Newspapers were once the only, then the main, source of news. It made sense to be a generalist of sorts. But now we clearly see the need for niche newspapers and publications. Pick a side, celebs or the war, and serve it. If you stand for something, be it the economy or entertainment, educate me about it. Tell me what's new, tell me what I should care about and why.

#5 Stand (up) corrected. When you make a mistake, say so loudly. (Note: I said 'when,' not 'if,' because you will make a mistake or have an error of some sort.) Don't whisper it in the hushed mumbles of an ashamed child (buried at the bottom of page 27 amid lord knows what), but rather put it on the first page, if not above the fold. This goes for everything ~ a significant typo (in figures or one which changes the context or meaning), crediting your source inappropriately (or heave forbid, not at all!), misquoting or other inaccurate statement, or just being plain old wrong in your presentation. Let me know that you know you were wrong and I'll respect you for it.

None of these things depends upon technology nor is because of technology but rather is based upon cultural shifts. These are cultural shifts which technology has been used to spurred forward, but print can do them all. And do them well.

If newspapers and other media learn to adopt these principals, to adapt, then they will not die-off and become extinct. Those which learn new behaviors will find themselves handsomely rewarded with paying readers who will curl up on the sofa, read at the breakfast table, and pour through in bed on Sunday mornings (not just for the crossword puzzles either). All it takes for you to get these readers is to focus on your consumers and their wishes. Just like any other business.

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Blogger Nicki said...

i'd hate to see my poor newspapers die :-( i agree, they do need to change. i'd love to read a news story that made me want to DO something after i finished it. and i agree that the writing style needs to change...but i fear that writers will go to the extreme and write stories so complicated that even those holding degrees won't understand. i think it's not that they need to "smart up" (is that the opposite of dumb down?) their writing, but change the style so it's more conversational. i want to have a nice conversation on sunday morning, not listen to a reel of facts or a lecture.

March 30, 2007 12:42 PM  
Blogger Marketing Whore said...

Writing for more than a 5th grade, or 9th grade reading level or whatever it is now, doesn't mean it need be passionless nor like a lecture. Conversational is a tone, and can be done at any reading level. And neither a larger vocabulary nor more complicated sentence structures has to mean it's too high-brow or scholarly. These are my suggestions ~ pending upon the publication's target audience (average reader), of course.

April 2, 2007 3:44 PM  

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