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Editors Talk Quality Journalism, But Will They Deliver It?

The conclusion of the Project for Excellence in Journalism study The Changing Newsroom: What is Being Gained and What is Being Lost in America’s Daily Newspapers? says that the key to saving journalism is high quality journalism.

Here is one section which reinforces that idea:

editors remain convinced the key to their survival is a good business model and strong journalism. As one editor interviewed for this named three basic ingredients needed “not just to survive, but thrive:” excellent journalism, strong investment to stay on the cutting edge of technology, and aggressive marketing of the product.

But alas as I read through the report, I see the lip service being paid to high quality journalism and the reality is something else. The report is based on surveys and discussions with newspaper editors. Not a good choice to find the truth about changing newspapers.

Newspaper editors, for the most part, who are still editing newspapers, are there because they have learned to adapt to ever worsening situations. I think, if their individual publisher cut off each editor’s nose and ears, the editor would come out of the publisher’s office and say, “Wow that hurt, but now I can smell and hear only those things that are essential — and for that I am a better person.”

Here is a quote, for example, from the report:

“I believe the journalism itself is discernibly better than it was a year ago,” said the editor of a large metropolitan daily, whose paper last year lost 70 newsroom employees. “There’s an improvement in enterprise, in investigations and in the coverage of several core beats.”

That editor is not alone, the report finds:

…despite the enormous cutbacks and profound worries—editors still sense that their product is improving, not worsening. Fully 56% think their news product is better than it was three years earlier.

Maybe, but here is a key paragraph in the report:

The bottom line culturally is this: In today’s newspapers, stories tend to be gathered faster and under greater pressure by a smaller, less experienced staff of reporters, then are passed more quickly through fewer, less experienced, editing hands on their way to publication.

The bigger newspapers seem to be being hit the hardest:

the study suggests two very different experiences, with smaller newspapers apparently better anchored into their communities and with more deeply involved readerships, enjoying greater stability.

Nonetheless, topics getting less coverage in newspapers in general include international affairs, national, regional and state government and politics, business, features and lifestyle, film and arts, and science.

Here is the result:

…this shrinkage of specialized beats reduces the marketplace of ideas and interpretations as more newspapers decide to cut plum (and thus, expensive) jobs because they can “buy the content elsewhere.” Such a process concentrates the power and the responsibility that goes with reporting these areas into the hands of those organizations that still provide such coverage. One executive editor remarked how, after being forced to lay off the paper’s art critic, the choice of a further staff cut then focused on either the resident film or music critic.

I hated to make that cut,” the editor said. “I read all these things about how cutting film critics is a good choice because you can get film criticism from other places, but those are the same arguments you hear about foreign coverage, national coverage or state government coverage. Eventually, you wake up one day and find there is no somewhere else because everyone has done the same thing you’ve done. It’s very troubling.”

Very troubling indeed, when you consider that the Murdoch and Thomson families now control a large percentage of the business news with the respective acquisitions of Dow Jones and Reuters. These media families are not exactly champions of journalism values or ethics.

Here is what else is happening to quality:

Reporters who once concentrated on one beat or specialty now frequently have two or three…In interviews, editors of newspapers that had undergone significant newsroom cuts repeatedly found themselves hard-pressed to name beats that had been abandoned completely. But they agreed the coverage had become thinner and, because of that, its quality had diminished.

One area that is flourishing is local news:

At a time of shrinking newshole, nearly two-thirds (62%) of those responding to the survey said they had increased the amount of space devoted to community and neighborhood news. Among smaller papers, this number was even higher at 67%.

Investigative and enterprise reporting also gets high marks:

91% of all newsroom executives said they considered investigative or enterprise reporting either “very essential” or “somewhat essential” to the quality of their news product.

However, here is the caveat from the editors:

To be sure, they admitted that financial pressures today force them to be more selective in their choice of such labor-intensive editorial projects. They also noted investigative stories tend to run shorter than they did a few years ago…

The newspapers and their online editions seem to be leaning towards immediacy, local and short. That may be great for many readers, but not for me. I want that short stuff, but I want context, nuance, depth. That I am afraid will disappear, unless, we all find a way to make it happen, probably outside the mainstream newspapers.

There will be exceptions like the New York Times, if it can survive. According to a recent Columbia Journalism Review article, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher and chairman of the NewYork Times:

still believes in the Times’s basic model: quality journalism + quality readers = quality advertising. “It has been our formula for success for decades. We believe it will remain so in this digital era,” he told shareholders in April.

The article adds:

In part because of its commitment to quality journalism, for which so many are rightfully grateful, the Times Company’s profit margins have always been narrower than most of the industry, and consequently it has less of a margin to absorb declines. Yet it is on that foundation of quality that Sulzberger places his faith. “It is our belief that the reason why the Times has survived when so many of its competitors have faded, is because it maintained a strong value system that has always been an essential part of our tradition.”

But let’s get back to the survey of editors. I had great hopes for Mobile Journalists, I saw them hanging out in neighborhoods, getting close to all constituencies and providing depth and context in ways newsroom bound reporters cannot, but apparently that is not the trend. This is:

Anecdotal evidence suggests “Mo Jo’s” are usually deployed to cover geographical rather than themed beats and tend to act as carpet sweepers, reporting and filing a stream of short, quick stories for the paper’s website on minor or routine developments during the course of the day.

So kid, what’s you job? I am a Mo Jo, a carpet sweeper at your local daily. It’s one of several symbols that journalism that helps us truly understand the world in which we live is waning, even though there is lot of talk from editors that they are doing better journalism than ever. It has to be our mission to help fix it. I am trying with my Representative Journalism idea, and you, what are you doing?

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