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Restore Trust: Seek Core Values; Citizens Vs. Consumers

The first Restoring the Trust IM Interview I ran yesterday with Buzz Merritt did as I hoped it would. It got thoughtful people like Tim Porter of First Draft and Dan Suwyn, managing editor at the Savannah Morning News, to expand upon how journalists can get back the public’s trust. Both are excellent reads.

Here is part of what Porter wrote at his website:

Public trust will return to newspaper journalism when newspaper journalists return to their core purposes, pursue them relentlessly and abandon the obsolete notion of competing against television, the Internet, etc. for the people’s time. This fight is not about time. It’s about credibility and commitment to community.

Here in its entirety is what Suwyn originally sent as a comment:

Thoughts about Mr. Merritt’s interview:

Journalism was the essential craft of the era of enlightened democracy – a time when the pressing questions were about self-determination, our responsibilities as citizens and our relationship with a higher being. Journalism was a path to understanding and a check on the new powers of individuals and governments.

Unfortunately, we are no longer in that era.

We are in the era of economic relevance – where the pressing question is about what value individuals contribute and where morality is determined more by the rules of the marketplace than by theology (even within most organized religions).

Instead of citizens, we are now consumers. Our relationship with government is based on a consumer model now. In too many cases, our personal relationships are based on that model as well.

The problem news organizations have is that we are built to speak to people as citizens, but people now see themselves as consumers. When we try to meet them as consumers, we lose our way as journalists – “targeted” sections, demographic-driven quotas for front pages, partisan newscasts, deals linking content and advertising. The list of sins is long.

So here’s a way to approach our readers as citizens within the restraints of our era of economic relevance.

Economic relevance breaks things into two categories – commodity and craft. It is helpful to think about what we offer readers in those two categories. Our commodity is information. Our craft is journalism.

Information – everything from obituaries and calendars to stocks, property transfers and TV listings – has value at a microlevel. Information is what people expect from their newspaper. You increase your base value by increasing the breadth of data/information you have. This is answering the basic consumer question – is this product useful?

As space has tightened in U.S. newspapers, information has been cut, thus eroding the core value of the product to the consumer.

Journalism – the context, stories, analysis and investigations – is what determines consumer loyalty and lasting value. Watchdog journalism, stories of success, solutions-driven reporting – these answer the second key consumer question, does this product/company care about me?

Public journalism is about answering the second question, but it has happened at a time when newspapers are increasingly failing to answer the first. We make people pay for obituaries, weddings, birth announcements and we’re gutting other essential information from the paper.

Newsrooms need to see the value in all the raw information they collect, find what other information they can gather efficiently and concentrate on how to deliver to consumers.

That information will lead to better journalism – more context, more understanding of patterns, better access to people. And then it will be up to us to show people how they are both consumers and citizens.

In the era of economic relevance, information pays for journalism.

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