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Meyer to News Entrepreneurs: Fill the Trust Vacuum

Will newspapers vanish? Take a look at my Online Interview below with Philip Meyer, Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina and author of The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age. Learn how entrepreneurs might be the saving grace. This is one of a series of Journalism and the Public: Restoring the Trust IM Interviews that will be appearing here at
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Leonard Witt: Hi Professor Meyer thanks for agreeing to do this Restoring the Trust IM Interview. So tell us why the title: The Vanishing Newspaper?

Philip Meyer: My first choice for a title, was “The Last Newspaper Reader,” keying to the line graph that shows everyday readership dropping a percentage point a year. But the publisher thought it would be confused with a book of
readings from other sources. Either title arouses a certain degree of alarm, and this book is intended as a wake-up call.

Witt: Well how bad is the situation? Will we see the last newspaper reader in our lifetime?

Meyer: Not really. No linear trend lasts forever. It bends eventually. Trouble is, I don’t know which way this one is going to bend. Once I thought it would flatten out when it reached a core of determined readers. Now I think it might turn the other way and get steeper as newspapers lose the financial support to justify quality content.

But the history of other media is that new technology doesn’t totally replace them. It just drives them into specialized niches where they can flourish in a different way.

Witt: What do you think that “different way” might look like?

Meyer: Can’t say. But some interesting experiments are under way. The Washington Examiner is trying to eat some of the Washington Post’s lunch with a free-distribution tabloid that appeals to young people and subway riders. Foreign-language publications are growing. It will take a lot of trial and error to find the viable niches. And this work will mostly be done by newcomers to the newspaper business. Having less at stake, they are not afraid to take risks.

Some way of combining online and print journalism might work. I like the Greensboro experiment for that — and because it is a rare example of risk-taking by an established newspaper.

Witt: In your book you say entrepreneurs will realize that they can make a pretty good living by undercutting the 20 plus percent profits that the mainstream papers are making and settle for six or seven percent profits? You see them doing it by coupling quality journalism and new inexpensive technologies. Some might see the quality piece as Pollyannaish thinking. What would you say to them?

Meyer: I have more faith in markets than they do. I may be a tax-and-spend, Volvo driving, bleeding-heart liberal, but I still believe in markets. My book is an appeal to the entrepreneurial spirit of America, and I think that I’m doing here what I did with “Precision Journalism.” Spot a trend, make a big noise about it, and it looks like I’m leading the parade. The parade is going to happen no matter what I do. The market will reward quality, especially now that the entry price has been reduced.

Witt: The market will reward quality? Have you watched the Fox News Network? It has growing influence and market share, but I would not call it quality journalism.

Meyer: Fox News is an early example of niche journalism. I don’t know if its audience considers it quality or not. Expect other segments of political view to get their TV outlets, too. Fox just happened to be the first one out of the gate.

My quality measures assume a market that is defined by a local public sphere, defined by economic and social ties. Defining quality for a national audience would require a different book — and one well worth doing.

Witt: So why will quality be rewarded in the local sphere in terms of both audience and profits?

Meyer: A good newspaper helps a community develop its sense of self. The influence model involves at least two dimensions: trust and community affiliation. A strong community develops economic interdependence that makes the newspaper — what Rich Oppel once called “the convenor of the community” — the most desirable place to put advertising messages.

Newspapers yield that function when they conceptualize themselves as mere platforms for delivering eyeballs to advertisers in the cheapest possible way. When they do that, it creates an opening for entrepreneurs to come from other fields and try to build influence on their own.

I can’t tell them how to do that. I don’t know. It will take lots of failed experiments to create the right model. But that process is happening right now. If newspapers want in on it, they will have to increase their rate of failure.

Witt: That brings us to the two scenarios you develop in The Vanishing Newspaper. One is to keep squeezing the golden goose, taking all the profits you can, while you can and forgetting about the long-term consequences and the other is to invest in quality journalism whatever its mode of delivery. Which path do you see the large mainstream news media corporations taking?

Meyer: The mainstream will harvest the goose. It’s the rational thing to do. The decline is happening so slowly that they can make more money in the career span of any present-day manager than they are likely to realize by making high-risk bets on the future.

But, as I say in Chapter 2, there will come a magic moment in the life span of every old medium, when it has harvested so much good will that it is vulnerable to competition. There are cases like that starting to develop. Steve Lacy and a colleague wrote a good case study of the Thomson Newspapers and how they harvested themselves into a hole.

I’m hoping one of our grad students will start a case study of Durham, N.C. I am not certain that the new owners of the Herald-Sun are pursuing a harvesting strategy, but the signs are strong enough that the News & Observer of Raleigh is launching a territorial challenge. If I were 25 again, I’d want to be part of that action.

Witt: Speaking of 25 year olds or 19 year olds, if you were that age today would you go into newspaper journalism, or for that matter any kind of journalism? It seems so risky.

Meyer: It was risky in 1952. Youth doesn’t care about risk. Today, I would spend some time in newspaper journalism, but then I would try to work for whoever is supporting the best investigative work. That includes some interesting nonprofits like the Center for Public Integrity.

Witt: This has been a great interview. I have one final question. The role of journalist as gatekeeper is deteriorating as the gates are being stormed from all sides. Yet you advocate for journalists to define themselves as professionals and then to develop and enforce guidelines that separate real journalism from pseudo journalism. What difference will it make, who will listen, who will care?

Meyer: There is a lot of noise coming from those guys storming the gates. We need people with professional standards to help the public sort out the signal from the noise. As the supply of information increases, so does the need for somebody to help the public manage it. Professional standards are a way of helping the public figure out who to trust. I consider myself a journalist. If the public can’t tell me from Jerry Springer, then this mediating, filtering, analysis, function, this building and packaging trust, can’t be performed. To bring up the market again, there is an unmet need for trusted sources. As Al Neuharth said once, the way to make money in the news business is to find a vacuum and fill it. It’s still true.

Witt: And so are you saying that Restoring the Trust will require filling the trust vacuum?

Meyer: Yes. And it’s getting bigger. What an opportunity!

Witt: Thanks for a great interview. There’s lots of good information here.

Meyer: My pleasure. And as speakers used to say at union rallies, “Thanks for the use of the hall.”

For an earlier Restoring the Trust IM Interview with Davis “Buzz” Merritt click here.

The Journalism and the Public: Restoring the Trust project is underwritten by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

9 Responses to “Meyer to News Entrepreneurs: Fill the Trust Vacuum”

  1. dick Says:

    Interesting interview despite the bias of the interviewer. He failed to ask about the new methodologies that are checking and analyzing what the MSM is printing and pointing out the miserable job they are doing on the ethics and real journalism part of the job.

    Bloggers are acting as “remora” fish to the sharks of journalism. They are taking what the MSM is putting out there and clearing out the errors and the slanting of the news as a basic part of the story. Then they are analyzing this product and putting their slant on it. The problem with the MSM is that they have been slanting the news so long and failing to report the rest of the news that there is a gaping hole in their credibility and the public seeing it.

    What the MSM has to do is what Mr Meyer says by becoming niche journalism (which is what they are right now since they are ignoring major parts of the story in favor of what bleeds leads) or finally actually doing their real jobs and reporting the full story. I don’t believe the second is what they will do based on what I see of them so far. When the major news media mis-reports or makes unsupportable news stories and then keeps trying to fit them into the public ear, (Rathergate and Easongate and Jayson Blair et al) the public will increasingly turn them off. Shame but they are doing it to themselves.

    And making flippant remarks about Fox which is doing a better job of reporting the whole story than the other MSM so far won’t help either. Cute remarks like “Faux news” will end up turning more people off because they won’t think it is cute and while the rest of the MSM snickers, the majority of the country will turn to Fox for the news they need to get. And the MSM will sit there sucking their thumbs wondering why the country doesn’t buy their product. Snide comments don’t sell in the long run and when the comments are made about the “red states are not voting in their own interests” or “red states are ignorant” or “red states can’t understand what is at stake like the blue states can” the red states will continue showing that they do in fact understand the issues which are that the blue state people think they are idiots and will continue voting for the team with morals and values and beliefs and faith. Besides, if the red states were so wrong, why are so many blue state commentators saying maybe Bush lucked out and got it right this time. Funny question, that one!!

  2. tom Says:

    Correlation isn’t causality. Blogs may have sprung up at the same time that newspaper readership is declining, but that doesn’t automatically mean one has anything to do with the other.

    The more straightforward (and less politically charged) explanation is that people are losing their reading habit, and it’s killing newspapers.

    It does seem odd, though, that most newspapers haven’t glommed onto blogs in any meaningful way, because bloggers tend to be two things newspapers desperately need: motivated readers and news junkies.

    Newsapers could be arbiters of sanity in the blogosphere — somebody to lend a voice of reason amid all the blather — but they’ve got to do more than dip their toes in the water.

  3. Leonard Witt Says:

    Hello Tom Mangan:

    I miss your blog Prints the Chaff. It was good stuff. A while back Orville Schell, dean of the graduate journalism school at the U of Calif., Berkeley, wrote about the end of the Roman Empire of the mass media. However, also in that article Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., chairman of the New York Times Company and fourth generation publisher of the Times, said in the belief that quality journalism pays in the long run. “The challenge is to remember that our history is to invest during tough times,” he says. “And when those times turn — and they do, inevitably — we will be well-positioned for recovery.”

    That is consistent with what Meyer contends will win out in the future–quality journalism.

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  9. Pramit Says:

    What do you think about the new trend of ‘pay per view’ journalism?