Charlotte business coach Steve Gatter is on a laudable mission to save journalism.
A mutual friend put Mr. Gatter in touch with me recently to discuss his idea of creating a foundation to raise money to subsidize newspapers. The concept, as I understand it, is to supplement their lack of subscription and advertising revenue with what essentially would be a bailout so that newspapers in need of financial help won’t go under.
He was inspired by a July 15 editorial from Leonard Pitts Jr., a national opinion columnist with the Miami Herald, titled, “What will we do without newspapers?”
In an email explaining his efforts, Mr. Gatter invited readers to share their thoughts and ideas as to whether newspapers should be financially supported.
No doubt about it, newspapers have taken a huge hit with massive layoffs throughout the nation and many of them going out of business. They have traditionally played an important role in American society, though for quite a few media outlets that role has shifted from reporting to advocating.
Citing a 2018 report that found the U.S. has lost nearly 1,800 newspapers since 2004, Mr. Pitts lamented what he called a “devastating” impact on the coverage of local events.
“Decide quickly,” he warned, “because that future is being born right before our eyes, thanks to shifting economic realities and the rise of social media.”
Note where Mr. Pitts places blame for the industry’s decline: “shifting economic realities” and “the rise of social media.”
This is an excellent example of the type of thinking that has put so many papers in a bind: Playing the victim card and blaming external elements rather than trying to understand why this is happening and finding ways to reverse the trend.
Instead of asking “What will we do without newspapers?” here are three other questions I think would be much more productive for Mr. Pitts to ponder:
Why are so many people abandoning their local papers?
Is journalism, in its current state, worth saving?
If so, how will providing additional funds improve the situation?
When I was in graduate school, one of my professors made the point that newspapers are first and foremost in business to make a profit.
Markets tend to be efficient, and if a business isn’t meeting a need—or doing so sufficiently to satisfy its customers—chances are that business will simply not survive in the long run.
Blaming others for lack of sales and interest is a sure-fire way to expedite an entity’s extinction.
Perhaps if journalism adapted to the new realities and became more market-driven, the industry wouldn’t be in decline. But that would mean quite a few journalists would have to get to know and understand their readers better.
As a starting point, how about some focus groups to see what readers want from their local paper, and make adjustments to the content and areas of coverage accordingly?
Many journalists and editors also would have to set aside their bias and re-orientate their reporting to inform the public about what actually happened (i.e. the facts), not what they want the public to think about what happened.
The media bias problem extends beyond newspapers, as evidenced by a new study that found a whopping 95% of Americans are “troubled” by the current state of the media, with more than half citing “reports on fake news” as a concern.
- Wow. Now that’s what I call devastating.
Pollster Frank Luntz points out that the media has the lowest level of credibility in more than half a century–which is when polls first started asking about that issue.
Noting that “judgmental journalists” now include their own political bias in their accounts—especially in their coverage of President Trump—a Washington Times article quotes Mr. Luntz as saying such hostility toward Mr. Trump is “turning people off against the media.”
“That’s not their job. Their job in not to label. Their job in not to condemn or criticize,” Mr. Luntz said. “Their responsibility is to present the language as it is used.”
Mr. Luntz is not the only one noticing this bias. The Times article cited a recent Pew Research Center survey that found “68% of Americans say the press is both politically biased and covers up its mistakes, while 58% said news organizations ‘do not understand people like them.’”
“Gallup, meanwhile, found that 69% of Americans say their trust in the media has fallen in the past decade.”
No wonder so many media outlets are losing readers, listeners and viewers. When reporters no longer have credibility, the game is pretty much over because no amount of money can buy trust.
Someone has defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. My concern about giving money to newspapers to ensure they survive, without making some fundamental changes to how they approach their work, would only reward the biased reporting and agenda-driven behavior that causes increasing levels of distrust and disgust among the public.
Today there are numerous online news sources that give readers more choices than ever. Some even specialize in local news, so the idea that local coverage is headed for doom if the community newspaper vanishes is simply not borne out by reality.
I sincerely wish Mr. Gatter well in his efforts to help save America’s newspapers. As a former reporter, I believe they have an important function in informing the public, providing accountability in a democratic society and offering a forum for diverse opinions on the editorial pages.
Unfortunately, so many of them have lost their way and seem unable or unwilling to make the kinds of changes that are needed to respond to market demand and restore trust.
Until those issues are addressed and corrected, I suspect we’ll continue to see newspaper layoffs and closures in the years to come.
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