A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
—James Madison, letter to William T. Barry, August 4, 1822.

 

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“Risk-Adverse Newspapers Won’t Cross the Digital Divide”
– Chris Cobler
It is still possible to save journalism, but maybe not journalism as we know it. James Madison’s postpresidential remark is often cited in support of First Amendment issues. I have cited it myself to make a case for trying to save newspapers. But the context of the ex-president’s observation included neither journalism nor newspapers. The purpose of his letter was to encourage Kentucky’s development of a public education system and suggest that it model Virginia’s with its egalitarian provisions for educating the poor as well as the rich.

“Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people,” Madison wrote. “They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.”

Saving journalism might be easier if we would zoom back and think broadly about ways to use the same technology that is disrupting the newspaper business to “throw that light over the public mind.” Getting newspapers to perform the task is not yet a lost cause. But we shouldn’t wait. Since the readership decline was first documented by Leo Bogart and other newspaper researchers in the 1960’s, newspapers have hired experts to tell them how to reverse the decline. All failed.

Part of the problem was that the industry was less interested in radical ideas than in cheap ways to tweak content to draw more readers. As it turned out, there weren’t any, at least none with sufficient power to turn back the tide of change.

A potentially strong exception to this pattern surfaced in September when the American Press Institute (API) released the results of a project led by Harvard Business School professor and new technologies marketing guru Clayton M. Christensen. This effort was oriented to the business side, but that’s okay. The first duty of a publisher, as my former Washington bureau chief, Edwin A. Lahey, likes to remind reporters, is to stay solvent.

Christensen has built on a tradition started at Harvard by the late Theodore Levitt, who urged businesses to look for customer needs and work backward from there to develop their products. Nearly three decades ago, I quoted a much-used Levitt aphorism (without knowing its source) to my colleagues at Knight Ridder’s Viewtron team when we were trying to invent an electronic home information system. “People don’t buy quarter-inch drills,” I said. “They buy quarter-inch holes.”

The Christensen metaphor, described in his and Michael E. Raynor’s 2003 book, “The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth,” is broader: People don’t buy products as much as they hire them to get specific jobs done. I could have used that notion in my Viewtron days. I remember Al Gillen, the head of the Knight Ridder subsidiary charged with creating Viewtron, responding: “I don’t buy quarter-inch holes. I borrow my neighbor’s quarter-inch holes.” Christensen’s formulation would have covered that. Whether people buy a drill or borrow their neighbor’s, they’re hiring it to get a job done.

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API’s Newspaper Next
– www.innosight.com
The API project, called Newspaper Next, instead of providing a list of potential new products for newspapers, creates a process for enabling them to innovate. That avoids the very familiar “not invented here” syndrome so common with newspapers. To prove that it works, Christensen’s team walked seven news organizations through pilot projects, and they came up with a provocative list of jobs that customers require. A few examples are listed here:

  • Help me find local services (Suburban Newspapers of America)
  • Help me plan my kids’ activities (The Dallas Morning News)
  • Help me reach a targeted, upscale audience in a specific community (Richmond Times-Dispatch).

It is not a bad thing that this kind of thinking leads mostly to niche publications, either print or online. If there is a common thread running through technological change since the end of World War II—including FM radio, cheaper high-quality printing, computer-assisted target marketing, and the Internet—it is that specialized media do better than mass media. Newspaper Next helps news people to see this and to figure out a way to adapt.

But how do these specialized activities correspond to the journalism we, as a people, depend on? What about James Madison’s concern?

In my humble opinion, the basic job that newspapers traditionally do (remember, this is from the customer’s point of view) is to help me structure my time. A newspaper can do this because it is simultaneously informative and entertaining. It has to be entertaining to compete with all of the other ways technology has given us for structuring time.

An example from Newspaper Next illustrates the point. The free newspapers distributed at public transportation centers in some cities are not of particularly high quality. But they do compete with other ways of structuring time; if the only competition is boredom or looking out the window, the newspaper is an attractive option.

As journalists, we’d prefer the public to say, “Help me understand the workings of our government so that I can hold it accountable.” It is pretty clear how much the public wants that job done when a crisis arises, and the clever circulation manager knows that’s the time to order an extra large press run. But it’s not a day-in, day-out job to be done. The daily job is more like what academics call “the surveillance function,” giving broad but shallow information so that a citizen will at least be alerted when something important happens. Thus alerted, readers can seek out more specialized media for the desired depth.

When new functions arise, the entity doing them does not need to be of particularly high quality because, if the job is not being done, the only competition is nonconsumption. The transit rider’s choice is reading the paper or riding while bored. This way of thinking is the source of Christensen’s advice to be satisfied with “good enough” at the start of new product development. Products using new technology can start out with lower quality than established ones because they are cheaper or more easily available, and they capture a previously nonconsuming share of the market. Then, as products improve, they can move up-market. Sony’s transistor radios, cheap, tinny and appealing mainly to teenagers when they were introduced in the 1950’s, are one example offered in “The Innovator’s Solution.”

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MyMissourian
–www.mymissourian.com
Journalism’s equivalent to those radios might be the citizen-journalism Web sites where the audience supplies the content. When I discovered MyMissourian.com, an online news product of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, I touted it to some fellow educators. They were appalled. “Poor quality,” they said. “That has nothing to do with journalism.”

But citizen journalism has the capacity to get better, just as Sony gradually built from its teenage base toward the high end of the audio market. Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University and author of PressThink, a Weblog about journalism, has created NewAssignment.net to add editing and verification to citizen efforts and move them up the scale. This seems a logical place at which to begin. After all, Christensen and his coauthors warn against “cramming” existing quality standards into new technology, citing Kodak’s decision to enter the digital camera market with a $30,000 product to make images competitive with film. When digital photography finally took off, it started at the low, point-and-shoot end.

There is, of course, a brilliant counter-example to this principle. Charles Lewis started at the top after he walked away from his job as a “60 Minutes” producer at CBS and began a nonprofit group to perform investigative reporting at a higher quality level than CBS would permit. That might not be a fair comparison because his Center for Public Integrity is nonprofit, an entirely different ball game. And its consumers are elites, not the average citizen looking for a job to get done. But the case still holds promise for Madison’s vision since “popular information,” of which he spoke, never was distributed uniformly across the population, not even in the glory days of mass media.

Paul Lazarsfeld, the Viennese-born mathematician who helped create modern sociology, found this out when he and his colleagues studied the 1940 presidential election in Erie County, Ohio. Direct effects of mass media, they discovered, were less important than personal contacts. Media were still powerful, but the flow went “to the opinion leaders and from them to the less active sections of the population,” he and his colleagues observed in their 1944 book, “The People’s Choice.”

This effect is now institutionalized in the political communication literature as the “two-step flow,” from mass media to the elites and then to the public. What the new media forms now give us is a three-step, or even a multistep, flow. An idea or news report gets launched by a blogger, a citizen journalism site, or a nonprofit investigative site, and then it diffuses.

The model is robust. Diffusion steps can go through whatever is left of the mass media or they can link and network their way from citizen to citizen by what some call a “viral” transmission consisting of e-mail forwarding across all sorts of super-specialized media, some of which, by virtue of their performance, will have captured the public’s trust.

Whether newspapers survive or not, the hope is that this process will eventually lead to the citizens whose job it is “to arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

I choose to believe that James Madison would have approved.

Philip Meyer, a 1967 Nieman Fellow, is Knight Chair in and professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book, “The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age,” was published by the University of Missouri Press in 2004. This article is based on remarks given in November for the Dutch-Flemish Organization for Investigative Journalists in Mechelen, Belgium.

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