Quality can be an elusive term. It is one that conference participants struggled to explain, define and find ways to put into practice. What follows are edited excerpts that speak to various ways in which quality journalism is sought and measured.

Photos from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Conor O’Clery:
When you ask about quality, how do you define a quality newspaper? You cannot pin it down to one aspect of the newspaper or news organization. It has to do with the talent at the top and with the caliber of the writers. It has to do with the news judgment and with the breadth of coverage. It has to do with whether or not readers are going to find the stories that they want to read about in that newspaper.

Roberta Baskin: ABC News is adding a third magazine show to “20/20” and “Primetime Live.” But they’re not adding any staff. They’re going to rotate people who are already working 18-hour days. What happens at the networks is when entertainment programming, which is more expensive to produce, fails, then they want the news staff to jump in and save the day. That’s how “48 Hours” has struggled along for more than 10 years when they keep thinking that they’re going to be cancelled. So the same thing is happening right now at ABC News—three news shows versus quality.

Tom Wolzien: While everybody’s patting themselves on the back and saying, “Hey look. We got all these audiences, we got all these readers, we got all these people that care,” we’re close to losing it because of the lack of reporting and of holding government officials accountable at this point. If that happens, then these audiences go away.

Phil Meyer: The news business will continue to decline as we try to satisfy Wall Street and make it cheaper and cheaper. And we can do that as long as the public can’t distinguish quality from non-quality. But what September 11 has done is make it easier to distinguish between quality and non-quality. People will remember that.

Eric Newton: Every generation fights this battle between news for the public good and news for private gain. You stand up and you’re counted, but that’s the extent of determining how it all comes out. The kinds of hand-wringing that we have now are almost identical to what was going on 100 years ago, when there were no codes of ethics and no journalism schools and editors gathered in New York to worry that Pulitzer and Hearst were ruining everything. And those editors said, “What’s going to happen to the quality of news and the quality of journalism?” This is a continuum. You’re absolutely going to have some folks standing up and saying, “You know, we believe in pure news, real news, quality news.” But whether that’s going to change the consumption of news in the long term in the country, I don’t know.

If good journalism is good for us, then good journalism about journalism is good for us. It all makes sense to have decent benchmarks and statistics, some kind of agreement among the quality brands about what quality is and training for people who report on the news industry. Whether this means that nine out of 10 CEO’s are going to go to Wall Street with the news story remains to be seen. In fact, probably we’ll see the quality brands identifying themselves by saying, “This is what we are” a lot more now that the marketplace is inviting this.

Dan Sullivan: Can we start to define an asset that is built around the quality of the information that we provide our readers? Are there ways to get an array of measures that all point to this as a quality news operation that over the very long haul will thrive and be more profitable than one that has sort of less of this asset?

Geneva Overholser: First, we’d have to define news as the main asset internally. We pay a whole lot of lip service to it, but the fact is that the compensation of news executives, not just publishers, is increasingly tied to the business performance of the company. And it’s powerful: When stock options are how you’re going to be rewarded, it makes a real difference. And it speaks to how the company defines its own performance. With this happening, you have to be willing to define internally what your primary emphasis is.

Margaret Holt: One of our measures for quality at the Chicago Tribune has to do with accuracy. We’ve adopted elements of a traditional, industrial approach to quality. All the editorial work is process, and any opportunity to fix the process rather than the mistake has huge benefits to readers. And we measure it in different ways. We set accuracy goals for newsroom managers, for how the newsroom does as it performs as a whole against these accuracy goals. That’s one of the things that fits into compensation.

Meyer: I can tell you about a business model that was described to me in 1978 when Knight Ridder posted me from the Washington bureau to the corporate staff and they wanted me to help invent what became the Internet. I didn’t realize I was helping invent the Internet, but we were inventing a home information service that we perceived as a parallel to a newspaper, where there would be one big computer that would be the analog of the printing press, and we’d control all the information that went in and would sell it to people for retrieval on their home screens.

“Societal Influence Model for the Newspaper Industry”
My other task was to use market research to figure out how to reverse the circulation decline. And Hal Jurgensmeyer, who ran the Viewtron experiment, said that we never have been in the newspaper business. He drew a parallel with the famous Harvard Business Review article about the railroads. The railroads died because they thought they were in the railroad business and, in fact, they were in the transportation business. And Hal said, “Ours is not the news business. It’s not even the information business. We’re in the influence business.”

I fell in love with that model immediately because it justified what the Knight family had been doing intuitively—that is showing that there is long-term profit in social responsibility because the public knows that and respects you, and the advertisers want some of that respect to rub off onto them. Only a credible medium can keep advertising support in the long run.

  • Roberta Baskin, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, is an investigative journalist and senior producer of “20/20.”
  • Margaret Holt is customer service editor for the Chicago Tribune, where she manages the paper’s accuracy initiative.
  • Philip Meyer, a 1967 Nieman Fellow, is a professor of and Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Eric Newton is director of journalism initiatives at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and founding managing editor of the Newseum.
  • Conor O’Clery is the international business editor in New York for The Irish Times, published in Dublin.
  • Geneva Overholser, a 1986 Nieman Fellow, holds the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting at the Washington bureau of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
  • Dan Sullivan is a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he holds the Cowles Chair in Media Management and Economics.
  • Tom Wolzien is senior media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., a Wall Street research and investment management firm.

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