Another View on the 'New Journalism.' (Market-Driven Journalism) (Column)

By Winter, Bill | Editor & Publisher, April 4, 1992 | Go to article overview

Another View on the 'New Journalism.' (Market-Driven Journalism) (Column)


Winter, Bill, Editor & Publisher


In his broadside at market analysts who, he fears, are dominating many newsrooms these days (Shop Talk, Feb. 1), Harvard curator Bill Kovach raised compelling questions about emerging approaches to the complexities of reaching readers.

Specifically, Kovach questions whether newspapers' concerns with threats from electronic competition, declining readership, and bottom-line results have caused an erosion of traditional journalistic approaches and values in favor of a much less substantive form characterized by short stories, flashy graphics, and little literary depth or context.

These are legitimate questions, and certainly will be the focus of much hallway and after-hours debate at this week's convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington.

However, let me suggest that, while some correctly lament what they cite as examples of newsroom overreaction to newspapers' current bottom-line difficulties, a strong case can be made that many of the present-day newsroom experiments are intelligent, well-thought-out, and much overdue.

Given the realities of newspaper circulation trends and changing demographics, lifestyles, and reader interests, a strong case can be made that newsrooms damned well better be changing their approaches to readers and that any insistence on clinging to old forms and old newsroom decision-making processes is a prescription for death -- maybe not even a slow death.

The truth is that there is a need for the jounalistic approaches championed so articulately by Bill Kovach, approaches that would refocus reporting efforts away from bureaucratic process and toward the outputs and people-related impacts of key societal organizations.

There also is a place and a need for the market-driven, "reader-friendly" approaches developed under Knight-Ridder's Boca Raton project, Gannett's News 2000, and other efforts intended to make newspapers compelling to much broader ranges of people.

What I fear is that, in their disdain for the so-called "market-driven" approaches to news gathering and presentation, traditionalists would choke off risk-taking, trial-and-error with new and creative methods of writing, reporting and editing, and development of new kinds of deep and lasting connections between individual newsrooms and the communities they aspire to reflect.

I have, in short, a recurring nightmare that newspapers will go the way of the railroads.

The business schools have taught for some time that American railroads withered away because the people who ran them insisted on believing they were in the "railroad" business when, in fact, they were in the "transportation" business. Now these same schools have added the notion that the railroads died, in part, because the people who ran them simply loved the railroad business.

Hmmmm. Is it possible that down the road 20 years or so the business schools might be substituting the words "newspaper industry" for "railroad business"?

Do we not duplicate the mistake of the railroads when we resist acknowledging that, in this day of high technology, short attention spans, and time-starved readers, newspapers really are in the "information" business?

As an industry, are we doing ourselves a favor by lamenting the passing of the traditional newspaper forms we have loved and the advent of newspapers that, in actuality, retain many of the same traditional characteristics but are significantly enlivened with new journalistic approaches designed, admittedly, to appeal to a broader audience with more diverse tastes?

Do these changes in traditional journalistic forms amount to pandering?

Critics of the new forms take similar aim at what they consider the dangers of profit-seeking in the newspaper trade. But why is it a sin to aspire to a healthy profit?

I have not yet figured out how our unique First Amendment values can be defended by newspapers that have expired because they could not make a buck to pay the salaries and buy the newsprint and the ink, presses, and delivery trucks. …

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