The decline of newspapers: nothing to do with journalism again

October 8, 2008

Jeff Jarvis has three shots in his revolver for Paul Farhi, Roy Greenslade and yours truly over at Buzzmachine.

Here’s my reply from the comments:

The point I was making way back when [link above], was that many journalists (and their critics) are quick to explain the decline of newspaper circulation and broadcast news ratings in terms of ‘moral failure’ by journalists and journalism.

Let me reverse your proposition. Would you explain the rising number of newspaper sales from the late 19C to the mid-20C by pointing to the quality of the journalism being produced and the journalists churning it out? I think I would start with urbanisation, population growth, literacy, industrial process innovation, distribution etc.

If you honestly think journalism was more important than any of those, then go ahead – make the case. Because it’s exactly the same – as we British would say – ‘arse-about-face’ case you’re making above.

There are strategies for success in declining markets. The Washington Post is repositioning itself as an education company. Journalists and news execs are not passive players in the economy, but neither are we the cause or the drivers of changing patterns of entertainment and information consumption.

And if you want to look at newspapers’ relationship with readers don’t crank out trust! Trust in media [and, no, I didn’t plug the book on his blog] is positively correlated with consumption, so it pretty much tells you what you already know.

There will be winners and losers ahead, but in aggregate, I’ll bet you there will be fewer people reading newspapers in the United States in five years time than there are today.

But judging by current news, there will still be more readers than investment bankers…

++UPDATE++

Mr Jarvis replies:

Forget about newspapers as a product. Think of it in terms of journalism as a service. There are so many ways to update this service but it was held back by thinking as a product. The analogy to a century ago is: Wow, look at this great new thing coming out – cheap printing. Look at what we can do with that! Let’s have at it! What amazing opportunities!
That’s not what I heard. You?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

robin hunt October 8, 2008 at 17:33

“And if you want to look at newspapers’ relationship with readers don’t crank out trust! Trust in media [and, no, I didn’t plug the book on his blog] is positively correlated with consumption, so it pretty much tells you what you already know.”

Does this mean that older people, those who learnt the web rather than grew up with it, trust newspapers and younger don’t? I agree with you about the blanket Moral Failure argument looking a little McCain today, but studying very closely the patterns of online consumption now taking place I do worry about trust levels. Not so much an issue for the journalists, as for the readers. Could you explain your thesis a little more?

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Adrian Monck October 8, 2008 at 21:47

Older more affluent people are, ironically, the least trusting (or least credulous/more sceptical) of news media, but the heaviest consumers of it.

So on Jeff’s logic we need more sceptics!

BTW, for more on trust, see Gronke and Cook, “The Dimensions of Institutional Trust: How Distinct Is Public Confidence in the Media?” [pdf].

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