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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