The real newspaper problems

While media critics focus on the doomsday scenarios for print media it is easy to forget that newspapers face two crises: the business crisis and the journalism crisis.

Ross Gittins has written a sort of autobiography – Gittins: A life among budgets, bulldust and bastardry. It’s a great insight into how a Salvation Army kid became an outstanding economics editor respected by Reserve Bank Governors, Treasury officials and others. But, more importantly, it provides an incisive commentary on the twin problems of what’s wrong with journalism and the newspaper business – subjects which tend to be regarded in isolation rather than as inextricable aspects of one problem.

As might be expected from an economics columnist who is more likely to bring you the latest news from the behavioural economics and psychology front than the unmediated sloganeering of interest groups, he actually looks at the science of journalism through the prism of the evolutionary and psychological factors that shape how we think and why we need stories to make sense of the world. This looks at why bad news is good news for news providers; the way media outlets play along with confirmation bias and reinforce the views of readers rather than challenging them; and, how and why journalists and media outlets frame the presentation of news. In short it is a very powerful explanation of why ‘objective journalism’ is an impossibility under the current news media forms.

In assessing what’s wrong with journalism he frames it in terms of journalists not actually focussing primarily on the customer (that is the reader) but in fact on their colleagues and competitors. Anyone who has been in a news room when competitor output is evaluated – did we have that story, why not, what did we have that they didn’t have – knows the reality of that. This leads to risk aversion and a reluctance to follow up other stories. It also leads to an unhealthy reliance on scoops and ‘exclusives’ which are really just opportunistic drops by political and other PR people ensuring that they get their version of a story out on their terms.

On top of all this newspapers rely on archaic ideas – passed down through generations –of what is news and why things get covered. Equally bad is the lack of reflection. A story breaks, there is a flurry of coverage, normally of the he/she says variety, without any in depth analysis. Worse issues which are worthy of in depth analysis are just ignored while patently false comments by politicians and interest groups are reported without real questioning. Gittins suggests that journalists need a ‘Serve the Reader’ approach in which the customer comes first and journalists move away from the passive reporting of stuff other people give them towards more thematic and explanatory material.

Turning to the business of newspapers he says: “The future of quality, independent journalism is highly uncertain. Will newspapers survive much longer? Doubt it. Will Fairfax Media survive? The odds are against it. Will quality journalism survive? Yes, but probably in a different form.” Gittins has a very sophisticated analysis of what the newspaper business’ real problems are and scotches the wishful thinking that, if for instance Fairfax had bought a few web businesses a decade or so ago the newspapers would survive, by pointing out why newspapers would still have a massive revenue hole. He is also a good enough economist to recognise that what are revenue problems for newspapers and advertising agencies are great news for consumers and businesses.

Gittins boils down what we know about the future of newspapers to nine propositions: The supply of news is increasing; the demand for news is declining; newspapers’ days are numbered; in a digital world the only big cost is content; the mass media is becoming less mass; editors have lost a lot of their power; brands have become more important; the last monopoly is local news ( an insight by the way driving Warren Buffett’s investments in local US media); and, we have entered a data jungle.

But he does also have a battle plan for the future of journalism which includes: ensure the paper dies of old age, not neglect; get on the front foot with digital advertising; encourage readers to pay for their journalism; know what the media is on about and what bits of journalism are worth keeping; play to your strengths such as AB readership demographics and perceived trustworthiness; stop chasing clicks; start doing less with less; get out of commoditised news; stick to your core competencies guided by knowledge of the topics of most interest to AB customers; and, move to a value-added model of journalism, for example finding genuine scoops and much greater journalistic specialisation.

“A news outlet that focuses on a smaller number if longer, thematic, analytical stories in core areas such as politics, economics, business and ‘local’ has the potential to be a terribly earnest, boring rag. But it doesn’t have to be provided there is sufficient emphasis on good writing, not taking ourselves too seriously and a good mix of light and shade…with good news to leaven all the bad…..and a lot more about policy and a lot less about race calling such as leadership speculation and the ups and downs in economic indicators.” This would be bad news for many PR people but probably good news for readers. Indeed, even the atheist blog is inclined to say to Ross Gittins, the former Christian soldier, amen to that!