State of the Media or How Journalism ‘Lost its Guts’

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s ‘State of the Media 2007’ report is out, and folks, its laced with negativity. The media in general certainly hasn’t seemed to benefit from any kind of potential reawakening since last year’s report.

Most revelatory (albeit vague) in the executive summary (PDF) of the 160,000 word report, is this analysis:

With fundamentals shifting, we sense the news business entering a new phase heading into 2007—a phase of more limited ambition. Rather than try to manage decline, many news organizations have taken the next step of starting to redefine their appeal and their purpose based on diminished capacity. Increasingly outlets are looking for “brand” or “franchise” areas of coverage to build audience around.

I’m confused by the parallel drawn between “limited ambition” and “diminished capacity.”
What is the root cause of this so-called era of “limited ambition?” Is it this renewed focus on local, or “hyperlocal” news as Howard Owens (to his utter dismay) read it? Or is it intimidation and competition with TV’s talking heads that’s led to print journalists losing their jobs as newspapers get thinner — as the LA Times’ James Rainey wrote?

If I’m looking at an Internet start-up after the 2000 bubble burst, say a Yahoo! (which lost a huge chunk of it’s market valuation at the time), I’d reconsider the business strategy and reshape it’s goals for success. After all, by 2000 a techie, Web-centric future was evident, in spite of the disabling adjustment Wall Street made to once ridiculously overvalued stocks.

Similarly, it’s apparent today that news content, the media-hungry audience and its sponsors are moving online. Is it impossible for the old media to adjust their expectations for the sake of journalism and maybe, I dunno, accept 15% profit one year, knowing that investment in online and interactive endeavors may eventually reap profits of 20% and more in the long run?

As Dan Rather offered in his keynote address at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference, perhaps journalism has “in some ways lost its guts” in recent years and is in need of “a spine transplant.”

I received similarly motivating and emphatic advice a couple weeks back, when Tom Brokaw visited USC Annenberg to commemorate the career of Ed Guthman, who will retire this year at age 88. I asked Brokaw, “what can young journalists do to rebuild the public’s trust in the media?” He answered simply, “stay true to the journalism you believe in and make the news fun again.” As short of an answer as it may seem, I took it as genuine. Perhaps there will come a tipping point when more people have fun with and enjoy journalism about “news” than those starving for the latest scoop on the Paris Hilton DUI?

More on State of the Media 2007 at Editor’s Weblog, Lost Remote, and Poynter.

2 Replies to “State of the Media or How Journalism ‘Lost its Guts’”

  1. Steve, wow, thanks for visiting. Two years ago I committed to getting a Master’s in Journalism because I was so taken aback and bewildered by the general confusion, skepticism and lack of direction in media (OK, yeah, and shocked that somehow the public wasn’t properly hipped to the shady dealings of this administration and re-elected it).

    Sooner or later, Americans are gonna figure out that most democracies in the world do not have corporate-sponsored newscasts. Possibly as soon as we realize that it doesn’t matter whether our news has the #1 Doppler or no Doppler at all (I’m in LA…. where’s my nightly seismograph?)

    Personally, I think the majority of execs — weened on the “me” 80’s and thriving on the what-did-i-do-to-deserve this late 90’s are caught in a mindfuck. No matter how often the LA Times says its going 24/7 or Web-first… the mindset hasn’t changed. I need to see the latest headlines before their 9:30 meeting ends; and what with sports stories stuck at halftime through the night. It’s not a matter of investment. They’ve just gotta believe (and hire well).

    Bottom line:

    If the printing press was among the greatest inventions since the wheel…. why lose faith? The wheel was around loooonnnggg before there were cars. Not to mention, TribCo’s doing a hell of a lot better than Ford these days.

  2. Thanks for the shoutout. I agree, the “limited ambition” wording could be more clear.

    But here’s my interpretation: stations still look at the web as a necessary evil. They reluctantly have a website, but few have a web business. They have a brand-extension site, but nobody wants to innovate.

    So, there’s no investing going on for the web.

    At the same time, there is a lot of “woe is me”-ing going on. Why won’t people watch us? We’re the #1 Doppler! Local TV is now truly trapped in magic thinking.

    The limited ambition comes when you do something because you have to, not because you want to and you’re passionate about doing so. As for “diminished capacity” – I don’t but it. There is plenty of money spent in newsrooms. What they need to do – now – is reallocate resources and become 24/7 news and information operations instead of 1/2 hour news sausage factories.

    The funny thing is that nobody really doubts this anymore. It’s that – as is the classic dilemma of local news – nobody wants to be different.

    That’s how I read it. You?

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