Journalists are marketers too

Over the last few years the discussion about the future of journalism has been going back and forth, going in circles, going nowhere. I’m not even starting to get in there now, my point is an entirely different one.

A friend pointed me to the latest excess of this topic:
Some days ago, a German blogger wrote a post about how she thought about journalism and its future. The way she wrote was sympathetic you-and-me eye-level. A few days later, she adressed¬† two newspapers who printed her letter. The difference was that with the change of the medium her tonality changed too. It had this teaching, patronizing, “I’m gonna tell you something” touch. Enter the media expert: The researcher from some university put in all his sweat so it became clear that the 57-year old pro out-argues the 22-year old amateur. But in the end, none of them had an answer.

What surfaces here is that journalism does not have a content problem, it has a marketing problem.

First, what publishers do is fill the gaps between the ads in their papers. Ads don’t make as much money as yesterday, hence to get content as cheap as possible, they prefer news agency and press releases over individually researched relevant articles.

Second, the old media (papers, radio, TV) is too slow. When they pick up a piece of news, so do thousands of others at the same time. And while a journalist is typing his article, Twitter, Facebook and the watercooler gang spread it with far more velocity. When the paper is out the next morning, hot news has frozen to death.

Third, as we can see in recent current affairs, there’s a tremendous shift of what matters to people — and they are who journalists should believe they’re working for.

Fourth, a lot of journalists have an outdated idea of what their job is. Especially when it comes to writing, I am totally pissed off by the pretentious tone you hit upon in every paper that deems itself a piece of “quality journalism”. Here’s the point: The paper is not a stage to get on and pretend cleverness by using educated words (and to fail miserably at coining terms believed to earn a Pulitzer). A shroud of intellectualism is no proof of validity. It is possible to explain complex topics in simple words that deliver every piece of information, meet your readers on eye-level, not patronizing them. Every other approach loses effectivity because if your readership is as clever or cleverer (or educated) than you, they might think “What a puff-up! Who’s he trying to impress other than himself?” — and if they’re less clever, they’ll turn away because they don’t understand the language you’re speaking.

Fifth, the chances of making a buck from something that is also available for free are getting smaller and smaller. This is only fair. If there are people who are passionate about politics, celebrities or whatever there is in a paper, the best what can happen is they share their passion for free by providing high value information on their blogs — and if there are people who are into that as well, they can subscribe for updates via RSS or email, they can get in touch via Facebook or Twitter and engage in comment discussions.¬† I don’t share the media expert’s idea that people don’t know what they want to know. I think they don’t know where to go to find what they care about in a convenient way. With billions of web pages out there this is no surprise. Enter the power of referrals and links. And of course this is scary for journalists, because they’re confronted with the fact there are millions of extremly clever people out there, who don’t have to write an article in time or depend on making money with their writing, so they can put more effort in deliberately, which may result in a better product.

Sixth… I forgot about number six.

[Update:
Seventh, there is a common notion, even a legal one, that there must be journalism in order to protect democracy. My guess is when the fathers of our constitution thought up the public obligation, they would never have thought there would be so much information that people would stop listening, rendering the argument obsolete. (Think about the irony that the ones privileged by this law try to cut the underlying law (i.e. freedom of speech) for everybody else (i.e. bloggers) because it’s ruining their business model.)¬† They also thought that people care about the truth. They don’t. People care about what they believe. ]

Conclusion. We have more ways of communicating and spreading ideas than ever before. The old monopolies are gone. So are some of the truths and common wisdom related to them. What matters now is honesty, consistency and passion.

Trying to persuade a government of whatever dimension to uphold yesterday’s status quo will kill business in the long run too, so better invest the same amount of energy to build a business for the future. Even if that means going out of the old business.

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