Gag me with a Constitution

This post originally appeared on my Newspaper Death Watch blog, but I wanted to share:

I got a call today from a journalist who’s doing a story on the future of newspapers and he shared an interesting tidbit. He said he had contacted a prominent thought leader in the journalism field, whom I won’t name. This thought leader had said that the impending collapse of the newspaper industry was “a threat to democracy.”

Excuse me, but what? A threat to democracy? Newspapers are dying, in large part, because of democracy. The rise of citizen publishing has made it possible, for the first time, for large numbers of ordinary citizens to publish to a global audience without the intercession of media institutions. What could be more democratic than that? If Thomas Jefferson was alive today, he’d be an active blogger. Social media is the most democratic process to hit the publishing industry in 500 years.

I’m going to give the thought leader the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was referring to the decline of investigative journalism as practiced by newspapers. On that point, I’ll defer to journalism professor Steve Boriss, who argues that a lot of what passes for investigative journalism today is simply reporters acting as conduits for whistle-blowers. Those malcontents will find other outlets for their gripes, whether it be or something else. I’m quite confident that the market will take care of filling the need for advocacy reporting.

I think the threat-to-democracy statement is more a function of the arrogance of traditional news journalists, who believe that a system in which a few thousand editors decide what people should know is superior to one in which many millions of citizens make those same judgments. If citizen media is a threat to democracy, I shudder to think of the alternative.

Newspapers have been own worst enemies

James Lee, senior VP and chief public affairs officer at ChoicePoint, spoke at the PRSA International Conference today about ChoicePoint’s experience with the theft of 145,000 customer records in 2005.

It was an interesting study in crisis management, but what stuck me the most was comments by him and the audience about their lousy experiences with reporters. Examples:

  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a story four days after news of the theft broke that claimed that ChoicePoint’s CEO was hiding from the media. In fact, Lee said, the CEO had been unusually open to the media, compared to executives at other companies in that situation. He had given several media interviews, but was unavailable when the Journal-Constitution reporter called. The paper’s story was the only one to accuse the CEO of evasiveness.
  • ChoicePoint wanted to make a careful distinction between theft of data and a hack, because the latter term implies a computer security vulnerability. This is an important distinction to investors and regulators. However, one west coast newspaper had a policy of referring to all information thefts as “hacks,” regardless of the nature of the breach. This made ChoicePoint’s problem look worse than it really was.
  • Pressure to file on deadline forces reporters to seek opinion instead of facts because opinion is easier to get. “In the real world, it takes time to find facts,” Lee said. “If you don’t have facts immediately, they’ll find some [pundit] with an opinion.” Early impressions tend to stick, which means that subsequent facts are buried or ignored.
  • Media outlets throw business stories to inexperience reporters, who don’t understand the fine points of an often complex story and need to be educated under deadline, leading to errors and misunderstanding.
  • News outlets nearly always stick by their story, even when the evidence is overwhelming that they’re wrong.
  • These problems are only getting worse as newsrooms cut staff and competition compresses deadlines.

PR people have to deal with the media constantly and so are more likely to have gripes with the media, but the level of frustration surprised me, nevertheless. This is one reason mainstream media gets so little sympathy for its current woes. Years of arrogance have left it with very few friends at a time when it could use a few.

My new blog chronicles the decline of newspapers

I’ve started a new blog, Newspaper Death Watch, to monitor and comment upon the disintegration of the American metropolitan daily newspaper industry. If you keep an eye on this blog, you know that I have strong opinions about this topic. I believe that the collapse of this American institution will be stunningly swift and broad, with perhaps no more than a dozen major metros surviving until 2030. There’s more detail in this essay.

I take no pleasure in this turn of events. On the contrary, I love newspapers. But I find this process to be a fascinating convergence of subjects that fascinate me: publishing, technology and transformational change.

If you have any suggestions for topics or news items I should be aware of, please don’t hesitate to send them along.