Blog by John Miller

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Can we change?

Why are newspaper publishers so obsessed with shooting themselves in the foot? The Toronto Star's John Cruickshank performed the feat wonderfully the other day when he announced a new subscription plan to deliver "exclusive long-form journalism" to readers on-line.

Here is exactly what he said about it: "Each Star Dispatches eRead will take about 30 to 40 minutes to read and offers more insight and in-depth journalism than can be contained in our daily printed newspaper."

Hold on a sec. The man in charge is admitting that Canada's biggest newsroom cannot deliver 30 minutes of insight and depth in its news pages any day of the week? Why the hell should readers pay $2 or more to buy it then?

Cruickshank added insult to injury by setting the price for this new digital subscription at half the price the Star charges for its print edition, which by his own admission delivers less depth and insight. Is this a glimpse at legacy media's idea of a new economic model that can stop the bleeding -- charging less and less for more and more?

Got news for them: You need to work harder at getting more quality and depth into everything you do, or the end may be near.

That's not just my opinion. Media observers have been saying this since the Internet ate newspaper classified advertising sections. The difference now is that a growing number of knowledgeable critics are starting to doubt that journalists are capable of changing what they do.

The latest is Robert Picard, a consultant and author who is director of research at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University. He was quoted approvingly by Mathew Ingram, one of Canada's most perceptive observers of the new media landscape and a former student of mine.

Here is some of what Picard said in his blog titled "Many journalists can't provide the value-added journalism that is needed today":

"To survive, news organizations need to move away from information that is readily available elsewhere; they need to use journalists’ time to seek out the kinds of information less available and to spend time writing stories that put events into context, explain how and why they happened, and prepare the public for future developments. These value-added journalism approaches are critical to the economic future of news organizations and journalists themselves.

"Unfortunately, many journalists do not evidence the skills, critical analytical capacity, or inclination to carry out value-added journalism. News organizations have to start asking themselves whether it is because are hiring the wrong journalists or whether their company practices are inhibiting journalists’ abilities to do so."

He's talking about more than just skills; he's saying we need to change our concept about what news is.

I estimate that, in any newsroom, roughly 80 percent of what reporters are assigned to cover fits someone else's definition of news. Actually, I'm being charitable. It may be 90 percent. It certainly was 20 years ago when I measured the content of Toronto's daily newspapers in an early research project at Ryerson School of Journalism. The percentage of so-called "agenda news" -- news that stemmed from a press release or scheduled event -- dwarfed what I called "initiative news," which stemmed from the newsroom's own determination of what its readers might be interested in. When I asked each paper's managing editor how much initiative they thought their newsrooms used in determining assignments, they all vastly overestimated what I actually found.

I doubt much has changed since. It's probably even worse, following staff cuts, the increasingly sophisticated publicity being put out by government and corporations to further their own interests, and the 24/7 publishing cycle. The hunger for "something new" has increased, and most on-line and print newsrooms have emulated what I call "the camera lens equation" that broadcasters have always used to determine where to send their camera crews: Cover the sure thing, something that will produce visuals.

Covering the sure thing means hanging out at city council meetings and legislatures, monitoring the police radio, attending annual meetings and press conferences, covering everyday news like a change in the weather or a traffic tie-up, previewing events that are upcoming.

That's what Picard says media need to spend less time doing, for the following reason:

"Today such routine information has little economic value because the original providers are now directly feeding that information to the interested public through their own websites, blogs, and Twitter feeds. Additionally, specialist topic digital operators are now aggregating and organizing that information for easy accessibility.... All of these are stripping the value from newspaper redistribution of those kinds of information and making people less willing to pay for provision of that news."

Reporting with enterprise is something I tried to teach my students at Ryerson, with varying degrees of success. Those who were good at it did not have any more luck getting jobs in large newsrooms, in large part because those newsrooms in the 1990s started coming under increased pressure to churn out agenda news like everyone else. This situation is even worse in smaller newsrooms, which employ fewer journalists and seldom allow them out of the office. Those reporters often only have time to gather their news by phone, which puts a further damper on initiative.

From my perspective as an educator, I know that journalists are capable of change.

I'm just not sure their newsrooms are.