The Problem with Journalism? Reporters

22 Mar


In recent months, there have been thousands of polemics, articles, blog posts, panel discussions and seminars around America to discuss the future of newspapers and where we as a country will find ourselves when they eventually shed their current construct.  Well, let me add another blog post to the funeral pyre.  This will be the first in a series over the next couple of weeks as I decided to cut up what turned out to be a 10,000 word treatise into smaller chunks and gather feedback as I go along.

The other day, I was looking for the phone number of a friend who works at The Buffalo News and eventually came across his business card.  Looking at his card, a simple truth slapped me in the face.  His title?  Staff Reporter.  Well, that’s rather the problem, isn’t it?

Merriam Webster defines the word “reporter” thusly:

A person who makes a shorthand record of a speech or proceeding. A person employed by a newspaper to gather and report news.

In a world in which the means of news production is now shared amongst millions, is it the job of newspapers and the writers who work there to report on anything when it’s intended to be read in the print edition of a newspaper?  Throughout the twentieth century, newspapers were how people learned of the daily events.  They functioned as the “paper of record”, loosely defined as “if we didn’t print it, it didn’t happen”.  Well, a revolution happened while the editors were sleeping.

The problem with newspapers is that we don’t need journalists to report, we need them to investigate.  Reporting is a crowdsourced function done by millions of bloggers and TV/Radio reporters.  There is little value in waiting for The Buffalo News to show up on my doorstep 18-24 hours after something happened with a basic 5 W rundown of an event or news item.  I’ve already read it online, watched the pundits opine on it, heard talk show hosts dissect it and personally synthesized it by the time the ink is dry on the newsprint.  Much of what I get in the daily paper are reprints of AP wire stories and articles featuring content I’ve already consumed in various other medium.  What’s the added value?

I’m not breaking any new ground here, but I do think I have an idea for how newspapers shall remain relevant.

Stop reporting and start investigating.

For example, The Buffalo News demonstrated their value as an establishmnet news outlet after the crash of Flight 3407.  Not by their on-the-scene reporting in the hours immediately following the crash, but in their long tail stories that emerged in the weeks that followed.  Their investigation into the flight training of the pilots, the safety record of the airline, history of turboprop aircraft in bad weather, etc.  They took the mighty resources available to a multi-million dollar news enterprise and gave us information we would not have gotten from any other source.  The on-the-scene reporting and press conference recaps were handled by TV, radio and online outlets like ours.  Wasting ink on them in the paper was pointless.

If a newspaper isn’t going to fill its pages with wire content and daily reporting on the events of the previous day, what will it look like?  It will look a lot like it does today, just smaller and less frequently delivered.  A newspaper that comes out 3-4 times per week in a smaller format, perhaps tabloid size and features original content, features and investigative pieces.  If you’re thinking that a lot of things have to change in order to get there, you’re right.

The economics of production and distribution need to change drastically.  No longer will The Buffalo News be able to support a large news division with dozens of staff reporters.  They will need to re-size the enterprise in order to get in line with a new distribution model.  Compensation structures, advertising rates and multimedia web content are all issues that will have to be re-examined and the newspaper will need to look to their community writ large as their assignment editors.  What do the people want to know?  What do the people want to read?  What type of content will induce a person to buy a newspaper that is published thrice weekly?  No longer will editors sit in a room and decide from on high what content will grace the pages of their newspaper.  They will be forced to respond to the needs of their community, after all, we no longer need the newspaper to provide a lifeline to institutions of power, newspapers need us to make them credible in the face of those institutions.  And that shift is what defines the revolution.

Next up:  How newspapers can capitalize on the web.

7 Responses to “The Problem with Journalism? Reporters”

  1. Prodigal-Son March 23, 2009 at 9:49 am #

    Chris – I think you are right, in general, but I don’t want the Buffalo News to turn into a features magazine.

    I still subscribe to Newsweek, in print. I may be the only 31 old in America to do so. I fly a lot, and like to take magazines on the airplane. This past week, while flying home, I realized that Newsweek had become nothing but “timeless” features, and commentary disguised as articles. Fareed Zakaria on why I need to accept radical Islam. A “feature” on black businesswomen. A review for a book I won’t read. In short, not the “News” and none of it had to do with this “Week.”

    The Buffalo News still has a role to play. To me, it actually covers what is happening in Buffalo. I disagree that TV and teh internets now has that covered. Ch 4 covers the car crashes of the day. TBN rightly puts that in a little block I skip. Ch 2 tries to do investigation, but only as long as they can wear a red jacket and finish the piece in 90 seconds. TBN still writes three full pages on charities in Buffalo. Or the allocation of power from the NYPA. Or ECIDA tax breaks. It contains substantially more information on every local subject than I can get from other sources. BRO covers Elmwood. Pundit covers the snarky bits he finds intriguing. I listen to WGR for the Sabres. But I still get more content on all of it from the Buffalo News, as evidenced by the fact that nearly every “news” internet site in Buffalo references back to the News website daily.

    I would like to see the News do more investigation, but I think, in its defense, it already does significantly more than other newspapers of its size across the country. That’s where it will earn its money. But it needs to still cover other “business” with some depth. And I term “business” the regular, non-sensational events passed over by TV, but still essentially to living in a metro. Its when TBN becomes nothing but “WNY Living furniture features” and advertising for the Allentown Art Festival that I tune out.

  2. Christopher Smith March 23, 2009 at 7:31 pm #

    A couple of points to clarify in the event that I was not clear in the original post.

    I’m not suggesting that The Buffalo News turn into a general interest feature magazine. I’m suggesting that printing seven days per week and filling that print edition with wire service stories and content that has already been consumed and synthesized by the audience is a recipe for failure. The Buffalo News could implement a new model in which they still produce a regular print product (3-4 times per week) which specifically features expanded investigative and enterprise journalism. The things you mention that they cover better than others should certainly be the foundation of this new product. They should also expand it to include in-depth coverage and background on city hall issues, county government, state politics, and items of interest.

    In short, what I am getting at is that The Buffalo News should get away from telling me what happened yesterday and expand their work on telling me why it happened. Think narrow and deep rather than wide and shallow.

    In the coming weeks, I’ll explore what their interactive coverage of events could look like as they seek to differentiate themselves in a crowded national news marketplace. After all, they don’t just compete for readers with local outlets, they compete with Politico, The London Times, Seattle PI, LA Times, etc.

  3. Brian March 23, 2009 at 7:56 pm #

    Interesting stuff Chris. Keep em coming

  4. Prodigal-Son March 23, 2009 at 8:23 pm #

    Chris – no, you didn’t recommend that the Buffalo News turn into a features magazine. Maybe I’m just dismayed that the “Life” section of the news keeps growing, while the Business Page is relegated to B9.

    I’m afraid that if the News does reduce its circulation, and goes to 3-4 days a week, it won’t turn into a great investigative paper, that suddenly finds its voice covering City Hall. I’m afraid it will be Newsweek, and do more features on new restaurants on Elmwood, and skiing in Ellicotville. I want the News to do more hard news, in more depth, on more real topics, than any other news outlet in the city. Its doing that now, but not sustainably. And you are 100% right on this point: the News can’t survive on running AP stories on Karzai’s latest speech. I skip most of section A (front page and editorial only), and go straight to Local and Sports. That’s the unique content.

  5. eric March 23, 2009 at 9:37 pm #

    I have no skin in the Buffalo newspaper game….

    But i agree wholeheartedly that reporting is no longer the domain of mainstream media.

    So I watch with anticipation to see what steps up and survives.

    My guess is high quality content providers will come into exixtence and do the job that AP should be doing.

  6. mike politik March 24, 2009 at 11:21 pm #

    Thanks for the post…its an excellent observation and analysis.

  7. mike.politik March 29, 2009 at 11:49 pm #

    Here is the news you were looking for mang.

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