20 Oct The “Post-We” Era II – Journalism is not the news business, but the opinion business.

UPDATED on November 1, 2009 to reflect the CJR article by Paul Starr, “Journalism Minus it’s Old Public,”  in reaction to the “Downie and Schudson” CJR report: “Recontsruction of Journalism.”  Also added a link to the Teen study fielded by Northwestern University for the NAA.

As I mentioned in “The ‘Post-We’ Era – Part I” the Columbia Journalism Review article, “Reconstruction of Journalism,” is a one dimensional analysis – from the Journalist point of view.  Although the reason for reconstructing journalism is economic, the writers didn’t consult with or collaborate with anyone experienced in solving economic problems to develop recommendations.  Further, the analysis of the history of journalism, although very insightful and straightforward about the historic trends in newspaper content, doesn’t touch on the economic history of newspapers – subscriber trends, revenue trends, advertising revenues, etc.

Since I do not have the benefit of time, resources, etc., all I can do is analyze by hypothesis, based on my knowledge of the industry.  If my hypotheses are correct, then the implication is that journalists shouldn’t think of themselves as in the news business, but the opinion business.  Here are my hypotheses:

Hypothesis #1.  Opinion has always been what people will pay for and what they will continue to pay for, but the definition of that service has changed and is probably not well understood today.

Downie and Schudson point out that “Most of what American newspapers did from the time that the first Amendment was ratified, in 1791, was to provide an outlet for opinion…” Assuming subscription revenues were the dominant source of revenue at this time (which I can’t seem to get a confirmation on from anyone), then the implication opinion is what people will pay for.   And to prove that the more things change, the more they stay the same, a Northwestern University study on behalf of the Newspaper Association of America suggests that Teens still wish news on the web helped them form and share opinion:

“They’d like to understand the news better, to understand the
basics of what people are talking about and to be able to form
their own opinions and perhaps talk about news. But they don’t
know of any news sites that fit that bill.
” pp.5, point 6

According the writers, newspapers were biased by opinion through the first half of the twentieth century.  Although“earnings at newspapers were able to support a more professional culture of reporters and editors, reporting was often limited by complaisance and defense of politicians and other figures of authority.”  But, the opinion business changed in the 1960’s,  from supporting the “establishment” to questioning it: “Not until the 1960’s, did “more newspapers (begin) to encourage ‘accountability reporting’ that often comes out of beat coverage and targets those who have power and influence in our lives – not only governmental bodies, but also businesses and educational and cultural institutions.”

Importantly, the opinion business changed from supporting the “establishment” to questioning it because this was a mainstream opinion shift led by, among others, Walter Cronkite (his “Report from Vietnam” was on February 27, 1968).   In the 1970’s, when the “establishment” was vulnerable (Ohio national guard shot student protesters in May, 1970 and Watergate Hearings began May, 1973), newspapers participated, led by the Washington Post with the Watergate investigation by Bernstein/Woodward (first Watergate column ran on June 18, 1972).

But it appears we have gone back to the partisan political opinion bias of pre-1960’s.    In another Columbia Journalism Review article by Paul Starr, entitled “Journalism Minus its Old Public” 

“As the political scientist Markus Prior has shown, when the rise in TV channels deprived the networks of a captive audience for the evening news, many viewers abandoned the news altogether for entertainment, while a smaller number took advantage of cable channels to watch more news than before. The more media choice people had, the more the audience for news depended on their level of political interest. And the most interested have been the most partisan. As Walter Cronkite prospered in the old environment, Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann thrive in the new one.”

The above Teen study implies that this form of opinion does not satisfy their needs.

Hypothesis #2. Newspapers shifted content away from the “opinion” business and towards less innocuous local cultural reporting when newspapers became more dependent on ad revenues in the 1970’s.

Downie and Schudson cite an American Journalism Review study which found that between the years 1964-65 and 1998-99, “overall the amount of news these papers published doubled.”   The writers continue: “Not all of the additional news was aggressive local reporting that, for example, kept a close watch on government.. . local, national, and international (news)  declined from 35 to 24%, while business news doubled from 7 to 15 percent, sports increased from 16 to 21%, and features, from 23 to 26%.”

The missing fact is that the demand for ad space drove the need for more pages of content – especially non-controversial “fluff” content which is a “safer” advertising environment.  During this same period of time, today’s largest consumer companies were expanding nationally, generating substantial new advertising revenues for local newspapers – the only vehicle available to communicate retail promotions and locally customized messages (for example, airlines spent most of their ad $ in local newspapers because they don’t have the same destinations to promote nationally).

Hypothesis #3. Newspapers have never even tried to compete, but publishers do know the best restaurants in town.

Downie and Schudson  answer the question: “What is Happening to Independent News Reporting by Newspapers?”  with an irrelevant excuse: “As significant amounts of national and retail advertising shifted to television, newspapers became more dependent on classified advertising.”  Irrelevant because an increased reliance on classified advertising revenues would actually allow more space for “independent news reporting” and less on fluff reporting that national advertisers prefer.

More relevant, is a glaring memory from my experience that is unrealized by the writers since they don’t look at the competitive economics of local media: newspaper advertising costs were significantly higher than other local media, including radio and television.  When agencies created a way to tag broadcast advertising with local messages (something I was involved in) it became cost effective to consider local broadcast media.   Since local radio and television CPMs were much lower than newspapers and reach was higher,  it was an obvious choice to switch newspaper ad dollars to local broadcast.

Even though I appreciated that the newspaper publishers took us to the best restaurants in town, I never understood why they never asked what it would take to get these dollars back.  I guess they had  loyal advertisers willing to make up the difference.

#4. The internet is drawing audience away from print newspapers not because it is free, not because it has realtime news, but because it is where the opinion market is thriving.

Consistent with the findings of Markus Prior above,  Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explain that when people have two many choices they will choose the opinions that fit their “confirmation bias.”

“Neuroscientists have recently shown that these biases in thinking are built into the very way the brain processes information – all brains, regardless of thie owners’ political affiliation.  For example, in a study of people who were being monitored by magnetic resonanceimaing (MRI) wihile they were trying to process dissonant or consnonant information about George Bush or John Kerry, Drew Westen and his colleagues found that the reasoning areas of the brain virtually shut down when participants were confronted with dissonant information, and the emotion circuits of the brain lit up happily when consonance was restored.”  Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) (2007, Harcourt, Inc.) citing Drew Westen, Clint Kilts, Pavel Blagov, et al (2006) “The Neural basis of Motivated Reasoning: An MRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Political Judgement During the US Presidential Election of 2004,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, pp.1947-1958

Not  just that ignorant red state guy, we all have a tendency to “confirmation bias.”  (the notation for more information is “Raymond S. Nickerson (1998), “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises,” Review of General Psychology, 2, pp. 175-220.

There are two ways Journalism can raise the bar in the opinion market online and compete with superior opinions.

The internet has created an abundance of opinions to choose from.  And they are growing daily. Who has time to wade through it all?  This makes our irrational “confirmation bias” reflex even more dominant – we click on the first link that confirms our hypothesis.

To raise the bar, journalism can add value by improving the opinion market in two ways: 1) Overcome everyone’s natural tendency towards “confirmation bias” and then 2) Make sense of all these dissonant opinions.

CONCLUSION: The answer to Mathew Ingram’s question – “How do we provide something worth paying for?” – help us form superior opinions.

Help us overcome our biases.  Help us make sense of the vast abundant individual, dissonant opinions.

This is not about adding another opinion to the abundance of “me’s” on the internet, where all voices are equal, but separate.   This is about creating what’s scarce: a sense of community.  Learn how to disarm all of our natural tendency for “confirmation bias” and educate us.   Then help us bring consonance to the dissonance.

Don’t continue to be the “They” who tells “Me’s” what to think.  Contribute to the renaissance of the “We” Era.

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katherine@comradity.com