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Thank you for Burton St. John and Jeff South’s incisive article, “Reforming Journalism” (May/June 2010). It is about time that we on the editorial side take responsibility for the declining interest in what we do, as well as hearing and making ourselves heard on the business side.
The economic model of media is simple: Advertisers go where people are engaged. Engagement, therefore, needs to be the primary word in editorial and sales teams’ vocabulary. Readers today have virtually infinite sources for their national and world news. What engages them is insight that allows them to live better in their communities, workplaces and homes. Content that provides the tools community members need to improve their lives and understand their world, offered from personalities they know and trust, engages all readers. Engagement demands relationship, and relationship is impossible when the driving motivation is the maintenance of editorial distance in the name of objectivity.
As editorial director of Ottawa Delivered (Ottawa, Ill.), a 10-month-old daily local news site with a weekly print newspaper, I have had the freedom to test this theory and see it work to the tune of 90 percent household penetration and 25 percent month-over-month revenue growth. In less than a year, we have captured the hearts of our community by being truly present in our community.
When readers believe their concerns are ours and that real people, not just bylines, are behind the stories they read, we have found they embrace media as a valued part of their lives.
An issue with “Reforming”
Professors Burton St. John and Jeff South flog several straw men in their promotion of civic/public journalism 2.0 (“Reforming Journalism,” May/June 2010). It’s not just the Internet that’s hurt newspapers, they say (nor, presumably, the recession and owners who paid too much for media properties). We also have to confront perceptions of inaccuracy (who’s more accurate?), hidebound “objectivity,” closeness to government and business, and a disconnect from readers.
Bullfeathers! After reporting and editing for 45 years for the AP and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and teaching journalism part time for 24 years at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, I can assure you that:
• He said-she said “objectivity” went out with Sen. Joe McCarthy. For decades, good journalists have prized telling it like it is within a framework of fairness.
• At least since early Vietnam, good journalists haven’t been passive conduits for pronouncements of officials and experts, with a few notable exceptions (think run-up to the Iraq war, when some reporters succumbed to leaks and logistical challenges). “Truthing” is part of what we do every day.
• Good beat reporters always have connected with community. For decades, I and countless others have taught and practiced telling public policy stories not just with facts and expertise but also through the experiences and viewpoints of ordinary people who reflect the makeup of the community. You can bet that has accelerated with a surge in hyperlocal reporting.
• Media outlets already have ample forums for community discussion in letters, Web comments and blogs, although the quality of thought often ranges from vacuous to vituperative. Occasionally, those forums provide valuable news tips, but they’re not the foundation for good reporting. Nor is relying on amateurs to produce news content, a practice that can be dangerous as well as sloppy.
I had a chance recently to see some of the best of journalism when I helped judge SPJ’s Sigma Delta Chi Awards. The entries were impressive, insightful, hard-hitting; they combined facts, expertise, compelling personal stories and, yes, they connected with communities. Those qualities should remind us that students need to learn basic and in-depth reporting (across all platforms). Media owners need to get paid for the work of their employees.
While journalists should never hesitate to discuss what they do and hear new ideas, they need to focus on the solid reporting that they do best and nobody else does as well.
Maple Plain, Minn.