Posts about quality

Oh, to be the Economist

When newspaper people in the U.S. aren’t wishing they were the Wall Street Journal – “well, they can charge” – they aspire to be The Economist.

Dream on.

I just got email announcing The Economist Group’s latest financials.

* Operating profit up 26% to £56m
* Revenue up 17% to £313m
* Full year dividend of 97.3p per share, an increase of 8%
* The Economist’s worldwide circulation grew 6.4% to 1,390,780 (July-December 2008 ABC). It was named Magazine of the Year by Advertising Age and topped Adweek’s Hot List for the second year running
*’s performance has been strong, driven by a strategy to make it a place for intelligent debate; advertising revenue is up 29% and page views 53%

The good news is that quality still sells.

The Economist is to the rest of the news industry as Apple is to Google. In What Would Google Do?, I argue that Apple is the unGoogle. It violates practically every one of the 40 rules I set out. But it succeeds. Why? It’s that good, uniquely good. There’s room for one such company, probably, in any industry – and that spot isn’t always filled (name me the Apple or The Economist of phone companies, airlines, cable companies, or retail).

In news, the Economist is the exception that proves the rules. It doesn’t have the individual voices and brands that succeed elsewhere on the internet; it has a single, institutional voice (but a charming one). In a sense, it’s a general-interest publication in the age of specialization (and every other general-interest product, from Time to the metro daily is failing). It has built a strong online product but it’s still not known for that; it’s a magazine (pardon me, newspaper) that still relies on and succeeds in print.

The problem for the rest of the industry is that they can’t all break the rules as The Economist does because they’re just not that good. You have to be great to the The Economist or Apple and if you fall short, you fall all the way. And staying great is constant work.

I was at The Economist’s offices in New York last week for lunch with editors. Don’t think that they are resting on their laurels. They, too, are trying to understand The Economist’s role on the new media age (my advice: they have just about the smartest crowd anywhere and I hope the company asks how that crowd can be empowered to connect, share, and create). But it’s a nice perch from which to be wondering what to do next. While other publications are looking for a limb to grab onto as they fall, The Economist is looking for the next higher branch.

Defining quality in journalism

Some Norwegian journalists who visited CUNY on Friday emailed me to ask about definitions of quality in journalism today for a white paper they are writing. Here’s what I said. I’d like to hear what you say:

The first criteria for quality are obvious and timeless: accuracy, fairness, a compelling and efficient presentation, timeliness, relevance.

But I think it is also becoming important to be inventive and flexible. Too often, we defined quality according to the precepts of a priesthood: TV people, for example, who insisted that we had to do stand-ups and b-roll (is that an Americanism? it’s the extra footage gathered to make editing easier but it’s almost always faked: watch the person walk down the hall to nowhere) and noddies (that’s a Britishism, I believe: the cutaway reaction shots). That’s all silliness; worse, it’s fiction. But TV people defined quality by these elements.

I think it is vital for journalists today to reexamine all definitions of quality. For TV, isn’t it more important to tell the story well and efficiently and not bore us with visual cliches? We have learned in online video that the public often cares more about substance than style. For online journalism, fairness may be achieved not in quoting one person from column a and and one from column b in a simplistic exercise in balance but instead by having an open discussion.

We also add new definitions and ethics of quality: Transparency is overtaking objectivity as a standard in some quarters of journalism now. That could be defined by what we reporters reveal of our own perspectives and opinions. It could be achieved by revealing our sources and influences (every story should come with links to the materials we read and used). It could come from opening up the process of news judgment in an organization. Similarly, the ethic of the correction I have learned in blogs is more rigorous than in some old media; we do not erase our mistakes but cross them out to fess up to them; that, too, is a form of transparency.

I would add responsiveness as a mark of quality: Are we delivering to the public what it wants — and are we listening to find out what it wants? Do we open the means for our stories to be corrected and expanded? Do we have a way to hear the public’s definition of quality? Collaboration, I’d say, is the highest form of responsiveness.

Are these different in one medium vs. another? Not really. Yes, online opens new possibilities, such as links and interaction, but these really only become tools to learn new behaviors and ethics that can be carried to any medium, often with the help of online.