Cheap beer, expensive bottles
Back during the 1970s, a lot of big American beer makers — Schlitz is the most famous example — cut their quality to save money. They did so in tiny steps, each imperceptible on its own, but the eventual result was that a lot of people suddenly woke up and said “this beer’s no good anymore.” (What made things worse for them was that they were cutting quality just as consumers started caring more about it.) Beer drinkers went off in search of other brews, and some of those brands disappeared from the shelves.
It seems to me that the news business has the same problem. They’ve been cutting reporting budgets and foreign bureaus, relying more on news services and “filler” material, and tolerating a much higher degree of bias and general sloppiness in reporting, just as their audience has learned to tell the difference between good and bad journalism. The result is that a lot of people think their beer’s no good any more.
I remember when Schlitz tried to address this problem with a new Master Brewer and the slogan “taste my Schlitz.” It didn’t work for them. Now, a generation later, they’re trying to make a comeback with a better product, and the hope that consumers have forgotten the watery and unsatisfying taste of the old one. Will the news business have to wait as long? And can it?
: But Glenn, I bet you couldn’t find a newspaper editor or TV news director in the country who would not join in your chorus of complaint about lowered news budgets.
The problem is revenue. The Internet has created tons of new competition not just for news but, more importantly, also for revenue: Monster, Craig’s List, companies’ own sites. At the same time, Walmart — and Amazon — have had a big impact on local retail and thus local advertising. So, looking at this from the business perspective — and, yes, this is a business or it’s dead — the answer, clearly, is not to keep throwing more money (you don’t have) into news budgets.
Instead, what I see through the lense of this new medium is the need to redefine the news business.
First, we have to admit that most news is a commodity and, thus, it’s not worth wasting money on what everybody else has anyway. That’s especially easy to fix in the TV news business: Everybody doesn’t need a camera at the press conference; they can share the image. Everybody doesn’t need to cover the same events; you can get it off the wire. News organizations need to be able to concentrate instead of what makes them uniquely valuable to their audiences. And that’s not necessarily what wins awards; sometimes it’s simply the best citizen service.
Second, we have to admit that many people get their news elsewhere (on the Internet, on TV, even from comedy shows now) and some people dont’ give a damn about the news and you can’t make them give a damn no matter how hard you try. So that means we need to look at what the best news products are for our audiences — and sometimes, they won’t include news. You may get home from the office fully informed about the world thanks to stealing time from the boss and reading the Internet and so what you really want is a kickass sports show or a great entertainment paper. That’s news, too, if it tells you want you want to know.
Third, we have to look at new sources of news and information — emphasis on information. That is where citizens’ media comes in. The people have tons of information; they are the real source. Now we have the tools to harnass that. (Insert spiel about the people now having a printing press thanks to weblogs et al here.) So we need to investigate and build a new relationship with the people formerly known as the audience and find ways to help them share information; that is a new and important role for news organizations if they can figure it out.
Fourth, we need to recognize that though reporting usually requires special resources and sometimes requires special skills, commentary and opinion require neither and anybody can — and should — do it. Thus, thanks to those same everybody-has-the-power-of-the-printing-press tools, we can open the news business up a tremendous new diversity of opinion and viewpoint from the citizens.
So we create a new relationship with the audience with new kinds of service and new expectations… and, necessarily, lower costs. That’s what I hope this new medium not only necessitates but enables.
: See also this Rob Enderle column on the Mediamorphisis confab last week. He ends up concluding that a merger of news organizations and bloggers can create a generation of superbloggers. If I understand what he’s saying, I think I disagree. The power of bloggers is that we are distributed; we are; we don’t need to be super.