Op Ed: Why Those Who Make The News Can't Seem To Save The News

Last night, on my public radio station, I heard an interesting quote from Paul Steiger, former executive editor at The Wall Street Journal who now runs Pro Publica, the nonprofit online news operation.

Marketplace’sKai Ryssdal quoted Steiger: “There's nothing wrong with journalism that can't be fixed with a new business model.”

As a recovering journalist who ended her 20-year career when things got ugly at my last newspaper, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, my response to Steiger is: Really? Are we sure that the newsroom has no role to play in saving the traditional news media?

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No doubt, the pressing issue is economic. The news is moving online and the accompanying advertising revenue is about 10 percent of what print pays. Advertisers would rather pay less and have the online metrics to show just how effective their messages are. So these days there is a huge gap between the overhead cost of a news operation and the funding from advertisers.

But there is also the issue that the newspaper has been gradually going out of style for almost 40 years. Since 1970, readership has been slowly declining.

The news product is embodied in the newsroom. But newsrooms don’t think much about readership trends or business. It’s common to hear journalists say, “If people hate us, we must be doing something right.” Case closed. That readership decline? It’s a good sign. Except that it’s not.

If readers still found the newspaper indispensable, advertisers would too.

I understand that telling unpleasant truths, rattling the cage of the public with investigative reporting, is a time-honored job of the news media. But newsrooms have embraced unpleasantness and unpopularity more than they should have. If the business side, not the newsroom, were the guardians of the product, there might have been efforts to understand the decline, understand customer dissatisfaction, and see what could be done about it. Maybe content that is upsetting could be offset with an approach that is uplifting. And maybe that wouldn’t mean an unbearable corruption of post-Watergate journalistic values.

Since I left the industry two years ago, I’ve heard a lot of customer dissatisfaction. Like any self-respecting midlifer in crisis, I threw myself into a frenzy of personal growth. I took classes in emotional intelligence, facilitation, coaching, communication, meditation, yoga. I read books on the “scarcity mindset,” “emotional clutter,” positive psychology and spirituality. When you leave the newsroom you find there is a whole big world out there that doesn’t think like the newsroom.

My reinvention efforts have put me into contact with many smart, interesting people, but not the kind you meet in newsrooms.

As I’ve explored silence, the purposeful life, gratitude and giving, I’ve heard the same refrain again and again: If you want to live a constructive life, if you want to feel peaceful and be helpful, don’t read newspapers.

Just yesterday, I read a “happiness tip”in an email newsletter: “Turn off the news three days or more each week. Trust me, you’ll still stay informed!”

This is what former news addicts are saying. My new instructors, my fellow students – the ones urging people to shut out the news – are not simpletons. They understand the housing crisis. They have an eye on Pakistan. They watched Obama’s speech Tuesday night. But they don’t think the commentators who come on afterward are helpful. They view them as part of the problem. They want to hear solutions, not bickering. They want to know how they can help. But that’s not the schtick of the traditional media.

Recently I finished an editing project that had me in close contact with a brilliant Ph.D. cultural anthropologist. Twenty years ago, Will Stockton developed a model for positive dialogue that he uses all over the world to mediate big conflicts and help diverse groups appreciate their differences. Will and I talked briefly about my old life. He sighed. “The news media offer only a monologue of fear and blame,” he said. It’s unilateral, it’s negative and it’s toxic to the individual and collective psyche.

We can’t solve problems if we’re mired in bad news we feel powerless to effect.

If we were talking about any other product, the fact that smart, prosperous members of the public were uniformly finding fault with it would be a red flag. The news media would be looking not just at problems with the business model. They’d be reconsidering the entire paradigm: What are we telling people, and how are they affected by it? They’d have a lively debate: Where is the benefit in making people feel hopeless, day after day? Why did we think that was such a good idea? Has the world moved on to something more useful and, in the parlance of today, sustainable?

Maybe the media should be learning from its customers now and not just the other way around.

But point these things out in a newsroom, and you’ll see eyes roll. Yes, the business model is kaput. But the problem is deeper than that.


Monica Moses does leadership coaching and consulting in Minneapolis. Ms. Moses has served in a variety of positions in media including until 2007, most recently at the Star Tribune where she was executive director of product innovation. Prior to that she was at the Poynter Institute, where she taught leadership, collaborative storytelling and visual journalism for four years. Moses has served in various other leadership roles at other news organizations, including The Charlotte Observer.