GUEST COMMENTARY: Journalism's dreamers must keep eyes on statistics

Monday, January 11, 2010 | 3:30 p.m. CST; updated 10:53 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I admire the passion and enthusiasm of the Journalism That Matters organization and its feisty discussion list. The out-of-the-box thinkers in JTM offer an idea a minute — at least one of which may produce a viable future for what we now call journalism.

But like so many rebels who take up the flag when status quo institutions falter, JTMers tend to give little credence to traditional journalism and often are virulent in their damnation of anything that sprang from the newspaper world. That's understandable. I had the same feelings about the federal government in 1970 and still cast a suspicious eye at any "official" statement.


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I mellowed somewhat when I became a reporter and at least looked for a comment from the other side. My years as an editor did not stifle my tendency to rant, but gave me a much better perception of my audience. Now I'm a researcher who daily finds how far popular perception strays from demonstrable reality.

While I was unable to attend the recent JTM conference on reimagining news and community, I joined the online discussion as it boiled with the concepts of free-news-for-everyone, community-supported journalism and the very definition of "journalist."  As we look to the future, I believe, we can't let emotions lead us too far astray.  I wrote:

"Keep firmly in mind that you are not simply dealing with journalism, the Web or the health of newspaper companies."

The issue here is how to tweak a media system — a massive, interconnected system of information providers, marketers, Main Street merchants and just plain people. The online "revolution" changes a substantial part of this, but the effects of any change in the system ripple throughout. Unintended consequences are often deadly.  Who among us thought free online classified ads would lead to the shutdown of vital overseas bureaus and coverage of policy makers?

"The New York Times is not the media system. At best it is an anomaly within the system."

We look up to the Times and other major metros as the hallmarks of "good journalism," but they are in fact classical niche publications that serve a demographically small elite. American journalism or whatever you want to call it is local, traditionally provided by the 85 percent of dailies under 50,000, the 7,000-plus weeklies and the hundreds of small-market TV and radio stations.

"Convergence is a reality, so almost all of the above are also Web sites."

That’s a huge installed base that will defend its turf unless it is brought into the plan.  Both newspaper and television industries have always been slow to react to change.  But together they are so huge that when they change direction, it is like a stampede of elephants. Even smarter, faster and more entrepreneurial news creatures can be crushed.

Convergence is a reality, so almost all of the above are also Web sites. In fact, the traditional press re-armed with Web sites is still the main source of reporting.  This week the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study done in Baltimore that showed that 95 percent of “fresh” news (not repeated from another source) came from traditional media – and 61 percent came from newspapers and their online sites. Web-only news sites provided only 4 percent of the stories others missed.

"Don’t underestimate the value of, nor your impact on, local commerce."

Small merchants see little value in the brand marketing that online touts. They measure media effectiveness by their cash registers. Some stores will make it via social networking (virtual and real), but the time and energy crush of running a small business makes well-packaged, easily acquired and effective advertising essential. Advertising is more than a subsidy for publishers, it is the engine of the economy. When the media fail to provide retail and service activity in a town, the town dies. No town, no news, no journalism.

"You are unlike most Americans."

Most journalists and journalism critics are college educated, from middle-to-upper-class backgrounds and attuned to politics. However, nearly three-fourths of our potential audience has no bachelor's degree, according to the Census Bureau. Most work for an hourly wage, not a salary (Median income for that three-fourths is about $30,000. It jumps to about $60,000 with a bachelor's or above). Rupert Murdoch did his research when creating Fox.

"As much as we want to write young, baby boomers will still drive the economy for another decade or two."

I’m 58 and don’t plan to quit reading (online or print) any time soon. There are a lot more of me than there are of my son. And we have more money.

Our numbers alone are not what makes boomers important to the media. People generally start gaining socio-economic status in their 30s, when they have higher income, education and professional stability. Boomers almost blot out the current crop of 30-year-olds. The Millenials (or members of the Echo Boom) come close, but it will be a decade before they make it. It's unlikely that we can wait 10-12 years to resolve the crisis in journalism.

You will be dealing with boomer readers and viewers for the next 40 years unless modern medicine makes our eyes hold out even longer.  Retirement just makes the problem worse — boomers will still have money but also more time to consume media.

"Beware an N of 1."

In research talk, N is the survey sample size. See above, then take your own opinion with an unhealthy grain of salt.

Clyde Bentley is an associate professor for the Missouri School of Journalism and one of the founders of This column was first published by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where the author is a Fellow this year.

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