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What kind of journalism are we creating?  [Day 25 – 30 Days to Changing Your Game]

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This is Day 25 of 30 Days to Changing Your Game. Yesterday Nate St. Pierre invited us to Change The World! Today Del Jones (a Sr. Editor at USA Today) talks about our role in creating and consuming the journalism that drives our society. Nothing like upleveling our concept of who we are in the world!

What Kind of Journalism Are We Creating?

by Del Jones (@JonesDel)

Thirty days to change your game? It sometimes feels that, as a newspaper reporter, that’s exactly how long I’ve been given.

It’s not that there wasn’t warning. There was decades of warning going back to long before I was born. The newspaper industry peaked just before radio became popular, back in my grandparents day. That’s when most households subscribed to multiple newspapers. Ever since, it’s  been a gradual decline, and we reporters should all feel like frogs dropped into a pan of cold water, and it’s been going up by a degree or two with each economic swing.

Now it’s boiling. While I’ve long worried for the industry, I’ve also long felt secure that a journalism job was pretty safe. After all, the younger generation didn’t read newspapers, but research has shown that there has been no decline in the hunger for information. I figured there would always be a job for a professional news gatherer. What do I care if my work shows up on a computer or mobile device, or gets beamed down from Scotty to a Kindle rather than appear on dead trees? I certainly didn’t care.

But I’ve now concluded that there is also a threat to professional news gathering. That should worry those of you who like to read quality because there has been a real decline it its availability. Great newsrooms at the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere have been decimated.

A good newsroom is expensive to run, and the business model of advertising no longer supports it. But oddly, just as harmful to news gathering has been the sudden ability to know what readers want by measuring page views. I’m a business reporter and if someone had told me back when I was getting my MBA that some day soon we would be able to accurately measure what readers want, I would have thought that was a dream come true. What business doesn’t want to know what their customers want?

Trouble is, what too many readers want is crappola. On most days, a good, strong investigative story that might change lives will get but a fraction of the page views as a Tiger Woods story.  Several of USA TODAY’s best reporters have become fulltime bloggers, which is OK, except that they are now spending less time reporting and more time luring eyeballs with SEO tricks. One of our bloggers, who a year ago was a very good reporter, wrote a post that ranked No. 1 over Thanksgiving by writing about roasting a turkey on a car engine. Interesting, perhaps, but even he would admit it’s not great journalism. But he was able to get the words “turkey roasting” into the headline near Thanksgiving Day, and so drove tens of thousands of clicks from those who were doing a Google search for turkey roasting.

USA TODAY, of course, would have always covered the Tiger Woods story. But in recent days, four of the top five stories from the USA TODAY site had  Tiger Woods in the headline. Such forces will be inescapable and I believe will hurt serious reporting. Get use to a steady diet of stories about Tiger or the Octomom or whatever is the buzz of the day. But maybe you’ve had some trouble finding a detailed and balanced examination of the healthcare bill. That’s because a well-reported and fair story on the healthcare bill would take 10 times the man hours to report as a story about Tiger Woods, yet would get one-tenth the page views. The page views is probably an over-estimate.

I’m sure in the past that many people bought the newspaper for the coupons. But at least they were subsidizing news junkies. Going forward, news junkies won’t get a free ride from coupon clippers. I’m a disciple of the market economy. The consumer is in charge. Guess where 90% of scarce reporter resources will be directed in the future?

My call to action is to ask this question:  “How do we maintain good journalism when not enough readers want good journalism to support it. Sarah’s readers are smart, so I’m sure most of you will say “I want good journalism,” but there is hard evidence to indicate that you or in the minority.


Del Jones
was a reporter at USA Today for 17 years and wrote more than 300 cover stories primarily for the Money section. He received a journalism degree from the University of New Mexico (1973) and an MBA from the University of Texas at El Paso (1995). He has been married for 25 years to Dianna with two children in college, Ciera and Douglas.

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