News Columns & Blogs

Market for journalism's highest ideals mostly up to readers

More than once I’ve said there will always be a market for what journalists do — or, more precisely, a market for the noble ideals journalists purport to stand for. A story well-told never loses its appeal, and someone has to make the world safe for democracy, right?

But when two esteemed editors rose at a recent gathering of the like-minded and uttered words to the same effect, my reflexive skepticism gave a rude edit to my article of faith. Somehow, my own thoughts lost their ring of truth when falling from someone else’s lips. I wondered if we in the newspaper industry are whistling past the graveyard.

"Oh, we of too much faith," I thought to myself.

The prevailing narrative in some quarters is that were it not for the twin cataclysms of Internet competition and a persistent recession, we’d be doing just swell. But that doesn’t square with a historical fact: U.S. newspaper circulation was trending downward decades before the popular rise of the World Wide Web and the current economic calamity.

In other words, one might argue there will always be a market for good journalism; however, one might as easily argue that that market began eroding long ago, with reality television and chattering commentary replacing hard news and intellectual curiosity.

Indeed, some readers these days seem less interested in acquiring information than affirming their viewpoint — whether it’s a curmudgeonly fan of the local college sports team set off by a critical columnist, or the political devotee who expects the daily newspaper to mimic his favorite opinion journal.

This is not to say there is no cause for optimism, however.

Difficult times are also times for innovative products and refined work flows. I’m proud to say I work for a company that strives for both, as our recent website overhaul and the newsroom reorganization that complements it attest.

Industry-wide, online advertising is growing, and local spending continues to drive much of that growth — a great harbinger for news organizations, such as my own, that emphasizes local coverage. (Indeed, The Island Packet’s print circulation is holding steady, and when online and print audience are taken into consideration, the reach of the Packet and The Beaufort Gazette have never been broader, even if it’s been a while since their budgets were so tight.)

As for the market for quality journalism, nearly one-third of consumers surveyed by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism said they have abandoned a news outlet because it no longer gave them what they had counted on, either by providing fewer or less-complete stories. On the surface, that is not great news, however, it is consistent with the belief that there is demand for quality journalism.

Turning that demand into dollars and sustainable organizations will be the trick, though. Quality journalism is more expensive to produce than other kinds. And like many journalists, I might work for cheap, but I don’t work for free.

There’s also the matter of competing analytics.

For even as Pew respondents decry news outlets that have adopted a "bleed-it-leads" mentality, forsaking public-service and investigative journalism, online analytics demonstrate at least as many people are uninterested in daily, civic grindings and clamor for yet more crime and celebrity news. Yes, investigative pieces remain potent online traffic drivers, but it’s equally true their quality and attractiveness typically are in direct proportion to the resources devoted to their production — cause for pause in an economy like this one.

It seems to me journalism, as an industry, faces a conundrum not unlike the modern Christian churches’ grapplings with traditional and progressive urges. Clearly, newspapers and other news organizations must change their approach to remain relevant to those they are trying to reach. Just as clearly, at some point change is incompatible with the central mission.

So while it is perhaps accurate to say there will always be a market for the fruits of journalism’s highest calling, it remains to be seen how large and lucrative that market will be.

I’m not pessimistic, but I’m nervous because it’s not enough for journalists to proclaim demand for their craft is inelastic. Their readers must prove it.