When journalism went astray

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I was talking to my old friend Karen Gadbois – founder of The Lens, the great online news site about New Orleans and the Gulf – and she summed up the problem perfectly. Holding up a copy of the Times-Picayune she said, “I should think this is my best friend.” Peruse your local newspaper and ask yourself one question, “Is it on my side?”

I don’t mean on your side politically. Liberal or Conservative is beside the point. I mean is it on your side or on the side of the CEOs, political powers and institutions who view the “you” as someone to get something out of – not someone they answer to? Does the paper write about things from the point of view of you or them? Is interested in the things you’re interested in? Does it talk down to you? If you can answer yes to any of these, then please send me the link.

Journalism has set itself apart from the society it covers. This came about for a number of reasons. The monopolies newspapers had in nearly all geographies allowed them to divorce themselves from a lot of basic market concerns. In the dead tree era, advertisers had nowhere else to go, so owning a daily newspaper in even a moderately sized metropolitan area was a way to just about print your own money.  For the news side this meant we could afford to be arrogant. We knew what people needed to know and any second guessers were just uninformed. I’ve been one of those journalists. I’ve worked in newsrooms where we thought the reader didn’t have a clue.

One of the reasons for this was the idea of journalism as a profession and not a job. The actual professions – law and medicine – require years of training and highly specialized knowledge. Journalism doesn’t. It requires the ability to think critically, value accuracy, and ask questions. Anyone can, in fact, be a journalist. Those skills are the same as you need to be a responsible citizen. Not anyone can be a good journalist, of course. That requires experience and the ability to learn from your mistakes.

You don’t need a journalism degree to do this. If you can think critically, then any decent editor can teach you the basic skills and forms of journalism in a matter of months, if not weeks. I stand here as proof. This is one of the reasons I’ve always been dubious of journalism as a college major. Journalism classes are closer to vocational education than the skills of thinking that a college education should really give you.  But we have become a profession and that implies esoteric knowledge unavailable to the common person.

So we have set ourselves apart, and that has come back to bite us now that the customer has more choices.  Journalism, more than any other business, needs the trust of its consumers. That’s because we are in the business of telling them things they’d rather not know and challenging their assumptions. You need to re-earn the consumers’ trust to do that on a regular basis. You earn that trust by proving not that you “have their best interests at heart.” That’s patronizing. You earn it by proving you are one of them. Who would you rather have tell you that the clothes you are wearing look terrible – a good friend or a complete stranger?

Jim Stengel, the brilliant retired marketing chief of Procter & Gamble, once told me the key fact about succeeding in business: You can never be too close to your customer. You can never know them too well.

This is a lesson journalism and journalists need to learn in a hurry.

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