The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

July 8, 2008

“Scary,” then “bullish”

Originally printed in Marketplace July 8

The cover story of this Marketplace focuses on new St. Norbert College President Tom Kunkel, who worked as a journalist for 20 years before moving into academia.

(Now that Kunkel is working for a Catholic college, one could call his two career steps the sacred and the profane — a phrase I occasionally used in describing working for a Catholic college in between terms at Marketplace. But I digress.)

Kunkel and I talked about, besides running a Catholic liberal arts college, our experiences and perspectives working in the media. This year marks my 20th anniversary of working full-time in the media; I started work at the Grant County Herald Independent, a weekly newspaper in Lancaster, on May 23, 1988.

Kunkel started as a 16-year-old part-time sportswriter for the Evansville (Ind.) Courier, moved to reporting full-time while he was still in college, and by 29 was executive editor of a daily newspaper. He has 10 more years in the business and has worked at larger daily newspapers.

“In general, I’m very bullish on news — people are never going to be tired of knowing what’s going on,” he says. “And I think a young person today going into journalism, if they embrace technology, if they’re not interested in working in the same place for 30 years, they’ll have a very exciting life.

“In the short term, it’s as scary as all get out. We don’t know what successful news business models are going to look like, and that’s the scary part. But I have no doubt there will be successful business models, because the demand is always going to be there.”

The news media is trying to figure out how to make money in the Internet age. Most companies that have charged for content have been unsuccessful generating much revenue, because, on the Internet, there is an expectation that content should be free. Many newspapers charge to access their online archives, but judicious use of search engines often gets viewers around having to pay for archive access. The New York Times abandoned its TimesSelect subscription site because revenues were much lower than anticipated, but readers and viewers were, to put it mildly, irate that they had to pay to access something they were already paying for through a traditional newspaper subscription. Other newspapers tie access to their Web sites to newspaper subscriptions — free to subscribers, but not to non-subscribers.

As it is, the traditional lines between newsprint and electronic media are blurring. Longer versions of stories that take up at most two minutes on TV can be found on TV stations’ Web sites. Newspapers are hiring videographers.

“Convergence has been talked about in the media in the past 10 years,” says Kunkel. “In the last two years it’s really come to pass. A reporter has got to be conversant with these other platforms because it’s required of them.”

The bigger issue, though, has to do with media credibility. That’s always an issue, of course, but the explosion of the blogosphere means people who want news have other options than their closest newspaper or broadcast outlet.

Journalists will tell you that your typical blogger — or the “pajamas media,” as the blogosphere been called — is usually not a trained journalist. I am a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, where I took courses on newswriting, reporting, radio news, TV news, magazine journalism (who knew?), history of mass communication and law of mass communication on the way to my journalism degree. Then again, like most lines of work, one usually learns best and improves by doing; in a lot of ways, the three years I spent working at a daily newspaper in college prepared me better because I was writing, judged by professional editors, for a newspaper people paid to read.

Moreover, alternative news sources cropped up in large part because of dissatisfaction with the news media, including perceptions of bias in news content. Newspapers used to be much more up-front in their biases; readers knew immediately that, for instance, the Milwaukee Journal was Milwaukee’s liberal newspaper, and the Milwaukee Sentinel was Milwaukee’s conservative newspaper. Then newspapers became less partisan in their news pages, restricting their expressed opinions to the editorial pages. Bloggers would argue, however, that that hasn’t really happened, and their argument gains credence when you look at reporter or editor columns and stories with the label “News Analysis” that aren’t within the opinion section.

My dissatisfaction with the news media stems less from my perceptions of bias (which, like it or not, every reporter or writer has, because every person has biases) than from my observations of poor quality work and, I would argue, improper motivation. Watergate served in journalism to inflate the award culture, the concept that the quality of one’s work is measured based on how many awards you win inside the profession.

As an award-winning journalist (Wisconsin Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Contest, to be precise), I think I’m qualified to say this: If you’re in journalism for awards, you’re in for the wrong reason. Awards are given based on the judgment of the judge — in the WNA’s case, judges from newspapers outside Wisconsin on a rotating basis. That means the criteria, which aren’t set in stone anyway, change from year to year; the same award-winning story one year can completely escape notice the next year.

One definition of the proper motivation for a journalism career comes from Kunkel’s last column for American Journalism Review, for which he served as editor and then columnist: “I believe all of us are endowed with certain qualities, and that we in turn have a moral obligation to make the most of those, as often as possible in the service of others. I went into journalism for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I believed it helps people. I still believe that. I always will.”

The goal of a journalist should be to do your job well — to be fair, to not take sides, to get the facts correct, to represent people’s views accurately, to expand people’s knowledge — the acronym is WWWWWH, Who, What, Where, When, Why and How — and to explain, the last W and the H.

The single best piece of advice I ever got in journalism came from a WNA seminar, at which a writing coach advocated that every journalist place one sentence on the top of their computer monitors: “What does this story mean to the reader?” As a journalist, your bosses, after all, are your readers.

No comments: