Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Let's Blame the Readers

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"No people can be both ignorant and free." - Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Let’s Blame the Readers
Is it possible to do great journalism if the public does not care?

By Evan Cornog, Columbia Univeristy, Graduate School of Journalism

What do the managing editors of America’s newspapers talk about when they get together? Readers, and why there are fewer of them than there used to be. At the Associated Press Managing Editors convention in Louisville this fall, Topic A was declining readership. Stuart Wilk, the past APME president and associate editor of The Dallas Morning News, delivered a keynote speech that spoke of various ills facing the business — falling readership, sliding profits, circulation scandals. Bennie Ivory, executive editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, warned, “We’re losing a lot of readership right now,” and another speaker, the business consultant Vin Crosbie, diagnosed the industry as being in “critical condition.” The gathering was not, of course, a wake, and much time was spent discussing what news people could do to turn the situation around. Yet for all the can-do spirit and guarded optimism that were in evidence, it was clear that many of the people at the APME meeting were worried about the future.

It is not hard to see why; the data on readership are consistent and depressing. Vin Crosbie pointed to statistics that showed that in 1964, 81 percent of Americans read a daily newspaper, while today that figure hovers around 54 percent. Soon newspaper readers will be a minority of the population, given the even more distressing figures he cited concerning the reading habits of younger Americans. As recently as 1997, 39 percent of Americans 18 to 34 were reading newspapers regularly; by 2001 this had dropped to 26 percent. That statistic is even worse than it seems, because newspaper reading — or nonreading — is a habit, like smoking or a preference for Coke or Pepsi, that once acquired tends to remain in place. The older Americans who are the mainstay of newspaper subscriber lists have been reading newspapers since their teens and twenties, and younger Americans who have not yet picked up the habit are not likely to develop it later in life.

The problem is not confined to newspapers, either. As the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s report, “The State of the News Media 2004,” makes clear, other sources of news are also having trouble attracting younger customers. The three nightly network newscasts have seen their ratings plummet 44 percent since 1980.

A new study of the problem by David T. Z. Mindich, a journalism professor at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, provides a devastating survey of the extent of the problem. Ignorance of current events and indifference to the traditional news media are epidemic. And it is not only traditional news media that young people avoid; even the Internet, which some look to as the solution to the problem of a disengaged younger generation, is not being used as a source of news by most younger Americans. In his new book, Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News, Mindich cites a survey showing that “only 11% of young people cite the Internet as a major source of news.” Younger Americans know plenty about the things that interest them — they just don’t follow the news very closely.

This was not always so. In 1966 fully 60 percent of college freshmen believed that following politics was important, according to a survey by the University of California at Los Angeles; by 2003 that had fallen to 34 percent. Given the close correlation researchers have found between newspaper reading and active citizenship, the figures are worrisome for both the industry and the nation.

The managing editors’ meeting was built around finding ways to lure new, younger readers into buying their papers. Session after session was organized with this purpose in mind, and to drive the point home the APME had flown in an assortment of “embedded readers” from around the country to comment upon the proceedings and give their own views in a special session of the convention. No one could accuse the newspaper folks of being indifferent to their customers: “I have been treated like a celebrity all week,” remarked one of these embedded readers, Angela Gallagher, a college student from Mississippi.

But what if the problem lies not with the newspapers, as the APME gathering seemed to believe, but with the readers? What if the readers have changed? If so, the solution to the problem will lie beyond the power of journalists alone.

Consider some recent history. In 2000, Robert D. Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, a best-selling work that examined how Americans have retreated from all sorts of collective and communal activities in the past half-century. Putnam observed that organizations ranging from VFW posts to PTAs to bridge clubs to high-school bands were shutting down because there were not enough people interested in their goals to sustain them. What “the greatest generation” had built — both the spirit of common enterprise and the institutions that channeled that spirit — was disintegrating. Putnam subsequently tried to look on the brighter side in a book entitled Better Together that examined efforts to reverse this trend toward alienation and social isolation. Still, over the last few decades, the public realm has shrunk, and our private worlds have grown more isolated.

Perhaps the biggest force driving this change has been television, which provides easy and cheap entertainment that people can consume at home. Even though people, when polled, find TV to be a much less satisfying leisure activity than more active and sociable diversions, the power of the tube continues to rise. (And even TV watching has become less social — the family room has emptied out as each family member has acquired a personal TV set. Mindich points out that in 1970 only 6 percent of sixth graders had TVs in their rooms; today the figure is 77 percent.) Other factors have played a role in the decline of community. Suburbanization has made it less convenient to gather in groups, and the modern workplace, with its greater pressures and greater number of working mothers, leaves less time to pursue active leisure interests. More recent developments such as the Internet, video games, and the proliferation of gated communities have only intensified the decline.

To be fair, it must also be recognized that “the greatest generation” had greatness thrust upon them because they had to face the Great Depression and World War II. It is easier to embrace an ethic of shared sacrifice for the common good if your alternative is fascist tyranny. The recent decades of relative peace and prosperity (for many) have made fewer demands on our ability to act collectively, and it is hardly surprising that in the absence of such challenges our civic reflexes have grown rusty.

Newspapers have reflected this change in many ways. Obviously, as various community institutions fade in importance, so does the amount of coverage they receive (seen much on the labor-union beat lately?). As television has grown in importance, so has the space allotted to it in print media — not just in listings and reviews, but in coverage of TV celebrities, even the recently minted varieties that have started to emerge from reality shows. When news executives are asked why they put so much effort into covering celebrities, the answer is that “readers want it.”

The editors in Louisville devoted one of their sessions to the subject, “Celebrity Coverage — Where’s the Line . . . And Have We Crossed It?” But in addressing that topic much time was spent discussing how to use celebrity coverage to attract readers. Lorrie Lynch, who covers celebrities for USA Weekend, urged the editors to capitalize upon celebrity coverage to attract new readers. And the gossip columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, known simply as C.J., offered advice on how to cover celebrities if you don’t have the good fortune to be in New York or Los Angeles.

Covering celebrities was just one of the attractions under consideration for luring new readers. Kim Leserman, president of the Media Insight Group, a market-research firm, outlined ways to use information about the interests of younger Americans to attract new readers. Robin Seymour, the director of research and readership at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, revealed the results of her research into the top items of interest for younger, so-called “light” readers. In order, they are: health/fitness, investigative reports on important issues, the environment, natural disasters/accidents, and education. It was repeatedly stressed that marketing efforts should not drive news judgment, but when there was a story that promised to appeal to a demographic group that the business folks were trying to reach, it should be widely promoted. Hank Klibanoff, the managing editor for news of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, announced, “I have seen the light. I have seen the value of research.” He discussed ways that his paper was changing its zoned editions to respond to what they knew about reader desires. And what he presented was quite impressive.

Clearly, a declining newspaper business must pay attention to its customers’ wants if it is to survive. Good ideas about how to do this were in abundance at the APME convention. And none of the journalists were saying that hard news coverage should be abandoned in pursuit of profits. But profits may be hard to come by if the public does not want to read the hard news.

At one APME event Michael Getler, ombudsman of The Washington Post, said the paper had received a lot of hate mail during the Watergate investigation, “from people who just didn’t want to know what was going on.” One of the embedded readers, a child-welfare worker from Delaware named John Bates, spoke of people he knew who did not like to read newspapers because the news is “so sad and depressing.”

The embedded readers, who came across as an unusually thoughtful, engaged group, evidenced this tendency themselves. At one session the APME attendees and those of the affiliated meeting of the Associated Press Photo Managers were asked to say whether they would have published certain grisly photographs on page one — a shot of Nicole Brown Simpson’s corpse, the burned bodies of American civilian contractors hanging from a bridge in Falluja, and so forth. Electronic voting allowed members of the audience to identify themselves by job (as editors or photo editors), and the embedded readers were also asked to vote. One of the photos rated was the iconic Abu Ghraib photo of a prisoner standing on a box, hooded, with wires attached to each hand. Of those who identified themselves as photo editors, 96 percent said that they either ran or would have run the photo on page one. But 71 percent of the embedded readers said it should not have been run on page one. Asked about the propriety of running photos of terrorists holding hostages, 60 percent of the photo editors were in favor of printing the pictures, but 78 percent of the readers were opposed.

Why don’t readers want to see these things? Why are so many people avoiding the hard task of keeping themselves informed about what is going on in their government and society? Why is ignorance so widespread at a time when higher education is more widely pursued than ever before?

So much of the thinking about this in the world of journalism (including in the pages of this magazine) is done from the perspective of the flaws of journalism as currently practiced. And so it should be, because such flaws abound, from the cutbacks in foreign bureaus to the commercialization of news to the high-profile crimes of a few journalistic fabricators. But perhaps the problem, and therefore the solution, has broader and deeper roots. Perhaps we should, to an extent, blame the readers. Perhaps the old notions of an engaged and virtuous citizenry, upon which the founding fathers’ hopes for the republic were based, are archaic concepts.

Gourmet’s editor, Ruth Reichl, when she was still the restaurant critic of The New York Times, once launched a review of Thomas Keller’s Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry, with the observation, “The secret of the French Laundry is that Mr. Keller is the first American chef to understand that it takes more than great food and a great location to make a great restaurant: it also takes great customers.” The greatest danger to American journalism in the coming decades is not commercial pressures or government regulation but the decline of public interest in public life, a serious disengagement of citizens from one of the primary duties of citizenship — to know what is happening in their government and society. Americans know a lot about a lot of things, but when only 41 percent of teenagers polled can name the three branches of government while 59 percent can name the Three Stooges, something is seriously amiss.

It is particularly ironic that this is happening in the United States, whose revolution and then founding were to a significant extent the product of debates carried out in pamphlets and newspapers. The greatest work of political philosophy ever composed in America, the Federalist Papers, was published serially in New York newspapers to support the ratification of the Constitution there. In recognition of the role that the press played in the nation’s founding, and in appreciation of the crucial role it plays in maintaining a free society, the press was granted special protections under the First Amendment.

But the founders knew that a free press would be worth little if the people could not read it, so public education became one of the great obsessions of the leaders of the early republic. One of the founders of the New York Free School Society, the precursor of the public-school system in New York City, wrote that the “fundamental error of Europe” was restricting education to the wealthy, in the mistaken belief that “knowledge is the parent of sedition and insurrection.” Instead, he wrote, education was vital to the maintenance of a free society. This concern with education was widespread in the founding generation, and Thomas Jefferson famously listed the establishment of the University of Virginia as one of the three great accomplishments of his life (he omitted his presidency from the list).

The idea of education as a prerequisite for responsible citizenship naturally gave rise, after a time, to the idea of citizenship education. What the historian Richard Hofstadter called the “consensus” society of the 1950s fostered a kind of citizenship education that stressed the institutions of American democracy, the commonality of all Americans regardless of background (although how this was actually expressed from state to state, particularly with regard to African Americans, was problematic), and the efficacy of citizens acting in groups to pursue change, whether those groups were political parties effecting changes in government through legislation or labor unions and corporations negotiating agreements governing wages and working conditions.

But the notion of citizenship education was always a contested one, with business groups looking to schools essentially to educate workers for a complex industrial society while others, particularly educators, favored more broadly democratic notions of citizenship education that sought to give students the tools they needed to think critically about their society and their roles in that society. According to Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University, it is “business-inspired reform coalitions” that have recast public education: “In doing so, the traditional and primary collective goal of public schools building literate citizens able to engage in democratic practices” — the goal of American’s founders — “has been replaced by the goal of social efficiency, that is, preparing students for a competitive labor market anchored in a swiftly changing economy.” Clearly students need to be prepared to take their places in the work force; and public education has long sought to achieve that goal along with others. But the balance has shifted in the last generation. Cuban’s new book, The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses, traces the rise of the social efficiency model over the last three decades. The federal “Nation at Risk” report of 1983 helped to define the nation’s educational shortcomings in terms of America’s perceived surrender of economic primacy to the industrial powerhouses of Japan and Germany. Although those economic threats have receded, if not evaporated, the prescription arrived at — more standardized tests of basic skills, and “teaching to the test” — has become the orthodox political solution, embraced by both parties. (Senator Edward Kennedy voted for President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation, which the president, in one of the debates, described as a jobs bill.)

This redefinition of citizenship has been part of a larger push toward privatizing much that used to be public — and, in particular, governmental — in American society. For decades the Republican Party and allies in the business community have worked to reduce government’s role in American life. It is a measure of their success that faith in democratic government has largely been replaced by faith in the market. It was the senior President Bush who urged upon the nation a less expansive model of civic engagement, which the speechwriter Peggy Noonan memorably expressed as “a thousand points of light.” Implicit in this was the notion that collective action was not the only, or the best, way to remedy society’s ills. Isolated individuals should try to do good — in isolation. Earlier generations had expressed different ideals. In his inaugural address in 1941, as the threat of world war drew ever closer to the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt said that American democracy was strong “because it is built on the unhampered initiative of individual men and women joined together in a common enterprise.” Sixty years later, after the September 11 attacks had shaken the nation, President George W. Bush urged Americans to pull together by going out and spending money, or taking a trip to Disney World. Consumerism had become the common cause.

President Bush also declared that younger Americans should be taught to respond to the September 11 crisis, but his vision of how this should be done was very narrow. In announcing an effort to strengthen citizenship education in the wake of the attacks, Bush said the program’s purpose was to teach that “America is a force for good in the world, bringing hope and freedom to other people.” The goal was to prescribe, not to explore, what American citizenship is and means. And those who challenge their students to ask the hard questions are encountering difficulties. One Florida teacher who asked his class to discuss Benjamin Franklin’s statement “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” was disciplined by the school’s principal for his departure from the required curriculum. Answers are safe; questions are not.

In a recent study of citizenship education published in PS: Political Science and Politics, the scholars Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne described three different varieties of citizenship: the “personally responsible citizen,” the “participatory citizen,” and the “justice-oriented citizen.” To make clear the differences, they described sample actions for each: the first “contributes food to a food drive,” the second “helps to organize a food drive,” while the third “explores why people are hungry and acts to solve root causes.” (Interestingly, David Mindich’s study found that volunteerism has been rising among the young, even as they are becoming “less and less engaged politically.”)

While each kind of action might be covered in the pages of a local newspaper, clearly it is the world of the justice-oriented citizen that intersects most clearly with the world of journalism, since “root causes” of problems are what journalists seek to identify, and uncovering injustices is one of the raisons d’ĂȘtre of reporters. And such a “justice-oriented” approach was common in the citizenship education of previous generations. This shift toward defining the citizen as consumer is a change that some, at least, saw coming.

One thing that “everyone knows” is that Jimmy Carter made a fool of himself in the summer of 1979 by giving the famous “malaise speech,” which is caricatured as a touchy-feely effort to avoid personal responsibility for the country’s woes during the stagflation years of the late 1970s. Yet .Carter’s speech is a much more impressive document than such facile impressions convey, and in it he identified a trend central to the matter at hand The nation, he said then, was at a fork in the road, and had to choose between a “path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest” and “the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values.” To choose the first, Carter said, was to embrace a world in which “human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.” We appear to have arrived at that destination. When George W. Bush, at his party’s 2004 convention, laid out his vision of America’s future, it was of an “ownership society,” where people would not only own their own homes but also “own their own health plans and have the confidence of owning a piece of their retirement.” This “ownership society” is many things, and one of them is a premeditated privatization of responsibilities that government had taken on during the New Deal and Great Society epochs. Without debating the merits of the actual proposals, it is clear that a different role for government is envisaged, as is a different conception of citizenship. Looking after oneself, rather than sharing the burden, is the model.

It is a common lament of newsrooms that readers often skip over the long, thoughtful series on important topics in their haste to read the latest on the Hilton sisters or the specs on the best high-end cappuccino makers. Still, why not include some of that fluff? The occasional confection is fine as long as one eats a healthy, balanced diet. The problem is that Americans have grown too fond of sweets, both on their tables and in their newspapers. And the new tabloids, such as the Tribune Company’s RedEye, that are aimed at the youth market seem geared to the attention span of a mayfly.

The editors at the APME convention probably cared more about hard news than celebrity coverage, and even if they may use the latter to hook younger readers, they are still trying to fulfill the traditional mission of a newspaper. But that may not be enough. One of the embedded readers, an Eckerd College professor of anthropology and American studies named Catherine M. Griggs, cautioned them that she was “not sure you can do it alone — educators have to take the first steps.” Put another way, schools need to play a role in forming the “great customers” who will ensure the future of first-class journalism.

But journalism has a role to play, too. Some of that role will be carried out through the sort of soul-searching and self-examination that characterized the APME convention. But the change in the definition of citizenship, and in citizenship education, has not arisen out of thin air. Interest groups, acting in public forums, have helped push the country along the path Jimmy Carter decried. And as Cuban pointed out in an interview with cjr, “Most newspapers have supported the standards and testing movement editorially,” which has contributed to the decline of emphasis on civics education. With the best of motives, journalists have contributed to the very forces that undermine journalism’s future.

Journalism does have a vested interest in the outcome of this debate. One attempt to deal with this set of issues was “civic journalism,” which has faced serious opposition, and even mockery, within the journalistic community because it seemed to ask reporters and editors to lay aside their concerns with objectivity and balance in order to effect change in society. As the journalism scholar James W. Carey, who teaches at Columbia, once pointed out, journalists do their best work simply “by encouraging the conditions of public discourse and life.” They can do this within the accepted norms of the profession by covering the stories that are out there, and by recognizing that some of the stories they need to cover have to do with ideas — such as changing ideas of citizenship. And they need to explore how such ideas alter their own profession. When journalists think of their readers, viewers, and listeners primarily as market segments, not citizens, they risk surrendering their unique role. Yes, news organizations are businesses, and need to make money; but they are also a public trust. The more journalists accept, and play by, the rules of the market, the more they are likely to confirm President Bush’s conception of the press as just another special-interest group.

Journalistic attempts to follow readers in their changing interests may lead down a rabbit-hole of ever-diminishing returns. As journalism tries its best to chase this increasingly recalcitrant public, it risks losing sight of its own fundamental purpose. And making news more entertaining is not the answer, either. The news can’t compete with the diversions put forth by Hollywood in films and on television. Jerry Bruckheimer is better at doing explosions than Andrew Heyward, and Angelina Jolie is more pleasing to gaze upon than Diane Sawyer. Even O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco is no match for The Fast and the Furious.

But don’t forget the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s research on stories of most interest to younger readers — on its top-five list were stories on education. Readers do care about what happens in their children’s schools. And so, even, do nonreaders. There is contention and bitter division here — the very stuff of good news stories. And the diminishment of the commons has become a topic for some journalists in recent years, particularly since the publication of Bowling Alone. Bill McKibben wrote acutely on the subject last year in Mother Jones, and David Shaw has described the force of this trend in journalism in the Los Angeles Times. There is plenty of room for more attention. By covering this ongoing effort to define — or redefine — American citizenship, journalists can move the debate beyond their own profession, heeding Professor Griggs’s admonition that journalists “can’t do it alone.” Fortunately, journalism does have the power to examine any aspect of society, and can in this way set in motion a debate that may help it put its own house in better order.

Columbia Journalism Review (CJR)

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