Media future

Jim O'Shea on newspapers

The previous editor of the Los Angeles Times wonders at the Nieman Watchdog whether newspapers will deliver "the rich, hard-hitting storytelling that gives the news its infrastructure of shoe-leather journalism from courthouses, police stations, legislatures and war zones, the kind of reporting that gives bloggers, broadcasters and others something to write and talk about" or — no names — will papers "become vessels for 'panderism' instead of journalism, flimsy content organized around the age-old principle of luring dog owners to stories in the paper so you can sell them some dog food?"

I’ve been wondering about this question ever since I left the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times earlier this year over what has come to be commonly known as “a disagreement over the future direction of the paper.” But it really came home to me recently after I read Portfolio editor Joanne Lippman’s interview with Sam Zell, the real estate billionaire who seized control the company that owned the Times just before I was told it would be a good idea to spend more time with my family....

On the surface, though, much of what Zell says seems to make sense....Speaking as someone who spent the last 30 years in a newsroom, I think he’s also probably right when he says journalists often refused to accept much responsibility for the industry’s declining readership and circulation problems, or that we cared more about our drive to excel journalistically than the serious problems in our business model.

The problem I have with Zell’s philosophy – and the questions it raises about the kind of journalism we will have in print and digital newspapers – is how that vision is applied in newsrooms he controls....

[At Zell's Chicago Tribune, where O'Shea worked for 25 years,] The paper currently is in the throes of a massive redesign of its pages driven by people that Zell brought in from the radio industry to “reinvent” the daily newspaper.

Reporters and editors are being schooled in the art of marketing and packaging in an effort to reverse circulation declines at the paper and present “content” in new and visually arresting ways.

Instead of scanning the events, policies, tragedies and joys of the world and giving readers a balanced. in-depth, report on what is important, significant and interesting, editors now place a premium on stories that will appeal to “frenzied families” or “carefree couples.” These are categories of readers that the paper’s marketing studies suggest are turned off by reports of war, corruption and complex issues like financial calamity.

Accompanying the redesign were all-but-mandatory staff meetings run by a newly-minted masthead editor in which the paper’s journalists received lectures on how to reach their “target audiences” from a marketing department employee who long has tried to downplay serious, in-depth journalism in favor of softer stories that she insists readers really want.

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