Audience as the core product of newspapers – not!


Look, up front, I’m a journalist. But I’m also a publisher. So I understand and have even been rather successful at the business side of all this. I preface my post this way so that, when I use the word journalism in the next paragraph, you don’t automatically categorize me as “one of those” and stop reading.

Today’s newspapers are a commercialization of journalism. It is the same way that hospitals are a commercialization of medicine and colleges are a commercialization of education. I’d be happy to go on about the unique position of the processes of education, medicine and journalism in society but that’s for somewhere else. Just roll with me here for a moment longer.

If audience is a newspaper’s core product, then by that logic sick people are the core product of a commercial hospital. So then the thing that commercial hospitals want to be successful at more than anything else is attracting and making the largest possible group of sick people available to the drug companies and all the medical practitioners and specialist who use the hospital as a vehicle to gain access to those sick people for the benefit of their own businesses.

Now there might be people out there saying, “Yea! That’s exactly what fracking hospitals do.” But is that what you think they ought to be doing? Is that how you want your hospital thinking about you? Is that why you pick a particular hospital to go to, so that you can be packaged with other similarly sick people and channeled to the hospital’s actual clients? Is the quality of the hospital’s medical care just to lure you into being part of the real product it delivers to its actual clients?

Or at the core is a hospital, for good or bad, really about medicine, and a newspaper really about journalism? Isn’t a hospital’s core product really the systems it has created for connecting people with medical care in a way that it can make money, i.e. the commercialization of medicine? Then a newspaper’s core product is its systems for connecting people with journalism in a way that makes money.

If you are a publisher and you consider your core product to be audience, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that, but then you’re in the publishing business, not the newspaper business, IMHO.

It’s not that newspapers are dying. It’s that publishers stopped being newspapers — and apparently they haven’t figured out how to be good at it like other non-journalistic publishers.

Or it could be that this form of commercialization of journalism has simply run its course, been disrupted by technology and changes in societal patterns, and that other commercialization models are on the rise.

Because journalism, like medicine and education, is not going away. It is the process that society created to inform itself, not something that someone woke up one Saturday morning and invented. As long as society needs to be informed, there will be journalism. Make a living from it if you can. That’s what I’m looking for, not necessarily some way to preserve a particular commercialization of it. Because, call me naive, but the audience is not our product. They are our purpose.

Perhaps some of this is just language, terminology, you say product, I say purpose. The point of view, though, really is different among a lot of people in this debate.

I often think it boils down to are you publishing a newspaper to make money or are you making money to publish a newspaper. Kantian ethics aside, when life is good and all things possible, you often wind up at the same place or at least the same vicinity. The true measure of a person, or a business, however, is the decisions made in crisis, when options are limited and the only places you can wind up are diametrically different. In such a situation, the sops offered to what are really secondary priorities — news, community, social mission, informed society — don't wash anymore and the fundamental difference in point of view emerges. That's where our industry is now, in that kind of crisis.

Earl Wilkinson of INMA did a quick research thing recently interviewing newspapers worldwide looking for the patterns in their problems. His conclusion: Newspapers aren't in trouble so much as newspaper companies. It's a matter of point of view which of those is most important. I think it is clear, though, that their core products are different.