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When MBAs Rule The News Room

By Shannon Love
& Julie Powers

Somewhere along the way, the businessman and/or businesswoman have taken precedence over the journalist whose values and direction once dictated our news content. How did this happen? The answer is simple, yet not so simple.

Let's step back in time, back to a time when life was less complicated -- no telephones, no televisions, no Internet, no espresso stand on every corner -- a time when life was slow and easy, and the only way to hear about the news of the world was through the daily newspaper. Picture your Great, Great Grandmother sitting on the front porch, rocking herself gently on the porch swing, with a cool glass of lemonade in one hand, and a copy of the Western Chronicle in the other. She so looks forward to that time of the day -- just before the sun sets behind the mountain peaks, and the hot afternoon heat turns into a comfortable blanket of warmth that surrounds her old, weary bones.

It's difficult to think that there were ever slow, relaxing times like those that our ancestors experienced. Back in those days, the only source of local and national news came from the newspaper, delivered by smiling, freckled-faced neighborhood kids.

What happened to those lazy afternoons? And more importantly, what happened to the thriving newspaper business? Simply stated: The increase in popularity of other sources of communication, such as competing trade magazines and newspapers, radio, television, movies and, as we see today, home video, electronic interactive home computers and games.

But let's look a little further, to more specific reasons for the decline in newspaper popularity. Doug Underwood, author of "When MBAs Rule The Newsroom" and professor at the University of Washington states, "Four decades of stagnant circulation have translated into a desperate worry about readership as it has become clear that many Americans -- busy, distracted, and wedded to television and other forms of electronic entertainment -- simply aren't reading daily newspapers anymore."

Even further into the spiral of destruction has emerged a new form of journalism -- or lack there of: Marketing, advertising, business-savvy and the almighty BOTTOM LINE. In other words, let's cater to our advertisers; let's tell the public what they want to hear. That's the only way to run a newspaper business. Give them what they want. Increase revenue. Increase the BOTTOM LINE! Ethical, honest news information? What's that? Get real.

Not only are newspapers giving readers the types of stories that what they want to read, but they're now offering newspapers that are much more visually appealing, and "user-friendly". Underwood states, "The intense focus on the marketing of the newspaper has led to the adoption of techniques -- such as briefs and packaged information, entertainment news, and visually appealing formats -- that newspaper executives hope will lure back readers. Reader-driven or customer-drivennewspapering, as it has become known, has spawned a host of new features that sprang from readership surveys and public focus groups: more escape and upbeat stories, more news-you-can-use features, and more quick reads, capsules, and indexes."

The first newspaper to use these marketing techniques was USA Today. They were the first to become aware of the ever-changing public demands, and hence, opted for a brighter, more visually appealing newspaper by using color. One can almost visualize spotting their first USA Today -- how foreign it looked with its front cover like a finger painting in shades of deep sky blue, teal and tomato red.

But what are the declining readership figures? Underwood claims that the weekday circulation of daily newpapers in the U.S., amounting to just over sixty million in 1990, has barely budged since 1970, even though during the same period the population has increased by more than 20 percent and the number of households by almost 50 percent. Without including USA Today in the calculation, the number of Americans reading a newspaper on a daily basis has actually declined since the early 1980s.

This is, in one sense, sad. This marketing movement has accomplished its goal: Many creative and committed journalists have been pushed out of the newspaper business. Good writing and reporting have been forgotten. Many newspaper professionals complain that today's customer-oriented editors devote too much energy to marketing and bottom-line concerns. They suppress aggressive and in-depth reporting for the sake of "formula journalism"; and they have created a news room environment increasingly inhospitable to the independent, contemptuous, and change-the-world personalities that have traditionally been attracted to the profession of journalism.

Another disgruntled journalist, Bill Walker, former reporter with the Sacramento Bee, the Denver Post, and the Fort Worth Star expressed his feelings of frustration in his swan-song piece, "Why I Quit":

Nowadays, editors spend their days taking meetings in glass offices, emerging only to issue reporters instructions like this: "Get me a 12-inch A1 box on the city's reaction to the tragedy. Talk to teachers, kids, the mayor, the bishop. Focus on the shock, the sadness, the brave determination to move on. And don't forget the homeless. We've got color art from the shelter." Meanwhile, the promotions director is already producing a cheery drive-time radio spot to plug the story... We used to have a saying: No matter how bad journalism was, it beat selling insurance for a living. But no more.

However, in another sense, it is not so sad. Change is good. Growth is healthy. And life progresses, whether you want it to or not. The news paper industry is still a thriving and profitable business. It is just changing, slightly. Analogous to what has happened to television and radio, the same has occurred in news paper: The reader/viewer/listener wants more drama, more violence, more sex, more glamour and they want it faster, and brighter AND THEY WANT IT NOW! This is a world that moves fast, fast, fast. We, want information fed to us that we can quickly read, digest, and then discuss over coffee on our fifteen minute break at work, or at home with our significant others.

As Editor of the Seattle-based Jet City Blues Review, entertainment newspaper, I feel that in these days of the 10-second soundbyte, you have to give the readers what they want. If not, they'll just get it someplace else. I don't have an MBA, but I do know that it's not just a matter of keeping up with the competitor, or even competing in a world that has far surpassed any country's communication technology base, it's a matter of staying alive -- but doing it ethically. There's nothing wrong with catering to your advertiser. They're the ones that pay the bills. As a service-oriented news paper, we can still give the reader what they want, but we can also give them something they may not find in other news papers -- honest, intelligent, and thought-provoking writing. Our paper is also localized, with stories and photos, which also appeals to our readers -- local and abroad. This provides a window into our city for the reader who is interested in the rising popularity of Seattle's music scene.

But what bothers me is, and maybe it's to my detriment, I don't use the drama. What is, is. What's not, well, let's just say I protect my readers from distasteful journalism. I've been in Pioneer Square when there have been shootings and gang fights -- with camera in hand. But I won't print the pictures; and I won't report what I saw. I don't think it's necessary. Also, it would be detrimental to print that type of information in our paper. Our paper is music, entertainment based, and yes, we do cater to our advertisers, which many are in the Pioneer Square area. We don't want to ignore the tragedy of violence, but want to focus on the positive aspects of music, soften the public's view of an already negative perception of live music in the historical Pioneer Square district, and educate the reader that going out and listening to music can be a safe activity. We would rather enhance the positive than glorify and focus on the rare occurrence of violent acts. Maybe that's wrong. And maybe that's to my disadvantage. But that's my choice. Bottom line.

So what is the bottom line? The MBAs who have taken over the news room have indeed changed the definition of journalism. What sells? SHOCK VALUE. Aren't we much more likely to plop .35 cents into the metal box with the newspaper headliner that reads, "FOUR SHOT AND KILLED IN RANDOM SHOOTING AT LOCAL MALL. SUSPECT STILL AT LARGE", than we are with the headliner, "MICROSOFT STOCK UP 3/4". (Unless, of course, we happen to own several shares of stock in Microsoft.) But the point is, we used to look to our newspaper to read about the "happenings" in our communities, state and country. Now, it's the most gory, gruesome story that attracts our prurient eye. And it's working. The MBAs who do rule the news rooms are making the flourishing dollar figures that the other straight journalist-run papers are not.

Underwood says, "The newspapers that devote themselves to filling their pages with real news, enterprise reporting, good writing, and intelligent analysis will survive and prosper." In this competitive Age of Information era, newspapers need to give their readers something more than what their televisions can offer them. But as an intelligent public, we realize that we can't cut an article out of a sound byte that we want to save, and tape it to our refrigerator. We can't sit down, under an old oak tree, and curl up with a good television set. We need our daily newspaper. As quoted by Doug Underwood, "Just as I'm confident that good reporters will keep up the good fight, so I believe that readers aren't about to give up on good journalism or the daily newspapers that practice it -- as long as newspapers don't give up on them."

For those of us who are committed to keeping good journalism alive, our fight continues. Maybe there is a way we can meet somewhere in the middle -- the Journalist, the MBA and the scrutinizing public eye.

* * *

A few final quotes from Doug Underwood's book, When MBAs Rule the News Room:

We use research like a drunk uses a street lamp, for support, not for illumination.

-- Milton Gossett, president and CEO of Compton Advertising
bulletIf you want to write, go work for a book!

-- Philip McLeod, editor of the London Free Press

In the past, I was uncertain whether to laugh at the ludicrous titles, bizarre organization, and the dreadful writing of the articles, or whether to cry at the waste of brainpower and trees.

-- Steve Weinberg, a journalist-turned-academic

How Much News Is News?

--Doug Underwood

ęCopyright 1995 -- 2008 Jet City Blues Review

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