Capped Media Sections, Failure of Communication

May 21, 2004 • Media Economics, Newsroom Management • by

Werbewoche, Nr. 19, May, 2004

Many publishers and editors-in-chief have long suppressed the fact that journalism and the media can be just as interesting a subject to cover as politics and economics. They are thus depriving themselves of the only platform from which the media can communicate credibly with a broader public about the profession.

The crisis of the print media may, at least partially, be blamed on their own failure to communicate. For a long time the media have confirmed the public belief that information that is thoroughly researched and processed according to standards of journalistic professionalism would be available for free. As a citizen, one would have the right to be informed comprehensively and “free of charge”, so to speak.

On top of that, the media have, for decades, covered everything except themselves. Anyone who wanted to know how journalism “works”, what problems reporters and editors have to deal with and which ethical and professional standards determine the selection of news and research, would have had little chance to learn the essentials from television or newspaper sources. Many publishers and editors-in-chief have long suppressed the fact – and even today have obviously not entirely understood – that journalism and the media, which nearly all of us spend the bulk of our spare time with and which for many people are indispensable for their work, can be just as interesting a subject as politics and economics.

After a brief period of expansion, media journalism has been drastically decimated again, at least in Switzerland and Germany. Entire media sections have been shut down due to the economic crisis: the Weltwoche, the Tages-Anzeiger, the Bund, the news magazine Facts – all suddenly seem to be able to do without their own media pages.

I consider this a capital mistake. The editors-in-chief and publishers responsible are ferociously determined to saw off the very branch they are sitting on. They are depriving themselves of the only platform from which the media can communicate credibly with a broader public about the profession. Where such information is omitted there is no chance for the public to develop its own standards for quality, as Ulrich Saxer from the University of Zurich warned years ago. Or, to put it more pointedly: maybe the only reason so many youngsters consult the freesheet 20 Minuten instead of the Tagesanzeiger or the Neue Zürcher Zeitung is because nobody has taught them what the extra value of a quality newspaper may be, and why it may be worth spending 2.50 Swiss Francs on a newspaper, rather than on a cup of coffee.

Virtually no big company, ministry or non-profit organization that wants to enter into a dialogue with target groups relies on advertisements and direct mailing alone. They back these up with public relations work transmitting their messages to the public via a newsroom-detour. Press releases from Novartis, BMW and Swisscom only reach their target audience with the maximum amount of credibility when they do so “disguised” as journalism in the news hole of the mass media.

This applies no less to the media themselves. They have the opportunity – through media journalism – to communicate information about their own profession and themselves competently and credibly. However, it is exactly this opportunity that the media stand to lose if they abolish media departments and pages.

To make myself clear: I am not, of course, talking about the kind of media journalism that may be exploited by its own internal PR department. Professional media journalism excels only when it resists self-adulation or cross-promotion, just as much as when it resists the temptation to maliciously run the competition down or to ignore it completely. Media coverage can only contribute to the credibility of journalism if the coverage aims specifically for “objectivity”, for balance and – if necessary – for fair self-criticism. For years, great American newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have shown that this is possible.

Those who think that media journalism is expendable contribute to the danger that journalism overall may become superfluous. If publishing houses invest in their PR departments, but at the same time think they can, with impunity, simply “lay off” journalists who report about their own profession, then this is the wrong signal, at least in a society where PR is increasingly superseding journalism.

(Translation: Jasmin Bodmer)

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