Does Good Journalism Pay Off?

July 2, 2004 • Media Economics • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, July 02, 2004

A question that remains to be explored
The connection between journalistic quality and economic success has not yet been scientifically analysed to any great extent. A trade journal investigates this question in a special edition. It provides no clear-cut answers.

“Good journalism, good business” is the title of a special issue of the Newspaper Research Journal (Vol. 25, Nr. 1/2004). The title went to print without a question mark and by doing so seems to confirm the cliché of imperturbable American optimism. However, the well-known and competent authors of that special edition guarantee that the necessary critical questions are asked.

The Joan of Arc of quality journalism

Opening the series is Geneva Overholser, a sort of Joan of Arc of American quality journalism. Years ago, she became famous by quitting her position as editor-in-chief of a distinguished regional newspaper because the parent company, Ganett, wanted to squeeze more profit out of the paper mercilessly each quarter. After that, she worked for a few years as the “ombudsman” of the Washington Post. In her Sunday column, Overholser publicly read the riot act to her colleagues – among them such prominent cult figures of US journalism as Bob Woodward, whom she reproached for his less than professional handling of his many and variously used anonymous sources. Today she is a professor of journalism and leads the Washington education activities of one of the two most famous American schools of journalism.

In the special edition mentioned above, Overholser examines the American debate on the decline of quality and quality management in the field of journalism. The debate is gaining intensity but has remained, even in the United States, too much of a conversation among experts. The branch of communication has been having “notorious difficulties with communication”, as Overholser observes. In particular, the media corporations that “put pressure on others to reveal internal information and internal dissent are keeping information about themselves under lock and key.” Indeed: the knowledge and skills that PR-pros have accumulated in order to build trust via communication should be used more extensively on the management floors of media companies in order to enter into dialogue with the public.

Media economists Stephen Lacy and Hugh Martin deal with regions in which a company has succeeded in buying several regional newspapers thus in creating a so-called cluster. They have found that this benefits the consolidated accounts because the newspaper publisher can reduce costs thanks to the effects of synergy, and can increase advertising rates at the same time. However, the quality of the newspapers was suffering under these mergers, and the total circulation was decreasing in comparison to regions where true competition existed, according to Lacy and Martin.

If these research results are translated into the German speaking areas, then Switzerland has already seen the first Fall of Man in the form of the merger of the Bund and the Berner Zeitung under the umbrella of Espace Media. And in Berlin, the Red-Green coalition is stubbornly doing its utmost, by loosening the press fusion laws, to bring about such situations in the few German urban regions where newspapers still compete amongst each other, even though the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is offering fierce resistance.

Other highlights of the special edition: Leo Bogart, one of the founding fathers of US newspaper research, deals with the quality of the content of daily newspapers and how it is measured. Swedish media economist Robert G. Picard examines how commercialization and marketing activities penetrate the contents of daily newspapers and increasingly displace the concept of a service to the public. Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell from the Project for Excellence in Journalism and journalism researcher Philipp Meyer present research results which show that above-average investments in the newsroom and in the credibility of journalistic coverage pay off.

How many editors does it take?

Rick Edmunds from the Poynter Institute puts this result into perspective, however, with the ranking list which the trade journal Columbia Journalism Review uses to determine the top newspapers in the USA. Out of 21 of the top papers examined, only about two thirds had above-average personnel resources in their newsrooms. At least 3 were slightly below average, and another 3 had even gained their top positions with decidedly fewer editors than usual – which Edmunds attributes to the “leadership” factor, although he does not expand on this in more detail.

Robert G. Picard’s conclusions are also rather sobering: scientific research relating quality and economic success was still “as good as inexistent”. At least the Newspaper Research Journal offers some first steps. The general drift: good journalism does not necessarily exclude good business.

(Translation: Jasmin Bodmer)

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