A recent post that I wrote included some hearty debate in the comments between Tim O’Brien of the New York Times and me (with several other people weighing in). That debate for a couple weeks didn’t include the person whose post launched the discussion, Chris O’Brien (no relation to Tim apparently) of the San Jose Mercury News.
Chris was gone to Yosemite (lucky fellow) for a week when the debate originally broke out. Then an illness further delayed his response. While I approved his comment this morning, I wanted to use it in a separate post, partly to give it greater prominence and partly so I can respond to some specific points.
I should note that this debate is really about a secondary point of my post a couple weeks ago. I argued that the Original Sin of the newspaper industry in the early days of the World Wide Web was not failing to charge for content, as Newsosaur blogger Alan Mutter has written, but failing to innovate in how we served businesses. I think this is a much more serious issue than the one Tim and Chris and I are debating: why readers buy the newspaper and how much they are paying for it. But nonetheless, this is an important and interesting issue, so I gladly highlight it again. (By the way, I’m planning another post soon about another huge mistake we made early in the digital age, and what we need to do to avoid repeating that mistake.)
If you want to read Chris’s response in context, it might help to read or reread his original post in MediaShift Idea Lab, then read or reread my Original Sin quote and the debate in the comments. From here on, you’re reading Chris’s response to that debate, except for the italics, which are my comments:
Sorry it’s taken me awhile to jump back into this conversation. As Steve mentioned in a comment above, I was on vacation for a week and then got derailed by a family member who was injured took ill. So I’m just now catching up on an interesting discussion that began about two weeks ago with my post on Idea Lab and then spread to a debate via Twitter between myself, Steve, and Tim O’Brien. And upon returning, I see that it’s gone well beyond that with Steve’s great follow up post here, and Tim’s rebuttal.
As I began writing this comment, I saw that Tim O’Brien has gone on vacation through early September, so perhaps he’ll see this next month when he returns. Also, I’ll apologize for not covering all the excellent comments here. But I need to break off a small piece of this to establish some focus.
Let me just say I think Tim and I (and Steve, though he’s spoken quite well for himself here) agree on several points. Tim writes in his comment: “With the advertising piece of the equation shredded by the Web, print pubs have to re-engineer their revenue models or go out of business.” Absolutely. And Tim says: “The bottom line in all of this endless analysis of how the MSM doesn’t get the business and journalistic challenges facing it is that it isn’t really about the journalism at all. It’s about finding the proper way to monetize content to financially support sophisticated, enterprise journalism. It’s about reconstructing the revenue model.” Agreed. It’s well past time to reinvent the business model. Our industry’s main strategy, for the most part, has been to cut our newsrooms and cross our fingers and hope that we’ll reach equilibrium. That strategy has been a disaster.
Beyond that, I’ll stand by my post at Idea Lab and try to elaborate on how I came to those views.
Both from his tweets and his comment above, I believe Tim’s main critique of my post was that it was subjective in nature and lacked data to back up the claims. (Tim can correct that later, but that’s my takeaway.) I didn’t necessarily hear him weighing in on the thrust of the post one way or the other, just that I didn’t have the hard data to convince him I was right. As Tim posted above referring to my post: “And this is based on…what? (The New York Times and Wall Street Journal don’t have comics, but that would just be an anecdotal observation, not one based on broad surveys or more hard-minded data gathering).”
And later, Tim says: “But to extrapolate from Fine’s data to say, as Chris does, and as InfoWeek does, that it shows that newspapers didn’t understand what their readers were paying for is ridiculous. I asked for any empirical data, reader surveys, etc., that outline why readers buy certain papers so we could look at that issue in a less subjective way, not one driven by Chris or InfoWeek’s assumptions. And once we have more of that, then maybe I’ll be proven wrong.”
Tim is accusing me of being purely subjective. To which I can only say: Yup.
In trying to think differently about how to deal with the ongoing news business crisis, over the past two years I’ve taken an approach that is intentionally anecdotal and subjective. I won’t even try to deliver the data that Tim seeks because I simply don’t believe that any amount of data is going to solve this industry’s problems. As I’ve worked on various newsroom reinvention and research projects over the past two years, I’ve come around to believe that the quantitative approach — putting our trust in massive reader surveys, polling data, whatever — has failed us.
Instead, I’m convinced that we need to take a qualitative approach. We need to take a fundamentally different approach to understanding the behavior, patterns and needs of our community when it comes to news and information. So if Tim needs the comfort of some cold, hard facts then I’ll just say straight up that I don’t have them and wouldn’t even try to get them. And even if I did, we’d probably still argue over what they really meant (as we are with Fine’s data).
When conducting research, weighing the quantitative versus the qualitative approach is hardly new or revolutionary. Having just recently spent a weekend at a major sociology conference in San Francisco, I can see how that academic field is split between those who spend time gathering large data sets to get at abstract truths and those who spend time observing and interviewing select subjects. Both approaches provided interesting insight. But more and more, I’ve been finding the qualitative approach has more value for me.
Why? Without listing every single study undertaken and tallying all the money spent, I think I can safely assert that over the past two decades, the news industry has spent millions of dollars accumulating data about readers and what they supposedly want. And our industry has responded by altering its products and newsrooms to produce the things that they thought the data told them that readers really wanted. Today, metro newspapers write shorter stories, with faster ledes, and publish more pictures about fluffier stuff. Our leaders have steadily used this data to make decisions that have made newspapers worse every year. Somehow, no one has stopped to consider that no industry has ever solved its problems by making its main product worse. Instead, management points to the data from readers’ survey to insist they’re doing what people say they want. The result is that we’re worse off than ever.
As I noted in my earlier post, research from the Readership Institute does agree with Chris that newspaper readers value the newspaper for a wide variety of reasons that include the journalism but are much broader (advertising, convenience, etc.). And yes, the newspaper industry spent millions of dollars on the work of the Readership Institute, not to mention lots of local readership surveys by lots of companies.
I’ll just say this to Tim: If a data-driven approach was going to solve our problems, wouldn’t it have done so by now? Our executives have been doing what they think the data has been telling them to do, and things are worse than ever. What exactly is the piece of data you feel we’re lacking to begin to address the business crisis the news industry is facing?
I don’t believe there’s a magic data set waiting to be assembled that will lead us to the big “Ah-ha!” I don’t think we’re one reader survey away from figuring it all out. We live in an era where people turn to data as a crutch, leaning on it to give themselves a false sense of certainty. The facts don’t lie, right? Except we know that they do. A lot of such data is formed by the biases and frames through which the questions are formulated, asked, and then interpreted. The newspaper business has failed to recognize its own flawed frames. To this day, no matter what you hear from a newspaper executive, they still believe their primary purpose is to get people to read them in print. It’s why newspapers still spend so much money propping up circulation by subsidizing a large number of people through persistent telemarketing.
Here I must mention the oft-told story that was part of our Newspaper Next presentations: AT&T commissioned McKinsey in 1980 to study the potential market for cell phones. McKinsey’s projection was that by 2000 the worldwide market for cell phones would be about 900,000 cell phones. Our N2 point about this data was that you can’t use market research to study a market that doesn’t exist yet. That point isn’t exactly applicable to the argument of why people buy the newspaper; that market certainly does exist. But it certainly applies to the broader point that newspapers have made lots of mistakes based on data that led us in the wrong directions.
My intention, in the original post, was to point out that within the newsroom, these questions have been asked, and continue to be interpreted, through an incorrect frame: The belief that the primary product customers paid for was journalism. It’s not. I do think that in the newsroom, and in the management suites, many in our industry have failed to grasp the need to reinvent the business side. And even among the most experienced new executives, I think there is truly a failure to understand the dynamics of our business and our relationship to the community. While the functions in the newsroom have evolved (not as much as critics say they should, but still….), on the business side, there’s been little attempt to do anything wildly different than what’s been done before.
Want to consider something wildly different? Check out my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection.
My perspective on the quantitative versus the qualitative approach to product design began to shift two years ago when I became a member of a task force for a project called “Rethinking The Mercury News.” In the summer of 2007, our executive editor at the San Jose Mercury News charged us with zero-basing the newsroom and re-imagining all of our products and newsroom staffing as if we were just creating the company today. Rather than hunting down piles of research data, or commissioning yet another survey of readers, we decided to conduct the research phase using the “design thinking” process. Design thinking seeks to create empathy with the user of a product by using observation and interviewing to allow you to see the world through their eyes, not your own. The goal is to “re-frame” the issues or problems in the hope of pointing toward different opportunities or solutions. Tim thinks my reliance on this is “silly.” I found the experience to be a powerful way to begin to see the world through the eyes of the reader, and not the newsroom. I’m not alone on this. Currently, Gannett has been working with IDEO, one of the leading design thinking firms, to take this approach as well.
In our case, at the Mercury News, we recruited 120 people from across the company, split into teams of three, to go out and conduct wide-ranging interviews and observations of people in the community. In all, the teams interviewed about 120 people. We used the responses and observations to brainstorm, identify themes, and explore potential opportunities. We didn’t look for a scientific sample, or try to quantify the results. In the end, the prototypes we built and the newsroom plan were scrapped. But that’s a tale for another post. And when I have enough distance, I’m going to write extensively about the insights we gained, because I think there’s a lot of value that challenges about things like the future of print and the news consumption habits of our communities.
But the things we heard in those interviews allowed me to see the newspaper through a much different lens than the way I had viewed it as someone working in a newsroom for more than a decade. The insights from that work were largely what drove the content of my Idea Lab post. So yes, those views are subjective. But they’re not just the random musings of someone sitting around and sucking their thumb late one night.
For me, it’s the anecdotes that provide better insight than the numbers. For instance, when I think about the value people find in newspapers as a product, I think about the Fall of 2007, when the Mercury News all but killed its Features sections. We heard next to nothing from readers about that decision. What we did get hundreds of emails about was the fact that we moved the puzzles and comics. That was frustrating to someone who wishes the journalism inspired the same outpouring of outrage. But the deep passion these people had for the print version was still incredibly moving. Here’s the thing: If I called these people and asked them why they get the paper, they may or may not tell me they buy it primarily for the puzzles. But their actions are telling, if not scientific.
I, too, have experience in hearing the reader passion about comics and crossword puzzles. That’s a universal-enough experience among editors that it’s not anecdotal.
And that’s the problem with a lot of data we’ve gathered. You can’t always be sure the people themselves know why they do what they do, or what they really want. Or whether you’re even asking the right questions. During one of my Rethinking interview sessions, my team talked to a woman in her early 40s who spoke at length about how un-interested she was in technology and how she didn’t feel like technology played a role in her life. As she was speaking, she kept taking out her BlackBerry and checking her email. Now, if I’d called her on the phone, and asked her about her interests, I would have checked her off as a woman not interested in technology. But in observing her, I could see that she was. Was she lying to me or was she ignorant? No and no. But she clearly thinks about that topic differently.
To take another example, let’s look at young people and printed newspapers. If there is one piece of data that everyone seems to agree upon, it’s that young people don’t read printed newspapers, right? Its turns out that’s totally false. Over the past two years, as part of the work I’ve been doing for the Knight Foundation (The Next Newsroom Project), I’ve been spending a lot of time visiting college newsrooms, which are far more conservative in their journalism culture and behind the new media curve than professional newsrooms. That was confounding to me for a long time. So what’s going on? The response I heard from college media advisers and college newspapers editors has been fairly consistent: The staffs at college newspapers look around and see all their classmates reading the printed version of the college paper everyday. When they get up in the morning, the newspaper bins are empty. If everyone is still reading the print version, why should they worry much about the Internet and all this new media stuff?
As I’ve considered what that means, I’ve tried this experiment a few times myself: Go into the student union and leave a few copies of the newspaper like the New York Times or the Mercury News on a table. They get scooped up pretty quick.
In fact, the generation that doesn’t read print does read a lot of print. What the surveys have really been telling us is that this demographic won’t pay to have the morning paper delivered every day. But when they encounter a printed product that’s free, is compact, and fits the way they consume news and information, and yes, usually has the crossword and comics, then they’ll consume it in large numbers. Do I think print is the future? It’s a part of it, much bigger than most folks believe, I think. How does this square with all those surveys about the news habits of young adults? Those surveys are being commissioned by news executives who are really just trying to figure out how to get young people to pay for the newspaper. They thought they could do this by altering the content. But what they really needed to do was reinvent the product form (compact, free) to fit into these people’s lives (lots of downtime on a pedestrian campus), and that’s a step that’s too radical to be considered by most newsrooms.
These are insights that I’ve gained not through studying the data, but through the subjective, anecdotal approach.
Back to my main point, I want to clarify something raised by Steve and Tim: I think the reasons that people consume newspapers in print are because of the wide range of things it provides, including the journalism. But not necessarily just because of the journalism. Even if that’s what they tell someone in a phone survey. I base that not on Fine’s data, but on my own work in the field, as they say.
The reason I cited Fine’s data was because inside the newsroom, people continue to think that journalism is THE reason people read the newspaper. And it’s not. My use of Fine’s data was an attempt to knock down that assumption from the point of view of the newsroom. No matter why people say they pay for the newspaper, the data in this case shows they never paid the full cost of the product. That print product contains many services, including journalism. So the direct funding of the cost of our journalism was less than 20 percent. Maybe it was 19 percent, maybe it was 1 percent.
Time here to reiterate my point in the earlier blog comments that the fact that consumers were never paying the full cost of the journalism they were consuming was completely relevant. Let’s say that all newspaper subscribers were buying the newspaper exclusively for the journalism, and none of them buy primarily for the crossword puzzles, horoscopes, comics or ads. The fact that they aren’t paying the full cost of the journalism is entirely relevant. If you’re paying $10 a month for all that journalism, it’s an entirely different consuming decision than paying $50 a month.
If this seems obvious to Tim or Steve, I can say it’s not obvious to the folks running metro newspapers today. Just the other day, one of our editors during a meeting opened up a discussion by saying we have to figure out how to get people to pay for our journalism again. That view is echoed by news executives and is what is driving the push toward paywalls. Fine’s data is pretty clear that readers were only ever paying for a fraction of the cost of the product. And that’s why I think the discussion about paying to read our journalism online is a frustrating dead end. It flows from the myth that once upon a time, my parents paid for the journalism. They didn’t.
That view continues to inhibit the kind of discussion that I think needs to be happening to truly re-invent the business side of our industry and get us back on a path of the kind of growth that will support vital enterprise and investigative reporting over the long term.
I say all this knowing that I’m not going to convince Tim that I’m right. If you need data, then you need data. And I can’t help you there. But in my view, the subjective approach is the strength, not the weakness of my analysis.
Agreed. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion, Chris.