How Newspaper Mission Statements Could Change

May 26, 2009
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The Dallas Morning News celebrated its 21st birthday in 1906 and general manager George Bannerman Dealey, according to the newspaper’s history, spoke the words that guide the management and operation of The Dallas Morning News to this day. Referring to the founders of the newspaper, he said:
They built The News upon the rock of truth […]

The Dallas Morning News celebrated its 21st birthday in 1906 and general manager George Bannerman Dealey, according to the newspaper’s history, spoke the words that guide the management and operation of The Dallas Morning News to this day. Referring to the founders of the newspaper, he said:

They built The News upon the rock of truth and righteousness, conducting it always upon the lines of fairness and integrity, and acknowledging the right of the people to get from the newspaper both sides of every important question.

Fast forward 103 years and I ask you: Has the question changed?

Like other newspapers in its class–The Boston Globe, The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times–stories are written about business, politics, sports, technology, and the arts. But with minor exceptions in names and places, is there truly any difference between the newspapers?

When you consider every newspaper in the United States–let alone the world–covers every speech by President Barack Obama, I ask whether the question has changed.

Today’s political news out of Washington involves the presidential nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. Within hours, I see stories in the New York Daily News, The Salt Lake Tribune, US News and World Report, The Washington Post, and newspaper friends ABC News and ESPN.

Question: What if news out of Washington was only covered by The Washington Post? What if the Post sold reprints to any newspaper who wanted it? That’s how comic strips are syndicated; if a newspaper wants to print Garfield, a financial transaction occurs. Why should hard news reporting be different?

The Christian Science Monitor printed a fascinating op-ed last week by Robert Picard about the stagnancy of newspaper reporting and why a paradigm shift is imminent. I’d like to focus on the following:

Journalism must innovate and create new means of gathering, processing, and distributing information so it provides content and services that readers, listeners, and viewers cannot receive elsewhere. And these must provide sufficient value so audiences and users are willing to pay a reasonable price.

If value is to be created, journalists cannot continue to report merely in the traditional ways or merely re-report the news that has appeared elsewhere. They must add something novel that creates value. They will have to start providing information and knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere, in forms that are not available elsewhere, or in forms that are more useable by and relevant to their audiences.

One cannot expect newspaper readers to pay for page after page of stories from news agencies that were available online yesterday and are in a thousand other papers today. Providing a food section that pales by comparison to the content of food magazines or television cooking shows is not likely to create much value for readers. Neither are scores of disjointed, undigested short news stories about events in far off places.

Some news magazines have confronted the issue and are already changing and trying to provide unique news content. Newsweek has moved away from creating a compendium of events to a publication that explores the issues and implications of events and trends. US News & World Report has emphasized its consumer review and rankings activities.

Daily newspapers don’t have quite as much leeway with content but they can emphasize uniqueness. The Boston Globe, for example, could become the national leader in education and health reporting because of the multitude of higher education and medical institutions in its coverage area. Not only would it make the paper more valuable to readers, but it could sell that coverage to other publications. Similarly, The Dallas Morning News could provide specialized coverage of oil and energy, The Des Moines Register could become the leader in agricultural news; and the Chicago Tribune in airline and aircraft coverage. Every paper will have to be the undisputed leader in terms of their quality and quantity of local news.

Finding the right formula of practice, functions, skills, and business model will not be easy, but the search must be undertaken.

Robert suggests the Dallas daily focus on oil and energy. I go one step further and argue it become the undisputed leader in the industry vertical. Let another Dallas paper cover sports, politics, and movies.

Closer to home, if The Boston Globe follows Robert’s vision of education and health care reporting, then the Boston Herald could focus on politics, sports, and the arts–what it does best, already, today!

         


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