Thursday, May 08, 2008

May Media Month--Newspapers and Opinion

Coincidentally to my focus on the media this month, a new survey says that newspapers in the future will be free and focus more on opinion and commentary.

Opinion? Is that their selling point?

We got opinion all over the place through blogs, PR position papers etc. Newspapers no longer have a stranglehold on barrels of ink and Heidelberg presses. Anyone can publish these days. Free newspapers with an emphasis on opinion? I'll pass.

Newspapers need to provide objective reporting, upon which OTHERS will opine. It's the reporting that needs to be their niche.

The philosophical role of newspapers has been as a mediator of what Jurgen Habermas called the "public sphere." In other words, newspapers provide the forum for the 'public sphere' in which citizens debate. They are a mediator, a medium, hence the "media."

Originally, civic dialogue happened in coffee houses and pubs when citizens talked face to face about local issues. In 1962 when Habermas wrote, newspapers provided information to fuel such discussions. But newspapers were rarely themselves the forum. According to agenda setting theory, they put the issues on the table, and provided some opinion. But newspapers themselves were never a forum for civic debate.

If newspapers want to seize the Internet age, they need to do more of what some have started to do--be that forum. Newspapers could go beyond offering their own opinion in editorials and columns and reporters' blogs. They can go beyond starting the conversation and BE the forum by allowing more dialogue. Some of this is starting to happen at national newspapers, started by USA Today, that allows readers to rank articles or lists articles in order of most read. It's a sort of social media aspect to reading a newspaper. In West Michigan, papers are making their online sites more of a forum as well, though there has been minimal reader response to this option so far. The Grand Haven Tribune's new site allows readers to share or bookmark articles through Digg and Del.icio.us. The Holland Sentinel , in its recently relaunched site, does the same and also allows emailing and commenting on stories. Both the Grand Rapids Press and Muskegon Chronicle, through their (hard to find) pages via Mlive, offer all of the above plus social bookmarking at Reddit, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, the latter to reach the younger readers.

Free papers and a focus on opinion is actually not futuristic--this is really a return to history. Years ago we had the penny papers, and most early newspapers were overtly partisan party organs. Will the future newspaper, with an emphasis on opinion, merely be read by partisans? That does not facilitate civil dialogue, it polarizes us. Plus we can get a cacophony of opinion without newspapers.

The content draw increasingly will be unvarnished fact, which is lost in our multi-mediated, consumer-generated news environment. That's the content of value in the future that will attract readers, which in turn will attract advertisers, which will help newspapers remain viable both democratically and economically.

And THAT means good things for those of us who work in public relations and advertising, who will find new ways to use newspapers as a medium to reach audiences seeking useful, clear, credible information, as well as a place to share and hear their fellow citizens' opinions.

1 comment:

Municipalist said...

Exactly. We don't need no stinkin' opinion! We have loads and loads of opinion already. I think what we really need is journalism. Look at Washingtonpost.com. Text, articles, photos, blogs, chats, discussion areas, audio, live video, archived video, etc. What kind of organization can do that these days? A local TV news station? A blog site? No. Granted, few newspapers have all of those resources in place. But what newspaper have that no other publishing organization has is its one-of-a-kind training. Daily newspaper writing and editing is tough. To do it day after day is not easy. So these people are a natural for a jump to the Next Age. Which will certainly be about a diversity of storytelling platforms. The multimedia moment is here. I think Mlive is the future for newspapers in West and Central Michigan. Which means the thing needs to get better. Get riskier. Get smarter. The readers are fleeing.