News riding on strategy for change

The glacier moves slowly, but it takes everything in its path.

The glacier moves slowly, but it takes everything in its path.

That summarizes the wrenching transformation under way in the journalism industry. The issue for media execs is whether they're at the transformation table or on the transformation menu.

One ponders the future of "news" in all of this.

Shifts in technology are changing the traditional business model. In turn, journalists feel beset on all sides by adversaries, and pressure is growing on what were once trusted brands that provide news and information.

To be sure, the press needs to acknowledge that it owns a big piece of this. Public trust in the press has fallen off a precipice in less than 20 years. Less than a third of our citizens trust the press, according to annual polls from Pew, Harris, and Gallup. In marketing and political terms, that's known as losing your base; and news executives know it, even if they rarely report on their consistently negative poll results.

What can be done? One bright spot is the American Press Institute's (API)"Newspaper Next" project, a $2.5 million program designed to develop and test "new business models to help newspapers thrive in the next decade."

Drew Davis, API president, recently asked me to lead a seminar on the transformation of the newspaper industry. I lived inside the transformation at Kodak, where I held the top communications and public affairs job for more than a dozen years until I retired last year.

The API acknowledges that the program doesn't talk much about journalism. Its goal isn't figuring out the future of news - others are working on that, in its view.

Efforts under way to deal with journalism include the Committee of Concerned Journalists at www.concernedjournalists.org and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen's PressThink blog at http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink.

As good as this activity is, it seems dispersed, aspirational - akin to a "faith-based" initiative for journalists. But there's a need for a disciplined, systemic approach focused on news. In API's Newspaper Next vernacular, what are the "jobs to be done" by the newsroom (print and electronic) in responding to "unmet needs"? One could think of several - perspective vs. information, for example.

Could the press become a consistent champion of debunking fear instead of inflaming it?

Barry Glassner, University of Southern California sociology professor, writes in The Culture of Fear that society pays a price for fear and cites examples of exaggerated news coverage about threats to health and safety. When fear trumps reality, society misdirects its intellectual, financial, and emotional resources.

Is this an opportunity for "trusted sources" in the traditional news media to take the high ground and not be the source for toxic fears?

Remember, journalism is for "building community," write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their book, The Elements of Journalism. The question for journalists and the public is: What kind of community is the press helping to build? And what is the future of news in that community? And are you doing something about it?

Otherwise, without a courageous, disciplined strategy for change, the news industry (and its citizens) will be on the transformation menu - not at the transformation table.

Michael P. Benard, former director of communications and public affairs and VP at Eastman Kodak Co., speaks and writes on communications issues.

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