I stopped in the store the other day for some simple shopping. Beer, peanuts and some Beef Jerky. Maybe not the finest in culinary selections, but it was an easy trip to the store.
Customer in, customer out.
It’s a great model. For groceries, shoes, luggage and generally most consumer goods and some services.
But what would happen if it was customer in, consumer out. What if customers became discriminating consumers? Things could change depending on what was being consumed.
One area where things have changed is in journalism. Breaking news – journalism is not dead. The delivery system by which we get our news has and as we become more technology savvy, so too has our ability to become strong news consumers. Ask someone where they get their news from and you’ll find that all-too-often, they’ll say the internet, or Twitter or Facebook.
They have no idea as to what the source is. They are, in many ways, becoming more of a news customer than news consumer. They know the site, but not the source.
Large media organizations typically try to present stories that are, as they say in the world of news literacy, Viable, Independent and Accountable. They focus on watchdog journalism and try (nothing is perfect) to present independent and non biased reporting.
According to the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University, an organization that I am now associated with and have attended in-depth seminars at, news literacy, in general terms is “the ability to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports, whether they come via print, television or the Internet.” The goal? To have educated news consumers who have the knowledge to engage in civic actions – whether it’s facilitating change in the community or voting in an election. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan was known for saying “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” Or, as they used to say in the glory days of the old Chicago City news Bureau, “You say your mother loves you...check it out.”
It makes sense. But what if there was a media organization that treated its readers like customers? Let’s say they just put information out there for the sake of putting out there without a trained, responsible editor to ensure its independence. Sounds crazy, no?
But in my little village of Buffalo Grove (with apologies to Sholem Aleichem) that has, and continues to happen.
On Wednesday, Hale Global, the fine folks who bought AOL Patch from AOL, decided they could be a viable news organization without news personnel, so they laid off (there is other terminology that can be used..) hundreds of staff members who doggedly worked to cover one or two communities to give Patch the hyper-local coverage from which AOL had hoped to earn money. Lots of it.
Among the victims was Cristel Mohrman who covered Buffalo Grove for 3 ½ years. Patch, which probably felt one community was just too easy, also tossed Lake Forest at Cristel as well. Cristel was everywhere she could be covering events, taking photos and even video. But that was not good enough for the folks at corporate.
Silly girl. You were treating our customers as news consumers. That doesn’t make money. Just get ‘em in and like sheep to the slaughter, we’ll record the hits to the page and make money.
So now what? Patch will be turned into a collection of PR releases, mommy blogs and public service announcements. The folks at Hale Global probably think that the news consumers in Big Animal Grove won’t know the difference. Independent reporting? Nah. Takes too long. Bias free information? Nah, too expensive. Accountable news gathering? You kidding? That cost money.
So once again the news consumer comes up short. Or as they say at the elevator company, they get the shaft. And don’t think it’s limited to Patch. Pioneer, which once had local offices, beat reporters, now slices and dices its editorial staff members so much the Popeil family would be jealous. They too have focused more on quantity as opposed to quality. To bastardize the New York Times slogan, it’s all the news that fits, we print. Mommy blog? Sure, we’ll fill a page. Old news, sure why not? Seriously, in the Jan. 23 issue of the Countryside was coverage of Kristallnacht – which took place Nov. 9. The prevailing attitude is that news consumers today are stupid, they’ll take anything, so just treat them like a customer – they’ll never know the difference.
Yes they will.
The push for critical thinking skills is allegedly at the heart of the common core curriculum for the nation’s high schools. Unfortunately, it’s not a quantifiable skill like grammar, math and science. And if you mention news literacy, many administrators gasp and say “we already have a journalism class.”
We’re talking critical thinking skills here. We’re talking about using the media as one conduit to encourage news consumers to use independent and nonbiased material when making decisions related to civic responsibilities.
Media organizations that remove this opportunity are shirking their responsibility to news consumers, treating them instead like one-size-fits-all customers.
In a perfect world, media organizations will step back and take stock of what is needed and do the right things to attract, enhance and inform news consumers.
Let’s hope they don’t try to Patch things up.