Wednesday, January 7

Surfing For Survival: The Fourth Estate

"But what if the old media dies much more quickly? What if a hurricane comes along and obliterates the dunes entirely? Specifically, what if The New York Times goes out of business—like, this May?" — Michael Hirschorn, The Atlantic

When The New York Times released an October earnings report that revealed drastic measures must be taken or the paper would be forced to default on $400 million debt, some people, including journalists like Hirschorn, woke up wondering what if what once seemed like a slow a painful death for print might be hastened before they could develop a viable online business migration model. And what would that mean for journalism? And what would that mean for public relations?

The New York Times is not alone. Any time I spoke about social media last year, I carried some disappointing circulation statistics with me — most papers were down double digits: Boston Globe, down 10.1 percent; Philadelphia Inquirer, down 11.0 percent; the Miami Herald, down 11.8 percent; the Detroit News, down 10 percent; the Houston Chronicle, down 11.6 percent. And that says nothing about the Tribune Co. bankruptcy.

A few weeks ago, Thomas Mitchell, editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, noted "Information wants to be free, reporters want to be paid" in a column that reminds readers that newspapers survive to provide substance. He's right. Anyone can offer up opinion. Anyone can cater to the masses for link love and pats on the back. But not everyone will "sit through the council meeting and sift through the volumes of bureaucratic paperwork" or be able to disassemble and reassemble it in order to objectively educate the public as to what it means to them.

True enough, as that was the same point Paul Mulshine, opinion columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, made in the The Wall Street Journal. And I heard similar comments while sitting on a panel with Bruce Spotleson, group publisher at Greenspun Media; Jon Ralston, columnist and commentator on state politics, and Flo Rogers, general manager of Southern Nevada's KNPR. Increasingly, the public seems more interested in news that supports their worldview than the last remnants of objective journalism.

Sure, the old model must change. But what newspapers need to remember is they can't wait for someone else to invent it. Most models will be different. Some might shrink print content while driving more readers online for additional content. Some might create online communities for the strongest sections. Some might place a greater emphasis on another medium like video. Some will attempt to give up the one-way new stream and encourage journalists to engage the public, something BusinessWeek seems to be experimenting with, but with mixed reception. And some, well, some will surely just lay down and die. But what if they all did?

Ethics & The Fourth Estate

It's a question I ask myself every year while I prepare to teach public relations skill sets that seem a little less valued today than they were last year or the year before that. Do they even know that the burden of business ethics might fall all the more on their shoulders? That's one question Bill Sledzik, associate professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Kent State University, has on his mind as well.

"I worry that too many PR types will place client interest ahead of public interest, expediency ahead of ethics," he writes. "They have in the past, and social media makes it that much easier today."

He might be right to worry. Even where there aren't ethical lapses, the slips seem more frequent (even among those who profess transparency). There are a few who already seem all too comfortable walking right up to the ethical line (if not crossing it) or redefining it to fit their needs. Even more don't really understand ethics all that well. When I share ethical challenges in a class, for example, the informal fail rate has been as high as 90 percent.

It may get worse before it gets better. A survey recently conducted by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) and the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) reveals that the declining economy might increase the risk of legal and ethics violations in business. In fact, more than 85 percent of 600 compliance and business ethics professionals felt that the current economy greatly or somewhat increases the risk of compliance and ethics failures with only one percent offering a contrarian opinion. (The complete survey results can be downloaded here).

"There's good and bad news here," observed Roy Snell, the CEO of SCCE and HCCA. "We're finding that companies are increasingly seeing compliance and ethics as an integral part of their business and not a luxury to be discarded during an economic downturn. But, at the same time, we're seeing stagnant budgets or potential declines in resources at a time of increased risk for failures. That's creating a gap that could prove to be a dangerous chasm for business to cross."

And what if they do cross it? Without a viable Fourth Estate, there may be less risk and consequence. Yesterday, it used to be a suitable ethical review sum up to end with a single quip — unless you would be proud to see what you say or do on the front page of The Wall Street Journal or New York Times, then don't say or do it. Today, you can buy space on the front page instead. And tomorrow, there might not be one to care.


Anonymous said...

Ethics, I fear, is becoming a rare beast.

An increasing number of students think nothing of cheating on tests, plagiarizing papers, lying during job interviews, or dawdling at work. Somewhere, somehow, it seems unethical behavior has become the norm...or, at the very least, tolerated.

Last spring, I worked very hard to acquire what appeared to be a promising account but bowed out when I began to sense a "do whatever it takes to beat XYZ" attitude that I felt was beyond fierce competitiveness.

Excellent post, Rich, on a very important topic. Looking forward to what others have to say.

Anonymous said...


The fundamental problem with newspapers is they don't know what business they are in.

They are ad publishers. Everything else, from op-eds, to cartoons, to news coverage, is bait.

The newspapers failed at objective journalism, but they mostly failed at advertising (craigslists, job boards, social networks).

You don't get paid for being noble, ink-stained wretches, and while we might worry about the loss of newspapers, they've failed to manage themselves effectively.

It is a loss for the country, and the blame falls solely on those titans of industry. The problem is they are so unsufferably arrogant, half the country is glad to see them go.

And that's a problem for all of us.

Rich on 1/8/09, 12:24 PM said...


When I did some ethics related posts last year, some people suggested that being unethical was to envied.

I almost fell out my chair. I guess we shall see what the changes will bring and then which way the pendulum will swing as a consequence.


Great to see your comment Jim. Right on the money.

I don't what to see them go because of what they are supposed to be. But if they are not willing to evolve, then there is no other option but to watch them close and, again, suffer the consequences of a nation without real objectivity.

I'm a huge fan of Walter Lippman, who believed distorted information is inherent in the human mind and only by seeing through stereotypes can we find partial truths. But when the objective journalists he helped create came to learn they set the agenda or even change the world, they didn't realize that they were abandoning one trait that helped set them a part.

Objective journalism works IF it can maintain trust (although the public doesn't have a taste for it at the moment). Otherwise, all that is being offered is just another blog post, printed or not.

All my best,

Kate Richardson on 1/9/09, 6:34 PM said...

Nice post Rich.

There's been some healthy debate and general slagging of newspapers recently, but your point about journalists wading through oodles of bureaucratic paperwork struck a chord with me. Whilst a lot of news is simply re-hashed PR releases, true investigative reporting and in-depth analysis is what I love about some of the great newspapers.

Have you seen this discussiom over at Laurel Papworth's blog?

Rich on 1/9/09, 8:19 PM said...

Hey Kate,

Thank you for the comment and link.

I'm with you. I love true investigative reporting and in-depth analysis. I love objective journalism. And I believe that some might still evolve online (at least I hope). I love Thomas Mitchell's posts as much as I love Jon Ralston's mostly objective objective political reporting (I say mostly only because he said there is no such thing).

Although I believe each paper will face situational challenges, I'm interested in finding ways to make them work. In some cases, perhaps redirect back to what made them great as in the days my professors (Pulitzer winners) spoke so fondly about.

But if we cannot (Dave Fleet says it is impossible), then I need to think about what is next and how to prepare students, professionals, and clients in communication.

All my best,


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