Pep talk

When I was an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I majored not in journalism but in something called the Honors Program in Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences. (You try cramming that in the “Major” space on a hand-written job or grad-school application sometime!) Many MMSS majors went on to careers in business consulting, investment banking and law. To my knowledge, I’m the only one from my years in MMSS who went into journalism, despite the program’s outstanding training in what journalists would call computer-assisted reporting.

The program was brutal. All-night homework sessions, mind-twisting mathematical models, hard-core computer work. To this day, the word eigenvector persists in my mind, not as the description of some mathematical concept, but as an emotional marker for a deeply confusing two-day study session.

Our professor and the founder of the program, the late Michael F. Dacey, could sense when we were struggling too much. On those days, he would walk quietly into our classroom, pick up a piece of chalk and write on the board: “Pep Talk.”

And we would cheer. No new concepts that day, just recollections of top scholars in math and the social sciences and their struggles as students. Or success stories from other program graduates. Anything, really, that Prof. Dacey could think of to keep us motivated and willing to put in the work necessary to stay in the program.

It’s been a brutal few weeks in the journalism business. Romenesko and, locally, LA Observed are filled with reports of newsroom layoffs, buyouts, falling newspaper circulation and crashing news company revenue.

So, in honor of Prof. Dacey’s precedent, it’s time for a few upbeat notes. A “pep talk.”

  • Newspaper circulation might be down, but online newspaper readership is up. The Los Angeles Times lost more subscribers over the past four years than any other paper in the United States, according to Editor & Publisher. But its website last month topped 100 million page views for the first time, a 34 percent increase in views over the past year.

    Overall, more than 60 million people a month read newspaper websites last year, according to a Nielsen Online Custom Analysis for the Newspaper Association of America. That’s up from 56 million a month in 2006.

  • There’s money to be made online, too. The Walt Disney Company estimated this week that it will make $1 billion (yep, billion with a “B”) selling non-theme park online content this year. Spending on online ads is estimated to increase by 24 percent, to $44.6 billion this year. The same report said that online ad sales will top radio this year, and magazines by 2010.
  • People are re-engaging in civic life. Turn-outs for U.S. presidential primary elections have set records in many states, as the close contests, especially for the Democratic nomination, draw millions more Americans to the polls. The number of people contributing to campaigns is up. And hundreds of thousands of Americans are writing about politics, on sites from DailyKos to RedState — reports that are being read by millions more.
  • The massive number of blogs, and the minutiae available in the blogosphere, ought to lay to rest any accusation that the public is not interested in detail. Sites like the Housing Bubble Blog individually attract tens of thousands of daily readers to examine and argue about details over loans, forecasts, reserve requirements and all the financial stuff that too many editors believe readers will not read.
  • Don’t lose hope for the next generation of readers, either. Many kids at my children’s elementary school are on their third or fourth go-around of the 600-plus-page Harry Potter books. (And it’s not some fancy school for highly literate kids of journalists, either. It’s a public school where half the kids are on free or reduced-price lunch.) Kids will embrace reading, for the right story. And an engaging story can hold their attention indefinitely.
  • People love underdogs, and love to complain about lousy, clueless, idiot bosses running their shops into the ground. That’s a part of many readers’ workday lives. And with that now becoming part of many journalists’ lives, maybe the turmoil within the industry presents journalists with the opportunity to help the public see us as “one of them” again.

    If lousy, short-sighted, uncreative, backward-thinking bosses are running newsrooms into the ground, they are not destroying demand for good, engaging information. More people are reading news, at least online. People are spending more and more money online, and advertisers are spending more and more money there, as well.

    People are not apathetic about politics, about civic life and about reading. They are willing to engage their attention spans and focus on detail, if they see the information available as relevant and engaging to them.

    The market for good journalism — engaging, relevant, accurate and enduring information — lives. What the market is rejecting is the half-baked, lazy and boring reporting that doesn’t stand the test of time — the sort of reporting that understaffed and under-trained newsrooms too often have delivered over the past generation. (See Iraq, weapons of mass destruction; Housing, prices always go up and Elections, stupid personal questions for a few recent examples.)

    That’s the pep talk. Now here’s the challenge: Staying in this field while it transitions from the failing newsrooms of today to the better-managed news companies of tomorrow, the ones that will be able to efficiently deliver the engaging information this enduring news market needs.

    Journalists are not without help there. Grad schools are doing some pretty cool things in training journalists for a more specialized future. (Plug for the bosses: here.) Foundations are throwing millions of dollars at training for mid-career journalists. (Plug number two: here.) Entrepreneurs are funding start-ups. Patrons are setting up non-profits. Even individuals are boot-strapping their way into the publishing field.

    There’s hope. There’s help. Now… go study. 😉

  • About Robert Niles

    Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at