In September Chicago Magazine gave Medill Dean John Lavine his own celebrity profile. Headlined “Campus Revolutionary,” the story’s photo shows Lavine spotlighted and half-smiling, looking like a man in charge. He describes his wave of changes to Northwestern’s journalism curriculum as a crusade — literally — for what’s right. Twice he says it would be “unethical” and even “immoral” to teach journalism the way professors used to (as in, three years ago). Now, he says, journalism students should be compiling audio slideshows, posting to content management systems, and getting to know their “audience.”
Bluntly, newspapers — which used to be Medill’s stock-in-trade when Teaching Media was called simply Teaching Newspaper – are dying. The latest successes in media are those publications breaking the old guard framework: Slate’s talked-about online video magazine doesn’t try to imitate cable news; Politico, founded early this year, delivers hardcore reporting to beltway junkies in any format; even The New Yorker is posting video animations to its web site. Though adjuncts still struggle to explain Photoshop, at least Medill is inspiring students to imagine where media might go (to the dismay, no doubt, of some wide-eyed freshmen who grew up dreaming about the gray, inky paper nestled between their fingers each morning).
Since revolutionaries usually rise from the bottom up, and Lavine’s direction comes unilaterally from the top down, a better title for him might be “dictator” — but the sentiment remains the same. He’s here to “shake things up,” and so it’s easy to peg Lavine as Northwestern’s innovator. But even if the logic sounds right, the methods just don’t. In the Chicago story, a graduate student gripes that he came to Medill for writing, not this “video stuff,” to which Lavine condescends, “Young people don’t understand that if a paper doesn’t sell, it dies.” The implicit argument, then, is that journalists of the future need to sell themselves by any means necessary, and it’s this ideology that makes Medill’s new enforcement of understanding the audience synonymous with pandering.
On the first week of classes, Medill’s welcome-back note to students in Enterprise Reporting was a seven-page memo abruptly titled “What Journalists Should Know about Understanding Audiences.” The subsequent five commandments – because that’s what they are – amount to a thinly veiled rationalization for PR journalism:
I. Audience understanding is intrinsic to good journalism.
II. Audience understanding has been a part of American journalism throughout its history.
III. Audiences are becoming increasingly fragmented in this digital age, which makes understanding them even more important.
IV. Understanding the experiences of our audiences will help us connect with them.
V. Based on what we’ve learned, there are practical things we can do to appeal to our audiences.
Translation: Since “no journalist I know goes after stories that no one will read,” as Lavine puts it, you should aggressively study your audience’s wants and tweak your reporting accordingly—more “Q & A’s,” “How-to guides” and “Pros and cons,” please!
But that assumes audiences know what they want. Medill’s “report” is based almost entirely on focus group analysis within its own school: Students of Steven Duke’s Introduction to 21st Century Media will be intimately familiar with the Readership Institute, a marketing think tank in Medill’s Media Management Center that purports to gauge the future of media “experience.” Readers tell researchers they want to engage more with their media—that they want to read less and deal with less complex ideas. Instead, they want more bites—“something to talk about,” in the Institute’s terminology—and more human-interest, neighborhood-oriented stories.
All of this affirms that Americans don’t really want news at all; they want something that looks like news, makes them feel like they’ve read news without the heavy lifting. The memo repeatedly counter-attacks that “we should still go after the important stories that are essential to informing the public and keeping our democracy alive,” but it’s a hard pill to swallow. Even in new media, journalists are expected to use their intuition—the reason we call them professionals in the first place—to decide how they should deliver compelling, meaningful reporting. The Internet expands the tools at journalists’ disposal—blogs, YouTube, cell phone messages—but who’s to say it defines how they use these tools? Yet that’s exactly what Medill decides: that in the endless white noise of web content, journalists have to ditch good judgment and kowtow to advertising research. “Vary the writing mix to appeal to audiences more.” Don’t worry too much about “committees, budgets, task forces and other bureaucratic activities.” And remember that audiences want news that “looks out for my interests.”
The Readership Institute talks about the future of media as if it’s inventing it, but its research may work out better in theory than in practice. In 2005, the group published joint findings with the Twin Cities’ Star Tribune, whose up-and-coming CEO Gary Pruitt talked at the time about forming a “new paradigm” for daily newspapers. Instead, the Tribune’s resulting redesign drove down circulation at a rate faster than the industry average, and Pruitt surreptitiously sold off the company to a private buyout firm late last year. Medill’s findings failed them. One staffer interviewed by the City Pages said after the fact that you can’t discount the impact the changes had on the Tribune’s journalism itself—“[the fact] that we are fluffier, that we are dumbing down.”
To read the vitriol directed at Pruitt by former Star Tribune employees, you’d think they’re talking about the resentment inside Medill. Chicago Magazine downplays the seriousness of journalists’ rancor, drinking from Lavine’s Kool-Aid. Maybe media does need to change, but maybe the hardest part is deciding who changes it—and how. One longtime metro reporter at the Star Tribune says “[Pruitt] and Anders [a former editor of the Star Tribune] led people to believe they cared about journalism. And when push came to shove, all they cared about was the bottom line.” For that newspaper’s staff, the lesson was that journalists—not marketers—need to take control of their media’s future. In the next few years, Medill may find out the same thing the hard way.