Which Came First?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2005

Which Came First?   

High-quality newspapers tend to be profitable. But it’s not clear whether excellence creates profits or stems from them.

The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age
By Philip Meyer
University of Missouri Press
280 pages; $24.95 paperback

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Quality journalism sells, and you can prove it. Almost.

That is the theme of Philip Meyer's gallant new research report, culminating years of painstaking efforts to bring empirical evidence to the ever-pressing issue of how content affects profits.

Meyer's goal is nothing less than to develop an economic model that defines journalistic quality and then measures its impact, which he hopes is positive, on the bottom line.

As Meyer readily acknowledges, he doesn't fully succeed. But he comes closer than anyone else I know, and bequeaths both a noble goal and a head start through his devoted blending of hardheaded research and softhearted love of journalism.

Meyer is unusually suited for this chosen task. He is a former paperboy, reporter and Knight Ridder corporate officeholder who pioneered computer-assisted reporting and became one of the nation's most respected journalism professors and researchers.

"I have been part of the newspaper business since the age of 14," he writes, "when I delivered The Clay Center (Kansas) Dispatch on a seven-mile bicycle route through the poorest part of town. Newspaper people are my friends. The message in these pages is an attempt to warn and empower them."

But Meyer is far too professional to settle for cooked numbers. His work is scrupulous, his conclusion modulated. He finds "a positive correlation between quality and business success" but recognizes the problem of establishing which one causes the other. "There is very little to suggest," he determines, "that quality is the prime cause rather than an incidental effect of profitability."

My own view is that Meyer may be underselling his findings. But readers should decide that for themselves. This is not an easy book, but Meyer makes it accessible even while dealing with statistics in some detail.

His starting point, though, is simple and elegant. Quoting former Knight Ridder executive Hal Jurgensmeyer, he contends that what newspapers sell is not information but influence. Under his proposed model, as a newspaper's influence grows, so does its value. "If the model works, an influential newspaper will have readers who trust it, and therefore it will be worth more to advertisers."

In testing this hypothesis, Meyer develops a range of fascinating findings. Here is just a sample:

• A paper's accuracy affects how credible the paper seems to its news sources. Credibility among sources, in turn, influences credibility among regular readers.

• Credibility affects circulation success, defined generally as the ability of a newspaper to hold onto its audience. That ability "increases on average by two-tenths of a percentage point for each 1 percent increase in credibility."

• Sources claim to find at least one error in 59 percent of stories. The most damaging are what Meyer calls subjective errors (quotes taken out of context, exaggeration, sensationalism) and inaccurate headlines. Spelling errors "were not considered major" (unless the source's own name was misspelled!).

• Staff size affects circulation success. Over a five-year span, newspapers that added staff held onto more of their circulation than papers that lost staff.

• Staff size also affects accuracy. An additional staff member per 1,000 home-county circulation reduces the error rate by 4.4 points.

• More copy editors lead to cleaner papers. For example, "the number of copy editors explains 25 percent of the variation in spelling accuracy." And treating copy editors better relates to circulation success. "Newspapers whose copy editors score a two or better on the five-point respect scale hung on to an additional 1.5 percentage points" of penetration.

In the end, Meyer finds that quality content is connected to business success but hasn't been proven to cause it. And he makes an astute observation: "The quality of most daily newspapers..varies within a very narrow range. If there were more variance, we might see more dramatic effects."

Interestingly, Meyer--the numbers guy--winds up by veering away from the mathematics of success. "We who wish to preserve the social responsibility functions of the press," he muses, might "turn our attention away from the owners and investors" and look toward "people on the front lines who do the daily work..moral and capable journalists."

This is less the voice of the statistician than the sentiment of the one-time paper carrier, scribe and news junkie. Someday newspapers may have numbers to prove that good journalism means good business. Until then, we must rely on working journalists' dedication to the public interest. That may be Phil Meyer's most salient message.

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