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From AJR,   March 1999  issue

Newspaper Research Is on the Cheap   

And we get about what we pay for.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

Who actually wins because of dumbing down the newspaper, letting its circulation drop or go flat in a growing market, and squeezing out the profits as far as possible? There are winners. And there are losers.

The winners are those who ride the profits up and get out, or at least those who emerge better off than some other kind of investment would have enabled them to do.

If they ride the profits up and don't get out, it's not clear. What would have happened to the investment if the product had become healthier, the franchise had been strengthened, the market had been extended instead of curtailed, and more people were reading newspapers (and their advertising)? At what point would shareholders be better off?

And suppose managers thought more about the stakeholders in general, not just the shareholders: the employees, the readers, the community, just to mention three groups that are foolishly neglected in today's most narrow bottom-line fixation?

In Market Land we talk about products instead of newspapers, markets instead of places, franchises instead of monopolies, customers instead of readers, price instead of value, shareholders instead of owners. And sometimes journalism is never mentioned.

Or, at least, it escapes really serious research: research that makes the connection between good journalism and profitability. Charles Layton, in this issue's installment of our series on "The State of the American Newspaper," deals extensively with what drives a lot of short-term newspaper decisions: bad research or badly applied research.

Don't expect a bloody rebellion from those who deliver the research and get paid for it, but some of them are frank enough about the misuses and abuses of their work in recent years.

What other field where real money is at stake would deal so unintelligently with research? Invest so little in sophisticated research? Make so many decisions semiblind?

Quantitative research is usually one-dimensional, often handled by marketing people who don't know journalism or even their own news organizations. Qualitative research? It is almost nonexistent in the industry.

Across the great divide in academic life, research too often is trivial beyond words (but not beyond mockery). Or, if it endeavors to be more serious, it stays high up in the trees, fearful of being useful. Remote, ungrounded, it often reflects a lack of sophistication about journalism that is the flip side of the tone deafness of the marketers.

If real money went into this work it might be different.

The sciences depend upon government to drive research. There we benefit from basic research in unintended ways, learning things far removed from what we had expected to learn. Applied research brings it closer to us.

Journalism lacks a good bridge between good research and good practice, a bridge that would have firm footing at both ends. Money would change that. But the industry will run through a lot more money for other things before it gets serious about research.