From AJR,   May 1994

Avoiding The Siren Song of Tabloids   

Moving to electronic delivery could harm papers' credibility.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and hundreds of other newspapers may soon join Xerox, Kleenex and Coca-Cola as, saints preserve us, brand names.

The reason for this is that newspapers are planning to jump onto the electronic information highway, not just as providers of dry databases but as producers of news identified as coming from particular news organizations.

The heft and quality of reporting from a newspaper like, say, the New York Times, already commands respect. The same can be said of the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and other quality dailies.

But the brand name identity also will be extended in the electronic future to less notable newspapers as they funnel their reporting into electronic information systems. In effect, newspapers will seek to maintain the same identity over electronic pathways as they now do in newsprint.

Brand names are supposed to stand for something, and in the newspaper world the factors that count are independence, neutrality and quality. (In the realm of most commercial products, a well-known brand name often is merely the result of a big advertising budget.) Newspapers are depending on brand loyality to count for a lot as they compete with a plethora of other information services.

While recognizing the need to establish identities for the information menus that will bombard consumers in the future, I confess that I have some worries about the impact on newspaper operations of what will be in effect a plunge into the broadcasting business.

We have already seen how the television networks' anxious efforts to shore up sagging market shares have resulted in tabloid-style, news-entertainment shows that have undermined the stature of network news operations.

Self-respecting network news operations may not pay cash to sources for racy stories or not indulge in "recreating" events for the camera (although there have been a few lapses). But these and other practices of tabloid shows, which have all the trappings of a news operation, create confusion in the minds of viewers. In this environment can we expect viewers to understand where the news ends and "Hard Copy," "Inside Edition" or "A Current Affair" begins?

Newspapers will be promoting themselves as brand names because they will want to preserve their shares of the market as the news business increasingly shifts to electronic delivery. I am sure no newspaper editor contemplating the move into electronic delivery, or already engaged in it in a preliminary way, has any thought that tabloid television values will influence newspaper efforts.

What happens, though, if newspapers' initial strategy of providing serious brand name news on computer or television screens fails to hold readers sufficiently to maintain market share? A tabloid approach probably would provide a quick fix, given the public's seemingly inexhaustable appetite for titillation.

The serious newspapers no doubt would be immune to the allure of quick fixes, but there are a lot of others that might not be so pristine if times get tough. There could be no more hazardous approach (assuming adopting television values represents a hazard for newspapers, which I do) than to divorce a newspaper's elec- tronic information strategy from the newspaper's traditional newsgathering operation. Or they could split off the electronic operation and appoint somebody with television news experience to run it.

Newspapers have difficulty enough now maintaining the trinity of virtues – independence, neutrality and quality – that contribute to brand name recognition. However misguided the public may be, numerous polls over the years show that the public relies more on television for news than on newspapers and generally accords television news more "believability." (Survey results are more encouraging for newspapers if limited to those who read newspapers and watch television news.)

A lot of factors contribute to these survey results. High on my list would be the growth in newspapers of the number of vaguely sourced stories and an abundance of "news interpretation" not always adequately identified as such.

And even some serious newspapers have allowed themselves to descend to tabloid-style journalism by picking up from trashy supermarket publications and news-entertainment television shows sensational stories based on inadequate or paid-for sources. The excuse is that once this junk news gets highly publicized, it takes on a legitimate life divorced from its unsavory origins. This reminds me of the old newsroom saw about an unsubstantiated rumor becoming newsworthy once everybody is talking about it.

For whatever reason it's done, sinking to tabloid techniques can only cause more harm to newspapers' brand name credibility. l