Time for news organizations to learn from their inferiority

I’m in the process of reading Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler. It’s a fascinating book and there’s one particular anecdote that caught my attention. In March of 2000 Hessler was commissioned to write what was essentially public relations material for Dorr-Oliver, a Dutch company that made centrifuges for corn milling. He visited one of China’s larger factories and while there was told by a Dorr-Oliver employee that a competing company’s machines were better.

Later, Hessler was questioned by Mr. Wang, the plant’s manager, as to what this employee had said; after trying to play ignorant Hessler admitted that the employee said the other company’s product was better. Expecting a bad reaction from the manager it’s understandable that he was a little shocked when Mr. Wang said:

You know what? He’s right! Our machines aren’t designed as well as the Westfalia centrifuges. Those machines are better. That’s important for us to know. How can we possibly do business if we don’t know that our product is inferior?

The more I thought about this the more I realized how relevant it seems to be to the current state of news organizations; the difference is that they are refusing to acknowledge their inferiority.

The general sense that I get (and this is largely a gut feeling) from reading statements from news executives is that they believe that their product is superior and the problem simply lies in getting the broader public to recognize that. Instead, they ought to approach the problem through an honest recognition that their product is currently far, far inferior; that is, they ought to approach the situation from reality.

It seems ludicrous to me to on the one hand say that the experience that a news organization offers is superior, trustworthy, etc. while also recognizing the importance of attempting drastic measures to change that experience. If the New York Times offered a truly stunning experience that was far superior to other news outlets both in print and online then that’d be one thing, but if that were the case then they wouldn’t be bemoaning their debt and lack of revenue, nor would they be considering shuttering the Boston Globe, nor would they be needing to undertake such experiments as the Times Reader.

Ultimately, it’s time for news organizations to stop preaching about how trustworthy they are and how they have a stellar history of reporting; that’s not what matters right now. Right now they need to be acknowledging, both internally and publicly, that they’ve fallen behind the times and that they no longer provide an experience nor the content that is superior.

Once that’s done they can start the process of progress. They can put aside their centuries of tradition and start to think like a company that has everything to prove. It’s time for news organizations to start showing how they are progressing and how their experiences are improving instead of just hoping that we as consumers will come to recognize what news executives believe to be self-evident: their superiority in delivering a news experience.

Update: Later today I came across this article from the Columbia Journalism Review that would have been an appropriate link in the above article. The basic premise is that for too long journalists and news organizations have taken the focus off of the experience of the consumer and placed it upon the accolades of the individual journalist and the news organization.