Reality-Show Journalism?

"It seemed like a good idea at the time."

This sheepish and quintessential explanation of really bad ideas put forth into the world was uttered, I'm sure, by the backers of the Ford Edsel, New Coke, Clear Beer, OK Soda, and numerous other marketing fiascos. It was also undoubtedly mumbled by publisher Katharine Weymouth, or whoever in the Washington Post marketing department came up with the quickly-retracted idea, this past summer, of charging advertisers up to $250,000 to mix with the newspaper's editors and administration officials.

However, as Politico reported at the time, Weymouth said that the paper, which lost $19.5 million in the first quarter of the year, would "begin to do live events in ways that enhance our reputation and in no way call into question our integrity."

All well and good. Lord knows, the publishing industry is in a combination of flux and freefall these days, with all sorts of new ideas being generated to attract readers and income, from non-profit news gathering to restructured revenue models that are far more multi-media and complex. And nobody's quite sure, at this point, how it's all going to settle out.

But not every idea is a good one.

Take this email I received last week from the Washington Post, headlined:

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I'm guessing that I received the email because I've signed up to get daily news headlines and links sent from the Post to my email account. Perplexed, I scrolled down past this lively cartoon television set dressed in a suit and holding a microphone:

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to see the following invitation issued to me and, I assume, everyone else on the Post's mailing list:

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Where to start?

There are, absolutely, many talented thinkers and writers out there who simply haven't been discovered by the mainstream media outlets yet. I find wonderful writing on individual websites and in small publications every day. So if the Post wants to bring some of those voices into the fold, or give new writers a chance, I'm all for it. It's the approach that disturbs me.

Reality show entertainment, for better or worse, is here to stay--for at least the foreseeable future. It's cheap to produce, and there seems to be a market for the competition and contestant hope/humiliation/victory stories it provides. (Even if some of the drama is artificially created, as I discussed in a previous post.) But no matter what else reality shows are, they're entertainment. And not even high-level entertainment, at that.

Much criticism has already been leveled at the field of journalism for leaning too far toward entertainment, especially in the realm of cable television; of caring more about the entertainment/sensation factor than a serious dissemination of information, news, and analysis. But, you know, that's TV. Print journalism--especially print newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post have tried to hold themselves to a higher standard. Or so I thought. Certainly I know journalists at all those publications who take their job of researching, analyzing, and writing complex and important stories very seriously. They work hard at their craft, and try very hard to get it right.

I'm sure some would beg to differ, but to my way of thinking, if a paper wants people to take its content and writing seriously, turning the recruiting of new writers into a hyped reality-show entertainment contest seems like an appallingly bad idea. It certainly doesn't seem like an event that "enhances the Post's reputation." And I'm not even sure what it does for the paper's integrity.

I'll even go out on a limb and wager that the paper's editorial director didn't come up with this plan because nobody could figure out a better way to find new columnists. Just off the top of my head, I can think of several better ways to find new writers and give them a chance:

1. Actually advertise for the position, even if it's unpaid.
2. Ask the paper's current editors and writers what writers, blogs, websites, or other sources they read and respect, and recruit from there.
3. Sift through the writing of laid-off journalists who would give a lot for the chance to write for the Post, but wouldn't on their worst day submit themselves to a reality-show humiliation experience. There are a lot of talented people on that list.
4. Ask interested readers to submit 10 sample columns, and select the gems that shine through.

Clearly, the Post isn't doing this as the best way to get good writers on the staff. It's an entertainment/buzz ploy. But even on that front, I"m not sure the Post's reality show will be all that entertaining. Typing isn't much to watch. And if I want to see pundits go after each other, I can turn on CNN or any other cable station and watch polished professionals in the ring. 

But the biggest question I have about this new marketing approach is how its advocates think it fits with the paper's identity. What, exactly, is the Post trying to market itself as? Is it a serious news publication that we're all supposed to read for its high-quality, professional reporting and analysis? If so ... this contest doesn't exactly burnish that image. If the paper wants to be a hip, fun, entertaining, and light-hearted good time ... well, this fits, but I'm not sure "writing lite" is what Ben Bradlee or Katharine Graham spent all those years trying to achieve.  

The world is changing, and so is the publishing industry. But chasing younger, hipper trends isn't always a successful strategy--especially for a product whose success has been built on something more long-lasting, mature, and revered than the youth vote. Just ask the folks who came up with New Coke.