When journalists were asked in a recent survey= to identify the most important aspect of their work, 91% said “make my publication successful by creating appealing content for its audiences.”

What a turn-around from the not too distant past when such sentiments would have been denounced in many newsrooms as pandering to the public and giving people what they want, not what they need.

This shift in perspective was predictable in the face of hemorrhaging print circulation and broadcast viewership and the recent precipitous decline in ad revenue, at least for newspapers.

But I think it also should inform some of the recent discussion on this blog about the need for a new business model for journalism, and especially the sentiment that nonprofits might be coaxed to help bail us out of the mess we’re in.

When I hear suggestions that we should be pitching nonprofits and foundations on the need to preserve journalism because of its vital role in democracy, I cringe because I fear that may only perpetuate the problem by allowing us to slip back into the old ways that haven’t worked.

What the journalists surveyed implicitly were saying is that the key to preserving journalism is not charity or even a new business model, but a new and better product on which a new business could be built.

Howard Owens in a recent post on his weblog got to the heart of the issue in his provocatively titled: “Maybe it’s journalism itself that is the problem.”

Howard documented the overall decline of the audience for traditional news media even before the advent of the web and wondered if it was something about how we practice journalism that was the cause. News organizations’ past control of the information pipeline only disguised the fact that the product we thought was serving the public interest actually had relatively little appeal to people.

Interestingly, if you read what people say in public opinion surveys about the kind of journalism they value, they often point to watch-dog reporting and bemoan the lack of in-depth coverage on issues they care about.

It’s not the ideal of great journalism that people reject, but something about the way we produce and package it that’s broken. That’s something on which the public and now perhaps most journalists both seem to agree.

What could a new journalism product look like that might appeal to people and be true to the ideals of informing the public about important issues and nurturing democracy?

It would be a product focused on connecting, something others on this blog have mentioned.

Empty the newsrooms for a week or a month, and have reporters and editors – and even ad sales people – connect with people in the community and talk with them about their lives and what they say they want and need.

Then use all the tools of digital technology to connect people with the information that best meets those needs, whether it’s a database or a map mashup, a guide to local businesses or a space for sharing content.

Then nurture online communities and social networks to connect people to each other and to us, and uncover new connections.

And finally connect those topics and conversations with the larger public policy issues that underlie all of that, but often in subtle ways.

So great journalism wouldn’t be served up as a sermon. Instead investigative articles and in-depth contextual stories would be the end product of a new, bottom-up relationship with the public.

And that might be a product on which a new business model can be built, by selling it to advertisers who want to go where audiences go or selling it to readers who value what we are offering them. And it might be something nonprofits could support, not to preserve the past but to serve democracy and the public interest with a product in which the public is interested.

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