Journalists’ values and customers’ needs: Who defines quality?

By Miles Maguire (University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh)
And Ivor Shapiro (Ryerson University)

About the authors

Miles Maguire (maguirem@uwosh.edu) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, 800 Algoma Boulevard, Oshkosh, WI 54901, USA. Ivor Shapiro (ishapiro@ryerson.ca) is an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism at Ryerson University, 350 Victoria Street, Toronto, ON M5B 2K3, Canada.

Abstract

This longitudinal review and textual analysis compares pivotal contributions to the literature of quality in journalism over the past four decades with equivalent literature on quality control in other industries written over the same period time. The roots of quality scholarship as a branch of management theory can be traced to the 1930s, but it was only in the second half of the 20th Century that quality was recognized as more than a narrow engineering discipline. During that time four major figures emerged: Crosby, Deming, Feigenbaum and Juran. A comparison of their works to those of key figures in the literature on journalism quality (including Merrill, Bogart, Gladney, Kim and Meyer, and Kovach and Rosenstiel) reveal a striking difference concerning the role of customers’ expectations in defining quality. While quality theorists focus on matching products to what customers seek, journalists’ criteria of quality tend to be drawn from their own values. Several questions merit further analysis, concerning not just how and by whom quality may be defined, but the role of corporate and professional culture and the impact of the immediacy of audience response thanks to current technologies.

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Scholarly discussions of journalism quality frequently originate with the work of John C. Merrill, who in the 1960s pioneered an effort to define what makes a newspaper great. The primary tool that he used was the survey, by which he began to identify, and then assemble lists of, indicators of journalism quality as perceived by experts such as professors of journalism. In a seminal 1964 article published in Journalism Quarterly, Merrill acknowledged shortcomings to his approach while expressing hope that his findings might “at least open this rather hazy area to serious consideration and […] perhaps result in further research.” Research into the matter of journalism quality has continued for nearly five decades, but the haziness remains. As Shapiro notes, writing in 2010, “The lack of a widely recognized framework for assessing quality or excellence in journalism amounts to a fog of aspiration.” This paper seeks to inject a set of concepts and a terminology that have been absent from most considerations of journalistic quality by comparing the development of the engineering and management discipline of quality, sometimes called quality control, with the evolution of journalistic considerations of quality since the 1960s. The use of this perspective may not necessarily pierce the clouds that surround the evaluation of journalistic excellence, and could well add another layer of disputation. But given that the body of knowledge about quality is so extensive and has been deployed in so many other fields, it seems reasonable to believe that at least some of the tenets of quality may help to illuminate the discussion of quality in a journalistic context.

The methodology employed is a longitudinal review and textual analysis in which key works on journalism quality are compared with the writings of four major figures in the field of quality management and quality control. This analysis will show how the scholarly discourse about journalism quality has evolved in a way that has been for the most part untouched by the way that approaches to quality have developed in other fields.

Icons of quality

The four quality theorists who have been chosen for review are Philip Crosby, W. Edwards Deming, Armand V. Feigenbaum, and Joseph M. Juran. All four of the men played active roles in the emergence of quality management as a key component of business strategy and operations during the second half of the 20th Century. One indicator of the status that they enjoy in the field is that all four have had prestigious awards, in the form of medals that are bestowed annually, named after them by ASQ, an organization that was long known as the American Society for Quality and that is recognized as the leading international authority on quality.

  • Philip Crosby’s contributions to quality theory can be summarized by a quote from his 1989 book, Let’s Talk Quality: “Zero defects is a symbolic way of saying ‘do it right the first time’” (Crosby, 1989, p. 63). Trained as a foot surgeon, he developed his ideas about quality while working first at Martin Marietta and later at International Telephone and Telegraph. In his view, achieving high levels of quality was possible at little net cost because the expense of reworking defective products or repairing relationships with unhappy customers was so great. If workers could be trained to do things right the first time with a goal of eliminating all errors, long-runs costs would fall enough to offset the initial cost of training and implementing new production methods (Crosby, 1979, p. 121-122). Although Crosby went on to become a highly successful consultant with clients among carmakers, technology firms, and hospitals, his ideas remained controversial within the quality field. Crosby argued that his main goal was to change attitudes about what was possible, even if that meant specifying an impossible goal (Crosby, 1989, p. 67). Other quality leaders, many of whom were trained in statistics, criticized his approach as misleading because it did not recognize the kind of random deviations that they argued were present in any system and could never be eliminated (Crosby, 1989: 79).
  • W. Edwards Deming. Of the four quality theorists discussed in this paper, Deming is the one who has received the most attention in the popular media and who came the closest to getting American journalists to revamp their approach to quality, although in the end his ideas were emphatically rejected by editors at The New York Times. Deming and his ideas about quality were spotlighted in a 1980 documentary by the National Broadcasting Company called “If Japan Can … Why Can’t We?” At the time American companies, particularly in the manufacturing sector, seemed to be falling further behind their Japanese competitors, and so many of NBC’s viewers were surprised to learn that the Japanese credited their success in reducing costs and improving reliability to an American whose name was hardly known in his own country: Deming. Over the previous three decades he had been teaching Japanese managers how to use his methods, which were based on statistical analysis but extended into the realm of organizational culture and management behavior. One of his major contributions to quality theory was his insistence that quality problems were not the result of worker inattention but of bad management. He insisted on the need for corporations to “adopt the new philosophy” of focusing on long-term results and rejecting established standards of acceptable quality (Deming, 1986, p. 26-27). Many executives, not just those at the Times, found his manner off-putting, but he is credited with making corporations such as Ford Motor Company quality leaders (Aguayo, 1990, p. 5).
  • Armand V. Feigenbaum. The phrase most frequently associated with Feigenbaum is “total quality,” which began as “total quality control” and was enlarged to “total quality management.” It is an approach that emphasizes a “systematic body of principles, practices, and technologies” (Feigenbaum, 1961, p. vii) and likewise a systematic approach to identifying and preventing quality breakdowns based on detailed schematics that map out a company’s operations  (Feigenbaum, 1961, p. 177-178). Feigenbaum, who holds a doctorate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the manager of worldwide manufacturing operations and quality control for General Electric Company, before forming his own consulting company, General Systems. One of his contributions to quality theory is the idea of the hidden production capacity within an organization that is caused by the diversion of resources to deal with quality breakdowns that might have been prevented in the first place. Higher quality, he argued, also means greater capacity, leading to more products, more customers, and more profits. But too many organizations, he wrote, “have been spending [their] quality dollars the wrong way” by focusing too heavily on inspection, what he called “appraisal,” as opposed to prevention (Feigenbaum, 1961, p. 84).
  • Joseph J. Juran, a native of Romania, is, along with Deming, credited with helping the Japanese use quality management to become an economic superpower in the decades following World War II.  It could be said that Juran “wrote the book on quality” since his Quality Control Handbook, which first appeared in 1951, became a best-selling standard reference on the topic and was updated numerous times before his death in 2008. Juran helped popularize the Pareto Principle, the so-called 80-20 rule, in addressing quality issues. In Juran’s application of this concept, most problems, roughly 80 percent, could be traced to a handful of items, 20 percent of all potential causes. He used this construct to urge managers to direct most of their attention to the “vital few” while keeping the “useful many” under less guarded scrutiny (Juran, 1995, p. 540). Juran was also known for the “Juran Trilogy,” which broke the quality management process into three phases: planning, implementation, and ongoing improvement. (Juran, 1988, p. 2, 7). In this way he emphasized the need to take a dynamic approach to quality, recognizing that it would take continuous effort to improve quality levels.

In manufacturing, a focus on outcomes

Perhaps the way that quality management differs the most from quality in a purely journalistic sense is the specificity with which it addresses desired outcomes. Quality management adopts a results orientation that is often missing from discussions of journalism quality. In the same year that Merrill published his journal article, two of the major theorists of quality—as understood in a broader industrial context—also published books, although one was actually a reprint of a much earlier work. Both of these books demonstrate a far more pragmatic approach to quality than the one that Merrill articulated.

Deming’s book, Statistical Adjustments of Data, was, true to its name, largely about the technical issues associated with adjusting statistical information, but he begins by establishing a context for what he is about to explain, arguing that the accumulation of data should not be an idle intellectual exercise. Rather, “it must be understood that the purpose of taking the measurement is to use it for doing something,” Deming writes, adding in italics, “The object of taking data is to provide a basis for action.” (Deming, 1964, p. 1.) This is a stark contrast with Merrill’s purpose, to stimulate interest among journalism professors and perhaps provoke “additional … study” (Merrill, 1964, p. 572). In other words, the consideration of journalism quality begins with the idea of studying it some more, whereas quality theorists begin with the idea that the research that they do should be focused on a particular problem that needs to be solved.

Also in 1964 Juran published a slim volume that contained his thoughts on the proper role of managers. The book was called Managerial Breakthrough, and it laid out what Juran saw as the two key responsibilities of the manager: first to establish control over operations and secondly to establish the conditions for an organization to break through to higher levels of performance. In newsroom terms, this kind of approach might translate, for example, into the simultaneous elimination of factual errors in articles and initiation of some project, perhaps an investigation or perhaps the redesign of an existing section, which would lead to a markedly positive response on the part of readers.

By this point, in the mid-1960s, quality practitioners had begun to shift the focus away from control, an inspection-based process by which defective products are caught before they are delivered to customers. In 1961, Feigenbaum published Total Quality Control, a book that urged a systematic approach to quality that would lead to products that would be more attractive to customers, less expensive to make, and less frustrating for workers to deal with (Feigenbaum, 1961, p. 22). In this book, Feigenbaum also laid out his belief that quality cannot be pursued in an ideal, or absolute fashion. Quality, he argued, depends on the circumstances, and specifically on the expectations of the customer. Quality “means ‘best for certain customer conditions’” (Feigenbaum, 1961, p. 1).

If journalism scholars and journalists were largely unaware of these developments in the field of quality management in the 1960s, they were not alone. Many American companies at the time still approached quality as a matter of inspection and detection, spotting substandard products after they were made and trying to keep them out of the hands of consumers. In news-organization terms, we might see the primitive inspection-focused concept of quality as equivalent to the provision of copy desks and proof readers at the expense of strategic assignment and training of reporters and editors – clearly important, but not enough to assure good work. According to Juran’s history of quality management, in the decades immediately after World War II, at most companies “there was no organized approach for quality improvement—for improving the processes so as to reduce the incidence of defects and field failures” (Juran, 1995, p. 562).

In journalism, a focus on editors’ criteria

Merrill expanded on his 1964 article in two books, The Elite Press, published in 1968, and The World’s Great Dailies, published in 1980. The first of these, which proposed a pyramid of the elite press ranked by perceived quality, was “quite controversial” and, perhaps not surprisingly, “received its greatest criticism from those who were unhappy with such lists and rankings” (Merrill & Fisher, 1980, p. xi). For the second book, Merrill abandoned the idea of qualitative rankings and instead, along with a co-author, resorted to “arbitrarily selecting the newspapers ourselves for inclusion” ” (Merrill & Fisher, 1980, p. xi). Nonetheless the authors said they were guided by a set of standards that had been developed through consultation with experts, including an international panel of editors and a cross-section of American journalism professors. While readers played no direct role in determining which papers were among the great dailies of the world, Merrill did acknowledge the connection between a particular audience and a particular kind of journalism. Great newspapers, he said, are aimed at elite audiences whose members are “better educated and have a greater interest in public affairs than the average readers of the mass (or popular) press” (Merrill & Fisher, 1980, p. 9). In this formulation, newspapers that attracted a mass audience, by definition, were not quality newspapers.
The same year, the idea that only journalists are qualified to assess journalistic quality received further affirmation with the publication of Press and Public: Who Reads What, When, Where, and Why in American Newspapers by sociologist Leo Bogart, who wrote: “Editors’ judgments are, by definition, impeccable when it comes to evaluating quality in journalism. Who else, after all, can set standards of excellence?” (Bogart, 1989, p. 239.) This statement comes towards the end of the book, after Bogart has noted two major inconsistencies in his research and just before he is about to address the most important one of all.

The first inconsistency that he noted related to the degree to which readers and editors agreed about what factors were the most important contributors to the value of a newspaper. Since Bogart did not believe that readers had a role to play in judging journalistic quality, he did not ask about their yardsticks for measuring quality but merely about what caught their interest.  Here he found substantial overlap, as four of the top seven items readers ranked highly as important to them were also seen as strong indicators of editorial quality: “the number of letters to the editor, a high ratio of illustrations to text, a high ratio of staff-written copy, and a high ‘readability’ score” (Bogart, 1989, p. 198). Such a finding would seem to undercut the premises on which Merrill, Bogart, and many other journalism scholars have proceeded—that news audiences are unqualified or unequipped to judge journalistic quality and that therefore there must be irreconcilable differences between producers and consumers of journalism when it comes to evaluating news coverage.

The second inconsistency noted by Bogart related to the effect of improved content quality on business success. Bogart was especially concerned about the possible link between editorial quality and business success, as measured by circulation. But his data showed no obvious link, as papers that were gaining readers and those that were losing readers were “objectively identical” in important aspects of their editorial practices (Bogart, 1989, p. 200). Bogart argued that this disconnect suggests that circulation losses were the fault of marketing, “problems of selling and promotion,” as opposed to editorial decisions (Bogart, 1989, p. 200). Editing, for him, was one thing; distribution another thing entirely. While that dichotomy reflects a traditional and well-grounded value on a “church-state” separation of editorial and publishing functions, it also highlights how far the idea of a systematic “total quality” approach—encompassing both content and distribution strategies—was from the journalistic mindset of the time.

A third major discrepancy that Bogart found further illustrates the way that the tenets of quality management were not part of newsroom culture in the early 1980s.  He cited several surveys that showed the editors simply did not know their readers as well as they thought they did, in some cases significantly overestimating and in other cases significantly underestimating reader interest in certain kinds of stories. One practical result of this mismatch was that editors were running more feature material than readers said they wanted. As a result their efforts to “build audience rather than to enhance editorial quality” seem to be meeting neither objective (Bogart, 1989, p. 245).

Bogart’s influence in shaping the way journalism research has approached quality can be seen in the way his 1980 book, reissued in a second edition in 1989, formed the basis for two quality assessment articles published in the spring 1990 Newspaper Research Journal. Lacy and Fico’s “Newspaper Quality & Ownership: Rating the Groups” used a news quality index based on Bogart’s and supplemented seven of the attributes identified by newspaper editors with one additional measure to gauge the workload of reporters. The researchers found no “systematic effect” on quality that was based on group ownership. They argued for more studies of this type and made clear that they believed that readers were unable, on their own, to discern editorial quality. Like Bogart and Merrill before them, Lacy and Fico operated on the assumption that readers would not be able to form accurate assessments of news quality without an assist from experts. Since the researchers were worried that newspaper chains could cut back on spending to achieve news quality, they suggested the development of “systematic quality indexes to identify those newspaper groups and even individual newspapers that are providing low levels of quality” and then making these evaluations available to readers for “the newspapers they receive” (Lacy & Fico, 1990, p. 52).

The second Newspaper Research Journal article, Gladney’s “Newspaper Excellence: How Editors of Small & Large Papers Judge Quality,” relied on a survey of editors from papers of various sizes to test Bogart’s assertion that “editing appears to be a profession whose members really have common values.” The results were mixed, with general areas of agreement but also findings that small-paper editors put more value on the role that a newspaper plays within its community. Gladney raised the possibility of a survey of the public to clarify the expectations of community service by small papers, but for the most part his work supports the status quo idea that standards of journalistic excellence are the province of journalists, journalism educators, and journalism scholars and critics. (Galdney, 1990).

Half a dozen years later Gladney returned to the issue of quality assessment at large and small papers but this time focused on the ways that readers would or would not agree with the judgments of professional journalists. As Bogart did before him, Gladney, using a survey methodology, found that readers and editors “agree … on the most important standards of newspaper quality.” These were identified as “integrity, strong local news coverage, impartiality, accuracy, editorial independence, and good writing.” But, again like Bogart, Gladney found that editors misunderstood readers in significant ways, overestimating the public appetite for scandal and underestimating its desire for through, serious reporting. Some of the things that mattered most to editors, such as design and staff enterprise, did not matter nearly as much to readers, who said they put greater emphasis on a “lack of sensationalism and decency” than did editors (Gladney, 1996, p. 327).

From customer input to corporate culture

During the 1980s a range of industries had experienced what Juran called a “quality crisis” that “forced many Western companies to reexamine their approach” (Juran, 1988, p. vii). This reconsideration necessarily entailed further analysis of a subject that many executives may have considered already well-settled: how to define quality. But as Juran pointed out, “Reaching agreement on what is meant by quality is not simple” (Juran, 1988, p. 15). Juran’s preferred definition of quality is “fitness for use”  (Juran, 1988, p. 15), but he acknowledges that even this short phrase is problematic because it can encompass two distinct realms: product features that satisfy customer needs or, conversely, an absence of defects. In the end, he argues, the precise definition that an organization chooses to use is not nearly as important as making sure that everyone working in that organization shares the same understanding of what the word signifies (Juran, 1988, p. 18).

This problem of defining quality is an issue that other quality management theorists also addressed, or continued to address. A decade earlier Crosby had defined quality as “conformance to requirements,” again reflecting the idea of quality as a relative rather than absolute measure. A Cadillac, he said, was a quality car so long as it conformed to the requirements of a Cadillac. At the same time, a Pinto could be a quality car so long as it “conforms to all the requirements of a Pinto.” This approach, Crosby argued, would help to clear up other misconceptions about quality, such as that it cannot be measured and that it is costly (Crosby, 1979, p. 17-18).

Deming had also explored the challenges in defining quality, as well as the potential pitfalls in reacting to customer input. In his 1986 book Out of the Crisis, Deming noted that certain fields, such as education and medical care, present especially difficult problems in quality definition and measurement. But across all fields, he argued, the problem is the same: trying to take what customers are saying now and extrapolating from that to what customers will want in the future. While many quality theorists privilege the role of the customer in setting quality standards, Deming was cautious. The customer does not understand the product well enough to speculate about how it should be improved—such decisions belong to the producer. According to Deming, “A consumer can seldom say today what new product or what new service would be desirable and useful to him three years from now, or a decade from now” (Deming, 1986, p. 182).

As a result, a producer needs to proceed in a systematic way to make use of customer input using an approach that is sometimes called the Deming cycle, although Deming credited it to Walter A. Shewhart, a mentor and a Bell Labs scientist who is often described as the inventor of statistical quality control. The four step Deming/Shewhard process consists of planning, doing, checking, and acting, so that a new feature or product is designed, marketed, tested for customer acceptance, and then revised based on customer response. In Deming’s view successful companies repeated this cycle in a “helix of continual improvement of satisfaction of the customer, at lower and lower cost.” But the producer was always the driver of the process. Product improvements do not come from talking to the customer, Deming said, but “by knowledge, imagination, innovation, risk, trial, and error on the part of the producer” (Deming, 1986, p. 182).

The latter formulation will, perhaps, strike journalists and journalism scholars as more familiar than some other concepts surrounding quality engineering, and not only because it seems close to the way journalists think about leading rather than merely following audience interests. Unlike products that are mass-produced from a die or template, journalism’s most important products are produced from scratch day-by-day or minute-by-minute as a result of new-found original knowledge and the exercise of producers’ knowledge and imagination. (On the essential part that “imagination” plays in the production of journalism, see Adam, 1993.)

Understanding and managing quality, therefore, may start (in the minds of quality theorists but not journalists) with understanding customer’s needs, but for Deming and others, it by no means ends there. As quality management evolved from its factory roots in measuring and improving production processes, the leading theorists placed greater emphasis on the need to change management practices. As Juran noted, quality management practices were based on ones that Japanese companies had successfully deployed in rebuilding after World War II. He cited four in particular: upper management taking responsibility for quality, expanded training, a focus on rapid quality improvement, and workforce participation (Juran, 1989, p. 13). In Out of the Crisis, Deming enumerated “14 points” that he said were necessary for the transformation of Western industry.  His list included such things as adopting a new management philosophy, eliminating employee performance evaluations, and breaking down barriers between departments. At this point quality theory had evolved from the rather narrow field of statistical analysis to an all-encompassing approach to improvement. In Deming’s words, “The 14 points apply anywhere, to small organizations as well as large ones, to the service industry as well as to manufacturing” (Deming, 1986, p. 23).

As noted above the quality theorists had a results orientation that is usually missing from the journalism scholarship. The heart of the matter, they felt, was no less than changing corporate culture (Crosby, 1979, p. 130). For quality improvement to occur, they argued, it had to operate on a systematic level rather than focusing on individual performance. Both Juran and Deming specifically warned against the use of slogans and exhortations to raise quality. “Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force,” said Deming (1986, p. 24). Juran emphasized the importance of specific goals with clear plans and assignment of responsibilities to meet those goals (Juran, 1988, p. 3).

In the 21st Century: what do customers (and audiences) want?

By the turn of the 21st Century perceptions about the role and importance of quality management had changed profoundly, although the underlying reasons were the subject of dispute. Garten in 2000 noted that few CEOs of major American corporations continued to see quality as a major concern. But it wasn’t clear whether the shift had occurred because quality principles were being ignored once companies put the matter of product defects behind them or if quality principles were getting less attention because they had simply become integral to standard ways of doing business. Garten also noted that the heightened intensity of business competition, manifested in part by decreased loyalty toward employees, made it increasingly difficult for executives to focus on quality, even if they wanted to (Garten, 2000).

By the end of the first decade of the new century, three of the four major voices of quality management were dead. Only Feigenbaum remained, and his writings—while still based on his background on quality—had shifted their focus, away from defect prevention and toward larger issues of management and innovation. In a 2003 book, he emphasized the concept of what he called “quality value,” although he did not provide a precise definition. In the new business environment, consumer sovereignty had reached new heights, as customers had come to expect products that were both essentially perfect and economically priced. In addition they had come to believe that products should be tailored to their specific situations, or “customer-determined” (Feigenbaum, 2003, p. 179). Companies that could show that they had improved quality based on quantitative measures were still falling behind in quality as perceived by their customers, Feigenbaum warned.

Among journalism scholars and practitioners, concerns about quality and excellence continued to draw attention and study in the new century, even as the economics of the business deteriorated at an alarming rate. While most other industries had long come to adopt the idea that business success was dependent upon quality products and practices, in journalism quality remained the province of the experts, generally journalists and academic researchers.

In a work published first in 2001 and revised in 2007, U.S. authors Kovach and Rosenstiel, reporting on the work of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, described a consensus that the social purpose of journalism is ‘‘to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing,’’ and ten ‘‘elements’’ involved in  achieving this goal. These address journalists’ obligations of truthfulness and verification, their duties of loyalty to citizens and independence from those they cover, their role as monitors of power and providers of ‘‘a forum for public criticism and compromise,’’ the need for journalism to be interesting, relevant, comprehensive, and proportional, the need for journalists to exercise freedom of conscience, and ‘‘the rights and responsibilities of citizens’’ (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007).

By now, a consensus on editors’ quality criteria had emerged. In 2004, Bogart concluded that U.S. editors and journalists shared a vision of quality including “integrity, fairness, balance, accuracy, comprehensiveness, diligence of discovery, authority, breadth of coverage, variety of content, reflection of the entire home community, vivid writing, attractive makeup, packaging or appearance, and easy navigability” plus, less explicitly, ‘‘clear differentiation of reporting and opinion’’ (Bogart, 2004, p. 40). Kim and Meyer (2005) found that editors’ ranking of criteria produced five broad categories of quality: ease of use, localism, editorial vigor, news quantity and interpretation.  And a study of Canadian and U.S. online news editors by Gladney, Shapiro and Castaldo (2007) found that while the online news people placed high value on navigability, their ideas on what constituted quality in news content differed little from the ideas expressed by newspaper journalists over the previous decades.

Not dissimilar in essence, although somewhat different in terminology, are the statements made by Quebec journalists as well as executives and managers in qualitative interviews conducted by Marcotte. These subjects evaluated journalism in terms of the kind of news covered (hard or soft), its relationship in subject matter to matters of public interest, its “proximity” to audiences in non-geographic terms, its impact and usefulness, its being “interesting” in terms of story-telling and a degree of entertainment. The interviewees also cited the concept of “added value” beyond raw news, and the importance of investigative reporting (Marcotte, 2008).

But how do journalists’ peer expectations compare with what audiences want? The Readership Institute at Northwestern University, which was established by newspaper publishers and CEOs with support from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, painted a broad picture of what journalism’s consumers want out of journalism. (“Newspaper Experience Study,” 2003). Its results indicated that the top motivator for reading the newspaper is that it is a daily habit (“a regular part of my day”). The runner up is that the paper “looks out for my interests,” that is: “Reading the newspaper helps me to participate and get the most out of being a member of the community.  To not read, even for a short time, would be to become socially isolated and disadvantaged.  The newspaper acts as a watchdog for citizens and society.  It makes me enjoy the community more by helping me plan what I want to see or do.”  The third, fourth and fifth most highly ranked motivators were that the paper provides something to talk about (“…The newspaper helps me give information to other people — something I really enjoy”); makes the reader “smarter” (“Reading the newspaper is educational for me; I learn a lot from both the editorial and the ads…”), that it provides information about “people I know” in the community; and that it “touches and inspires” the reader.

The following table compares audience “experience,” according to the 2003 Northwestern study, with Bogart’s 2004 “consensus” of editors’ quality criteria. Included as reader experiences are only those expectations that either showed above-average correlation with readership (measured by time, completeness and frequency) or garnered an above-average level of agreement from readers. (Double asterisks indicate an aspect with above-average scores for both correlation and agreement; a single asterisk indicates  a correlation with readership but not agreement). The items are ranked on this list according to their correlation to readership.

Audience expectations

**Regular part of my day

**Looks out for my interests

**Something to talk about

**Makes me smarter

**People I know

**Touches and inspires me

**High quality, unique content

**I connect with the writers

**My personal timeout

*Makes me more interesting

*Commands my attention

Taking a stand

My dining companion

Grabs me visually

Makes me want to read

Pass it around

Ad credibility

Ad usefulness

(“Newspaper Experience Study,” 2003)

Journalists’ criteria

Integrity

Fairness

Balance

Accuracy

Comprehensiveness

Diligence of discovery

Authority

Breadth of coverage

Variety of content

Reflection of entire home community

Vivid writing

Attractive makeup, packaging or appearance

Easy navigability

Clear differentiation of reporting and opinion

(Bogart, 2004, p. 40)

Comparing what editors and audiences value in their papers, one can, with some thought, discern echoes. The value placed by editors on authority seems easy to marry with readers’ need to feel smarter; the same arguably goes for the editors’ comprehensiveness, breadth of coverage, and variety of content. The editors’ reflection of entire home community echoes readers’ interest in people I know. Both editors and readers value style and presentation. (Editors: vivid writing, attractive makeup, packaging or appearance, easy navigability. Readers: commands my attention, grabs me visually; makes me want to read.) But, as we have argued elsewhere, it is harder to marry the interests of journalism’s audiences and speakers when one focuses on answers pertaining to:

1)    Virtues: Other, perhaps, than “ad credibility” and “ad usefulness,” there is nothing in the readership experience statements to indicate an interest in the more ethical aspirations of editors, such as integrity, fairness, balance, accuracy, diligence of discovery and the differentiation of reporting and opinion.

2)    Emotions: The editors’ interests seem largely intellectual, detached and technical, while audiences want to be touched and inspired. They also want their paper to take a stand (a desire elucidated in the study as follows: “I like to hear other people’s opinions.  I would like to see the newspaper take positions on more issues.”) (Shapiro & Maguire, 2011.)

This comparison seems to underline the millennial conclusion of Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi and Damon that journalists, their audiences, scholars, and shareholders of media corporations “differ sharply in their aspirations.” While journalists and audiences concur only on broad notions such as truthfulness and fairness, other professions have achieved a much higher degree of alignment between the generally accepted values of the profession and those of the culture in which they work (Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi & Damon, 2001).

Should journalists be content to formulate their own ideas on quality, or should their customers’ expressed needs prevail?  If the trouble with producers driving quality discourse is a kind of post-modernistic subjectivity (“we will decide when our own work is good and what makes it good”), the trouble with customer satisfaction as the driving rhetorical force is that it would seem to strive for a modernistic moral neutrality (“whatever the customer wants is good”).  We suggest that a productive approach would involve, not a choice between journalists’ values and customers’ needs, but one that involves a dynamic exchange, and creative tensions, among journalism’s participants (producers, subjects, sources and audiences). Audiences might, for example, respond more directly to rhetorical technique and “edge” than to independence and verification, but the latter methodological values will arguably prove vital in the long term to maintaining not just journalists’ distinct social identity but their compact with audiences. Meanwhile, as current media technologies continue to force producers and audiences to interact and respond dynamically to one another, it seems inevitable that not just content but the underlying values of journalism will evolve in response to audience expectations.

This consideration of diverse understandings of the definition and measurement of quality, while by no means comprehensive or complete, must draw to a close now with more questions raised than answered. It may be helpful to list here the questions that seem to merit further analysis. They are:

  1. Whose point of view should predominate in deciding the degree to which journalistic quality has been achieved? Is it the impact on audience/customer, the values of the journalist/producer, or some kind of interaction between the two?
  2. What is the best definition of quality? Specifically, is it measured by defects or characteristics? Is it a deal-breaker (something that will keep producers from meeting their goals) or a ticket for entry (something that must be done as a baseline)?
  3. What are the dynamics of quality definition? To what extent does the meaning of quality change over time?
  4. What is the role of corporate or professional culture in achieving quality?
  5. What is the Internet’s impact on the idea of quality in journalism? Given the speed at which customers may now “buy,” respond to and correct defects, to what extent is the question of quality increasingly ipso facto resolved by instant audience reaction, to which news organizations either must adapt, or die?

References

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