Can we put a price on journalism?
That is the interesting question that John Cokley* raises in his book Shopping News: Agenda Finding, What the Audience Does Before the News. He answers that we can and we should. Because:
(…) the single most important thing missing from journalism in the 21st century has been an ability to judge the cost of supplying journalism products against whatever demand is evident in the community: in other words, no one has seriously conducted a real-world benefit-cost analysis of journalism. (p. 9)
Cokley examines the phenomenon of shopping in order to suggest new business models that can be applied by journalists. In essence, we should see journalism as a product and hold it to common business standards such as value for money, correct labelling and satisfaction levels after consumption.
Cokley suggests that instead of journalists assuming that the readers are interested in whatever they report, we should indeed ask our audiences which problems and issues they are concerned about on a daily basis. Furthermore, journalism should provide solutions to those problems.
It sounds somewhat like constructive journalism but without the grand ideal of making the world a better place, more like being a service or a product. And how do we find these problems or Agenda Finding, as Cokley calls it? Simply by using research methods such as modelling and simulation theory and applying it to journalism, the nature of news would change.
The current way of telling news – the news pyramid – with the main lead first is driving readers away and does little to enhance the value of news reporting, he argues. This is because it makes the product worth knowing but not necessarily buying and he goes further and argues “if we continue to use the old-fashioned journalism tool-box, we’ll go out of business.” (p. 138).
Male Biased News and Newsrooms
Cokley attacks the current news criteria identified in 1965 – consequence, proximity, conflict, human interest, novelty and prominence – for being male biased, like the whole media industry. He partakes an experiment and takes over the cleaning and grocery shopping for his family household for two months in order to examine how his choices on shopping changes with experience.
It does. And it brings him to the realisation that we should see journalism as a product and a media outlet as a shop with a variety of range and prices. He suggests three categories: ‘essential’ like air, food and clean water, ‘useful’ such as clothes and cars, and ‘desirable’ such as a haircut.
How different the news would look if the male editors changed their daily routines on house chores, Cokley argues.
Price and Range
Every news piece should be priced accordingly to its production cost. We should design the news experience after range and price as any other shop, and we should aim for transparency of the process and of course, the need for customer orientation and customer satisfaction.
“Journalists maintain that we have to focus on discovering and reporting the truth, accurately, objectively and without fear or favour. Do we seriously think that audience members don’t also consider this a ‘given’, the basic starting need, the ‘essential’ part of the shopping contract?” (p. 183)
Cokley states that customer satisfaction should be a goal for all journalists and he has provides a simple guide to change the journalist perspective, indeed introduces a new paradigm, where journalism focuses on providing solutions to real world problems.
Shopping News, Selling News
He adds, that instead of reducing complexity in the news stories, let it be enhanced like any chef or a wine storeowner would with their product. If not, we are doomed as a profession simply because:
(…) “the social suspicion out of which journalism grew in the 17th century and which resulted in what we now call ‘watchdog journalism’ has now become our undoing. In an ironic manifestation of the boy who cries wolf, the more journalists tell their audiences that politicians, police and big business owners are not to be trusted, that they must be ‘scrutinised’ and ‘watched’, the more our audiences distrust everyone, including journalists.” (p. 126)
*Disclaimer: Cokley is my former professor at University of Queensland and I have worked as his teaching assistant, too.