"Society gets the type of journalism it deserves and is willing to pay for," says MSU professor

Jun 21, 2018

Renowned Michigan State University journalism professor Steve Lacy is retiring. He joins me on MSU Today to talk about the state and future of this important field. Revenue is a key challenge, he says. And we all need to become more media literate in order for journalism to work better for all of us.


Russ White:    I'm Russ White, welcome to MSU Today. My guest is esteemed and renowned Michigan State University journalism professor, Steve Lacy, who's retiring again. He's retired a couple of times, but people keep asking him to come back. But Steve, it's great to catch up with you about this important field today.

Steve Lacy:    Thanks Russ, it's good to be here.

Russ White:    Let's start by, could you tell me your own story of when, as a boy or a young man, you got interested in journalism?

Steve Lacy:    When I was in high school, there were two activities. I was on the student newspaper and I was in debate. And to debate, I had to learn economics, to be on the student newspaper, I had to learn to write and report, etc. I was going to become a professor of economics, and for various reasons decided I didn't want to do that, but I came over to journalism and communication and was able to combine those two interests some 15 years later.

Russ White:    Well, as you retire, what are your reflections on the field? We could have a conference on this, but what is the state and future of journalism?

Steve Lacy:    Journalism is in one of those historic times, where it's transitioning. It's been here for maybe a decade, and to be honest, no one knows what the future's going to look like.

    The challenges are revenue. To produce good quality journalism, you need to have good quality journalists, and they need to make a living and a good living, etc., and there needs to be a significant number of them.

    The field's lost about 40% of its newsroom employees over the past 15 years. Having said that, there are some good citizen journalism sites, but there are not as many and they're not of the quality that you would expect from a professional commercial sort of enterprise.

    The biggest thing is figuring out the revenue, and this varies from level. The federal level, we're in pretty good shape. There are more serious journalism organizations reporting on Washington in the world today than there were 20 years ago. At the local level, newspapers are struggling for a lot of reasons. Some of it is self imposed, because of the nature of the business that they're in.

    So I would say people are making that transition, and I think they're beginning to value journalism again because they're needing to know more and more about what's going on.

Russ White:    Tell me some more then, about the challenges and opportunities, especially when it's no secret the field is under siege from the highest office in the land quite a bit of the time, but where are we going?

Steve Lacy:    Well, the thing to understand is that journalism has always been under siege from politicians from the very beginning of the country, the reason we have a first amendment is because that was what was going on 100, to 250-260 years ago.

    There have been periods like Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, etc., when the press was under attack. One of the big changes is that with digital communication, basically everybody has a printing press, and so everyone can use Twitter or Facebook, Snapchat, whatever social media they want to share news, share propaganda. I don't like the term fake news, it's really propaganda. It's the same thing it's always been.

    So what happens is, you are reinforced, because people tend to read what reinforces their beliefs, you are reinforced by social media in your beliefs. And that makes the attack by politicians more effective and longer lasting.

    What you have to do is just do a better job of reporting and trust that if you find the facts and you present them, then it will eventually get across to enough people so that democracy will do what it's supposed to do.

Russ White:    How would you say, Steve Lacy, the students in journalism have changed over the years, and what's the skillset they need to hone now to be successful?

Steve Lacy:    I'm not sure the students have changed a lot, or at least in meaningful ways. There are fewer of them. Journalism school enrollments are lower than they used to be, although I'm interested to see if we get the bump from the current administration that there was following Watergate and the Nixon administration, but we'll find out.

    Motivations are basically the same. If you look at students that come in, some come in wanting celebrity. They tend not to stay in journalism forever, or they become a TV host at the national level, although that's changing as well. Some come in because they want to help people. They see this as a way of contributing to the wellbeing of society, and that's probably the purest motivation.

    There are others who see journalism as a way to learn to write, and I have seen some of our students become novelists, and nonfiction book writers and poets, etc. So I think the motivations are the same.
    What's changed is perhaps they are not as good coming in at writing as they used to be, although most of them were never quite as good as they thought they were when they were coming in.

    I think there is a need for newer skillsets. For example, if I were going to be a journalist and I wanted to work at the top levels, I would make sure I understood statistics. The reporting on political polls is just horrendous. Most journalists do not understand the nature of sampling, which is part of the problem that happened in the last election.

    For example, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight gave Trump a 30 something percent chance of winning, which is far better than 5 or 10, and people don't understand probability either. I would suggest they learn accounting, because so often you tell when politicians are doing something wrong, by the money. There's the old saying, follow the money. Well, if you don't understand accounting, it's hard to follow the money.

    Certainly the digital skills are huge. You have to understand how a visual goes with text now, because you need to report in both ways. You still need to write well, and you need to learn how to interview. So I would say that the basic skills are still there, you've just tacked on more, which means it's harder to become a good journalist. But that's the way the world is today.

Russ White:    Would you talk about some of the other trends in journalism you shared with me before we started talking?

Steve Lacy:    Probably the most important trend that has reshaped this transition time, obviously is the digital world. As I said, we all have our own printing press now through digitization. Craigslist wiped out a lot of local newspapers, because it took away what was 30% to 40% of their income, which were the classified ads.

    I always thought that they should have immediately offered theirs free, that way they could have kept the people at their newspaper rather than having them wander away and discover that maybe they didn't need the newspaper.

    The ownership structure increasingly changed, really starting in the 1970s. Gannett was the first big organization to do this, they began to sell their stock shares to the public so that anybody could own a portion of the newspaper.

    At one point studying Gannett, for example, 15 years ago, 98% of the stock was owned outside the company. By outside, I mean it was not owned by the people who ran it, the Board of Directors, the managers, etc.

    Now when that happens, you have to please the stock market, the people who own the stock, which means you have to generate a predictable high quarterly profit. Now the only way you can predict profit is by controlling costs, you don't really know what the market may do to you. Which means keeping down the size of the newsroom, not paying people as much as they might make otherwise, getting rid of labor unions, etc.

    We have studied and found out that people actually like quality journalism. There have been, I don't know, 12 to 18 studies specifically rating quality and looking if it's correlated positively with circulation, and it is. So part of it was shooting themselves in the foot by lowering the quality by reducing the newsroom, and people began to say, "Look at this tiny little thing, I don't need this." So digitization and the public ownership of newspapers have both contributed.

    Now, I do want to make clear that private owners can be just as greedy as public owners, but at least you have the discretion. The Washington Post, for example now, has been adding reporters and is doing a much better job at national reporting than they did 15 years ago.

Russ White:    MSU journalism professor, Steve Lacy, is visiting with me on MSU Today. Steve, one of the things you suggest for those who consume journalism in this day when you can consume only what you want to, is an increase in media literacy. Can you talk about that?

Steve Lacy:    Yes. First of all, there was a study that just came out two days ago from American Press Institute, and they basically found that the public and journalists share the same expectation. 63% of the people prefer news coverage with mostly facts and analysis. 66 % of the journalists agree.

    Two thirds of the people want the same thing, but you have to be able to understand it. And that's one of the things that they discovered is, for example, 50% of the public don't understand what an op-ed piece is. And that is an editorial position by someone who's not on the editorial board. It's opinion. It's the opposite opinion to the newspaper.

    43% did not know what the term attribution means, so that is when you write in your story, the Mayor said, or according to sources. 42% did not understand how anonymous sourcing works. And so they see that, and they're a bit mystified and they don't trust it.

    Part of it is, people don't understand the nature of journalism. They can't often separate propaganda from factual independent reporting. Which is why, of course, we have the Russian hacker story going on, and I suspect the Russians are not the only one. Anyone can take advantage of the internet and mobile communication if they have the technical skills.

    A lot of it comes down to just learning and teaching people what journalism is supposed to be, and how to differentiate between propaganda and journalism.

Russ White:    What do you see as the future, Steve? Where are we headed? Are you optimistic?

Steve Lacy:    You know the old saying, is the glass half full or half empty? Well, because I'm a researcher, I would report how many milliliters there are in the glass, and let it go with that.

    I would say, again, the majority of people actually want good journalism, they want to trust. Journalism has to regain that trust, so the journalists and the public need to communicate better.

    It's really interesting because once upon a time, not that long ago, I was born in the late forties, we really didn't have journalism schools and journalism programs to the degree that we have now, so people had to learn on the job.

    As a matter of fact, E.W. Scripps, who started a group of newspapers back at the turn of the 19th and 20th century that were aimed at the labor groups, told his editors, "Hire young man and don't pay them very much so they'll have to live with the people they write for."

    To some degree, this college education that journalists started getting, tended to create somewhat of a division between the average person and the average journalist. That doesn't have to be, but both sides have to try and figure out how to communicate better about what's going on.

    I think that we're going to have to get used to paying more for our journalism. Advertising support's not there. If we want good journalism, we have to accept that fact. And actually it's cheaper now, if you take digital, than it's ever been to subscribe to a newspaper. So people should be subscribing to two or more news organizations rather than newspapers of course, because some no longer print paper.

    We do have to recognize the numbers of jobs that were lost are not all going to return. But I think if newspaper organizations, news organizations, can rebuild the trust with their community and have them attending to the website, etc., that advertising can come back.

    A lot of people don't realize probably half of the ads on the internet and mobile are really not looked at. I remember reading a story about a large corporation, I think it was Proctor and Gamble, but I'm not sure. It was about a year, year and a half ago. And they had been buying 40,000 impressions a day online. They cut back to 5,000 impressions a day, and their sales figures didn't change.

    A lot of what's going on now, is not really working, but it's not been demonstrated one way or the other why and how advertising on mobile and online will work. But if news organizations are central to their community, and that's what they have to be, we need journalism.

    We did a study almost a decade ago about the coverage of local government, and what we found ... It was a national study. There were 800 different news organizations, 160 metropolitan areas, is that if you did not have a newspaper and the accompanying website, your city government did not get covered. TV does not do regular coverage of city governments. There are just too many cities for it to cover and too little time. So if you don't create that news organization, you just don't have the information you need to understand your community.

    I think people value that. I think we can get back to that, but it's not going to be the same as it was 20-25 years ago when news organizations had quasi monopolies.

Russ White:    Steve, what do you mean when you say that the future of journalism is more dependent on citizens than on journalists?

Steve Lacy:    We became used to having people sending down news, like the tablets from Mount Sinai. So here you go.  As Walter Cronkite used to say, "And that's the way it is." Well, that's not all the way it is.

    People need to engage with their news organizations, engage with the information. They need to expose themselves to more than just their opinion. They need to be willing to talk about news with people who don't agree with them, in a civil way, and that's hard to do these days.

    People need to be more rational and less emotional when it comes to their news, and that's not easy to do. We tend to survey the environment to understand what's going on; it’s part of survival, it's instinct, it's part of our evolution, and the first reaction is an emotional reaction. But we can train ourselves not to act that way.

    Schools, certainly colleges, certainly high schools, need to start teaching people about how media works. I can remember for 20 years I taught the introduction to mass media course here, 100 level, and every semester I taught it, I could predict what was going to happen when I told the students that magazine ads are highly correlated with the content.

    If you see an ad, you're probably going to find an article that says something nice about that advertiser. And it was almost an audible gasp, because they were 18 years old, they've been reading magazines or websites, or whatever, all these years, trusting them without understanding the very nature of the business underlying what they were reading.

    Media literacy, which is the term that's been used to basically describe our understanding of what we consume as information, is a crucial element to getting journalism to work better. It's not just the journalists who have to change and do the best that they can, it's the citizen that needs to change and do the best that she or he can do as well.

    Journalism should not be one-way communication. It should be two-way, it should be a conversation. It should be the community trying to use it to understand who they are and what they want to do.

Russ White:    Steve, great stuff. As we close, what's again important for us to remember about journalism and its future?

Steve Lacy:    Journalism is fundamental to any community. It existed before it was a business. It became a business because somebody recognized that people really valued it. We have to make it central to the community, everybody needs to participate in the journalism. But what we also have to understand is that society gets the type of journalism that it deserves and is willing to pay for.

Russ White:    Steve, thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us on MSU Today, and congratulations on another retirement.

Steve Lacy:    Thank you, Russ. I'm looking forward to more time in the sunshine.

Russ White:    That's renowned Michigan state university journalism professor, Steve Lacy, and I'm Russ White for MSU Today.

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.