Do We Really Fear Murdoch, Or Change?

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The persistent hand-wringing and ceaseless navel-gazing over Rupert Murdoch's likely acquisition of The Wall Street Journal goes a ways towards explaining why the newspaper industry's inability to adapt is a threat to its ultimate survival.

Editorial integrity and independence are, of course, crucial to a news enterprise. Not to be overly crass, but in addition to preserving journalism's role as a check on power, they serve a commercial purpose. The trust they create helps gather an audience, and the bond that audience has with the product makes the media outlet valuable to advertisers, who (at least in the traditional model) help subsidize the experience. And we all live happily ever after.

Only thing is, the definition of journalism and journalists is changing. And while there are reasons to be wary of some of those changes, the continued resistance to them by members of journalism's old guard, led primarily by newspaper journalists, ultimately undermines the viability of the enterprises they're trying to protect and ignores the desires of their audiences.

If, as publisher, I ever attempted to blunt Ad Age's journalism and cheat our readers to advance a business interest, I'd be hard-pressed to say which would happen more quickly: my firing by Rance Crain or the resignation of our editor, Jonah Bloom, and his entire staff.

Those safeguards need to be in place. But there are ways in which the classic definitions of objective journalism have changed in the age of blogs, niche media and instant information, and they're not all bad. We decided a few years ago that Ad Age needed a stronger voice and a point of view. That didn't mean our reporters were free to mask opinion as news, but that their pieces needed to combine in-depth reporting with industry expertise and insights. Our audience doesn't want us only to tell what happened, but why it matters, what it means and why they should care. In many ways, it's a weightier journalistic responsibility because our readers ultimately have to trust and respect our point of view, even if they disagree with it. If they don't buy it, they're gone.

Journalists need to produce work with integrity, but they also have to accept that empowered consumers will seek out their own versions of the "best" information from various sources, blend different points of view and come to their own conclusions. Journalism is no longer the last word; it's the start of a conversation. (As an aside, to believe Murdoch will set out to destroy the integrity of what may be the best newspaper in the U.S. is to think the man a fool, which he's clearly not. But the Journal does need to change. Joe Nocera has done a great job in the NY Times of explaining how the journalists who ran Dow Jones in recent decades hurt the business.)

If you read between the lines of all the columns and coverage of the Dow Jones saga, what's really revealed is anxiousness about the changes in the newspaper industry by journalists unsure of their place in the digital age. It's as if they think they need to reassure themselves, and convince their audiences, that their work remains relevant. They should have more faith than that.

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