Customer focus in the mee-ja

The PaperRound over at Tuppenceworth has stirred up a hornet’s nest of phlegm and brimstone from at least two sources – the Indo article by Niall Byrne that I mentioned previously and a mysterious comment from ‘Soontobe’ on the Tuppenceworth Blog.

The team over at Tupp’worth may take issue with my view that the Paper Round study was a valiant first attempt at to measure how closely the Irish newspaper industry meets the expectation that papers contain news and as such is a form of Information Quality Audit of the Irish print media. However, if we consider the Paper round in that light, the responses, particularly the comment from ‘soontobe’ show a significant disconnect in the mindset of Irish print journalism from core principles of quality.

The basic gist of the responses seems to be along the lines of ‘how dare bloggers criticise journos because bloggers don’t know anything, don’t have real lives and aren’t skilled enough to write for print media‘. We’ll ignore the fact that I know a of number of bloggers who write or have written for print media – Karlin Lillington anyone?

I will, however, pay attention to what this type of response means.

  1. A study was done by a set of information consumers who had, I assume, paid for their newspapers and hadn’t stolen them and were therefore customers of the Irish print media houses.
  2. This study (admittedly unscientific in its rigour but better than nothing) showed a very mixed bag of results across the papers examined.
  3. These findings were published (along with the methodology)

In a Quality management context, what has happened here is that a group of customers have identified that their expectation of the product purchased is not being met and have produced some data to support their opinion.

Quality management advises (or rather mandates) that the focus of all processes and quality measures should be the consumer of your goods or information. Leading companies such as Toyota take the view that a customer complaint is an opportunity to improve their product. Where a customer or group of customers comes to them with actual DATA to backup the frequency or volume of defect, it is the equivalent of Christmas in a Quality manager’s world.

So, where sit the journos or the ‘journo-aligned’? Have they said “gee, thanks for doing this, now we have something to throw back at our editor when they insist on doing a half-page black and white piece on Claire Byrne’s orange dress”? ehhh…no. Have they said “good grief, what has happened to us? When we were in journo-school we wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein, or at least Robert Redford”? ehhhh…. no.

What has happened is a response that, to return to an automotive analogy, would be like General Motors telling you to f*ck off and stop bothering them about your dodgy gear box because you knew f*ck all about building cars or running a big company (with optional comments about your level of gratitude and parts of the male anatomy).

Which is not too dissimilar what GM used to do until the 1980s when they woke up one morning to find they had lost more money in a year than they had made for most of the previous decade. They don’t do that anymore, but have still had their arse kicked by Toyota and other Asian Tiger auto companies.

Quality is about meeting or exceeding your customer’s expectations. If the customers of Irish newspapers (or papers that are sold in Ireland with Irish-ish content) expect a bit of journalism as opposed to press-releases dressed up as reportage or opinion then the paper round has shown that we are a long way from quality in many cases.

Unless of course the people who buy the newspapers aren’t the customer. By “buy the newspaper” I mean, of course, the individual buying one copy of the paper. But what if some people have confused that with people who buy the newspaper?

If you are a consumer of a product that is increasingly failing to meet your expectations because a more powerful group is exerting influence to have their expectations met, then you will switch product or supplier. In the auto industry this happened when cash-strapped students spurnned the gas-guzzling, sometimes patchy quality cars produced by Detroit and opted for the lower cost, more reliable and more fuel efficient Japanese imports in the 1970s. The oil crisis of the 1970s accelerated that trend. By the 1980s, many of these students were trading up and simply bought the newer model from Toyota or Nissan because they knew it met their expectations of quality and cost-effectiveness better than a Chevy or an Oldsmobile.

In the Information Age, those of us who seek an alternative to the print media sources will increasingly look to the Internet, where peer comment and review and a wide array of varying opinion allow Citizen Blogger to make up their minds. Credibility and status will come not from the weight of a backer’s bank account but from the how consistently the information provider meets or exceeds their reader’s expecations in terms of incisiveness of comment, depth of analysis and the ability to take a story and peer behind the press release to question what is actually happening.

The fact that this is currently being done mainly by hobbyists is irrelevant. Increasingly organisations are looking to blogs and wikis as ways of improving interaction with their customers. It is inevitable that eventually people will be paid to perform blogalism, either through a corporate entity or through advertising on their sites that pays them more the more people visit. At which point…other than the medium what is the difference between a blogger and a ‘traditional’ journalist?

A specialist blogger in a niche area who provides reliable, well written, well researched pieces giving a different angle on topical issues will get hits and will become part of a network of ‘go-to’ people for opinion. We can see this happening already with extremely co-incidental similarities between blog posts and pieces printed in some newspapers which I’ve posted about here a while back). But how does this differ from a specialist investigative reporter?


If the critical comments posted on Tuppenceworth and elsewhere are indicative of the response by one or more ‘print meeja’ people to the Paper Round then the industry is in a much worse state then the survey shows.

Either there is a fundamental disconnect between the journalists view of their work or role and the expectation of the newspaper reader, or the reactions are suggestive of the existence of a more powerful ‘customer’ group who have more highly prioritised expectations of the content and editorial policies of our media. If the former is the case, then there may be some hope, as it may be that the Paper Round pricks the slumbering customer-focus of the tired and cynical hacks and prompts some push back on advertorialising and press-release reporting.

If the latter is the case then the the role and mandate of those pioneering ‘blogalism’ will become increasingly important as Information Consumers seek out sources of news and information that more closely match their expectations of reporting.

The fact that, despite our growing population, a report at the 57th World Newspaper Congress in 2004 showed a decline in newspaper circulation in Ireland of 7.8% would suggest that there is a shift taking place (source : Wikipedia, accessed 19:04 UTC, 28 Nov 2006)

When Johann Carolus printed the first newspaper in 1605, chances are the towncriers of the day dismissed him as a hobbyist who had no place disseminating news.



Just read over one of the later PaperRound posts on Tupp’worth.. some interesting points made.