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Quality Journalism Is Defined by Its Audiences

Up next at Alcatel-Lucent Foundation / HBI 2009 is Rainer Esser, Managing Director of the Zeit publishing house (which publishes Germany's leading weekly newspaper). He begins by suggesting that there will always be a market for quality journalism - but what is defined as quality journalism may be changing. If conventional 'quality journalism' no longer has a market in the current environment, this isn't the fault of users who 'are no longer interested in quality' - it is a problem with diverging definitions of 'quality' between producers and users.

In other words, what is necessary for journalists is to produce that type of quality content which their audiences actually want. This may be difficult for journalists who have a preconceived, often elitist notion of their readership. So, what is or isn't quality content is not decided by the producers of that content, but by those who pay for it, who access it.

Die Zeit has also been guilty of this at times, of course. Journalists have sometimes focussed more on writing for their peer group than for their readers, and the paper has worked against this in recent years - resulting in subscriber growth over the past seven years (against a backdrop which has seen other titles stagnate or lose subscribers, sometimes substantially).

This has four key reasons, Rainer suggests:

  • quality brings results, but only if it is directed at the target audience (there is no market for products which everyone likes a little, but only one which some people like a lot);
  • quality also has to do with effort, and sloppy work will be punished by readers (quality is no accident, but a result of engaged thinking);
  • strong brands are able to survive even in the current context;
  • it is necessary to invest in quality, too (for the Zeit it is necessary to prove its worth again every week).

So, target audiences need to be reached, the core competencies of the organisation need to be at the centre of operations, and new ideas need to be tried and old approaches phased out where necessary. Much of the current crisis in newspaper and other journalism is due not simply to changing media use patterns which cannot be helped, but also to the failure of journalists to track and address the changing needs of their audiences.

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