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Nov. 1, 2012, 10:30 a.m.

The newsonomics of aggressive, public-minded journalism

If you want to charge readers for journalism, you have to prove its value — and that means getting beyond he-said-she-said and the view from nowhere.

“I don’t care about a business models for newspapers. I care about my son’s future.”

Those words from Grzegorz Piechota, news editor and head of public awareness at Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, clearly struck a chord with a recent newspaper audience in, of all places, Sydney, Australia. Piechota, who took on the presidency of INMA (International Newsmedia Marketing Association) Europe board in 2008, painted an ambitious picture of involved community journalism as a way to the industry’s future.

The September Sydney conference of the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers’ Association, at which I also spoke, focused, as most similar confabs do, on the usual. Big-picture media change. Paywalls. Social. Mobile. You know — you’ve been there.

What made Piechota’s talk stand out was his focus on community and the aggressive public journalism his company practices.

One of the projects he focused on was education reform. School 2.0 included lots of reporting and liveblogs and, most importantly, involved 30,000 Polish teachers in the project. Over 7,000 schools participated. “You need to flood the zone,” says Piechota, borrowing an American football metaphor for impactful journalism.

His talk — worth watching here — offers a primer for editors on participative journalism and on the use of physical events. Gazeta led the organization of 630 of them last year, with 120,000 participants. “Give people tools and inspire them,” he says.

Gazeta Wyborcza’s latest social campaign launched in September. It focuses on a topic familiar to Americans: childhood obesity.

“It raises awareness about spreading obesity among Polish kids and addressing the problem from food (quality of food at schools, quality of cheap food that poor people eat) to fitness (quality of fitness lessons in schools, effectiveness of government programs to promote amateur sports, etc.),” says Piechota. “The campaign is based on series of stories across Gazeta’s channels, cooperation with other media (TV and radio channels, magazines, bloggers), an educational programme for Polish teachers (schools can join the program for free) and PR events like public cooking at the biggest rock music festival in Poland.”

Gazeta Wyborcza (or Electoral Gazette), the second-largest Polish daily behind the tabloid Fakt, in a nation of about 38 million. It has a special birthright: The newspaper grew out of the Solidarity movement and, when launched in 1989, was the first paper since the start of the communist regime to be published legally without goverment control.

Peter Richards, who has worked in communications in central and Eastern Europe since 1992 and is now Piano Media’s country manager in Poland, offers this perspective on its role:

Gazeta Wyborcza is a very important public force in Poland, there is no doubt about it. It often initiates national debates on issues such as education, the job market, economic reforms, difficult aspects of Polish history, etc….It represents the only liberal voice in Polish daily news. The paper/website provides investigative journalism, reportage, and secular-minded news in a society where the Catholic Church is excessively influential.

Wyborcza conducts many social campaigns and these campaigns definitely impact public affairs/public policy. In a young democracy, one needs a provocateur in society that challenges the status quo. Around 15 years ago, Wyborcza conducted a social campaign which worked. It was called something like “having a baby in a humanitarian way” and it brought attention to the Polish way of having babies — for example, allowing involvement of the husband, access to epidurals, visitation of the baby, conditions of maternity wards, etc. Wyborcza is famous for promoting larger issues like tolerance and women’s rights or smaller community issues like illegal parking.

Piotr Ambroziak, a former commercial director with the Polish news agency PAP and now working at the European Pressphoto Agency, remembers that 1994 “Childbirth with Dignity” campaign well:

The aim was to initiate a public dialogue on the subject of childbirth in order to transform a taboo topic into a positive one, so that women in Poland no longer need to feel humiliated and lonely during such a vital experience. The campaign was a great success, not only for its organizers, but above all for the thousands of women from all parts of the country who shared their experiences with us in letters and questionnaires. Numerous physicians and midwives actively and positively responded to the call for change and thus began a transformation in the field of obstetrics in Poland.

There were numerous actions of this type, dedicated to education, safe driving, environment, health awareness, jogging. All of them left a big positive mark on the society.

Ambroziak also speaks to Gazeta’s reporting style: “Gazeta always represented very engaged journalism — they were never neutral.”

Make no mistake: Piechota is among the first to say that finding sustainable business models is paramount, and that companies that care about news must remain profitable. Gazeta Wyborcza (circulation 306,000 as of 2011) is struggling with the same advertising and print circulation declines as its peers to the east and west. It’s cutting staff, as it along with other Polish quality dailies see readers flee print. Its Internet portal Gazeta.pl is highly popular, but isn’t coming close to making up for print declines.

In the first half of 2012, advertising spending for all Polish media decreased by about 4 percent. Digital is up 10 percent, with dailies down 18 percent and magazines down 9 percent, according to Agora SA, the paper’s parent organization. Agora’s profit margin is down to less than one percent, although operating profit for newspapers came in at 14.2 percent and for digital at 7.6 percent. Like all newspaper companies, its future is not assured.

Notes Piechota candidly: “In Eastern Europe, if you’re not profitable, you’ll be bought by oligarchs or political parties.”

But Gazeta Wyborcza pulls no punches in believing its brand of what many would term advocacy journalism is also its route to business success. Connecting the dots of its editorial strategy and its business results is much more elusive.

“Positioning as a public advocate is the backbone of this newspaper,” Piechota told me this week. “It was not launched just to make money. It was founded to bring democracy to this country and to build an open society. We help to bring change by providing honest journalism and tools for driving people’s engagement into issues that affect them. Being close to people gives us a credibility that advertisers want to share. You cannot divide that.”

This is a View from Here, a View from Somewhere — the kind of departure from the View from Nowhere, described for the ages by Jay Rosen and demonstrated so painfully in Jim Lehrer’s first-debate “moderation.”

Let’s be clear. We see lots of good passionate journalism in the United States.

CNN, which has been unable to find its way out of the muddle of election debate, has shown its passion well in condemning human trafficking through thorough journalism on the topic. Each year’s list of Pulitzer winners shows that dedication, as does the work of the higher profile national nonprofit investigative outfits, from ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting to the Center for Public Integrity and Investigate West. We see the spirit running through many of the members of the Investigative News Network; I think the St. Louis Beacon’s “A Better Saint Louis” top-of-the-page position sums up the Gazeta spirit well.

As for American dailies? Most do a good job of day-in, day-out coverage, and many still hit high spots with series as they fight to eke out the time out of diminished staffs.

It’s not that good, passionate work isn’t done — it’s just too often the exception. It’s not the driving raison d’etre it is with Gazeta. Maybe, just maybe, part of the strategy going forward should borrow from Gazeta.

As Rosen has articulated well over the years, joined by many choruses, the “objective” journalism that accompanied newspapers’ post-World War II boom long ago outstayed its welcome. As editors of monopoly dailies struggled to be “fair,” many lost sight of their responsibilities to help lead communities in problem solving. People don’t just want endless problem describing — especially wrapped in the guise of “two sides.”

The war over the “lamestream media” consumed much of the news blogosphere for far too long, as the production of news diminished and diminished. Now it’s time — in an age of readers paying for much more of the news they get — for editors and publishers to think more about community service. We’re not talking about political advocacy. We’re saying: education should be better for our children, global warming needs to be addressed, and better health care for everyone. Let’s ditch the two-sides divide — the silliness of the left-right dance, which doesn’t really describe the world we inhabit — and move on.

For newspapers, Gazeta says, the chance to lead is the chance to publish and to survive. My sense is that they’re right — though they’ll only succeed if the company’s business strategies harness the same kinds of intelligence as do its editorial ones.

Piechota’s words are oddly resonant in the U.S. this week, a few days before our presidential election. Whatever our partisan beliefs, it’s clear this has been a Seinfeldian campaign, publicly about nothing. Both parties, for reasons of their own, have failed to offer roadmaps to solutions to the very real issues before the voters. Journalists, even as some try to break out of the horse race, are correctly seen by their publics as more about the problems than of the solutions. For us, the lights of that 1776 revolution burn dimly; for Gazeta, 1989 is well within memory and still motivating.

So what are the newsonomics of Gazeta’s aggressive public journalism? They’re a work in progress. As Piechota notes, you can’t single out one series or project and tie it to financial consequence. In the end, we’ll only see, over time and by inference, the causes and effects as Gazeta struggles to pay journalists to their work.

One early indicator will be Gazeta’s performance with Poland’s new pay-for-news network. It’s the lead daily, and the group of seven media companies in the pay-once-a-month, access-all system include Polish National Radio, the national daily Super-Express, 20 regional newspapers, and a number of lifestyle and business magazines and online-only publications. In all, the network touts “42 websites with over 119 different sections.”

Given that it’s only six weeks old, performance is unclear. But Piano’s model rewards publishers who win most usage through the network. (Piano Media, the European counterpart to Press+, is now itself moving aggressively beyond its first three networks in Slovakia, Slovenia, and Poland. This week, it acquired Novosense, which it says will allow it to power metered systems for individual publishers.)

This has been the year of reader revenue initiatives (“The newsonomics of majority reader revenue”), and Gazeta’s approach fits neatly into that emergent strategy.

If you’re going to charge readers — and, increasingly, charge them for digital plus print access — then the quality of your journalism and readers’ perception of its value rise to the fore. The synergy here shouldn’t be missed by any newspaper publisher.

This is the snapshot of our new news world. A Warsaw editor enlivens a newspaper crowd in Sydney, some 9,600 miles and 20 hours away. In this news revolution, we all have much to learn from each other, and the old national boundaries no longer apply.

POSTED     Nov. 1, 2012, 10:30 a.m.
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