Regulations are Not Killing Newspapers, but Lack of Curiosity Could Harm Them.

Author:Phillips, David
Position:Shoptalk: commentary

A banker asked me recently if my industry had to deal with a lot of government regulations. He noted that even small banks have frequent visits by regulators and several examiners report to work each day in offices located within some of the larger banks.

That close watch hasn't stopped some bankers from thinking they can beat the examiners as our newspapers have had stories over the years about embezzlement at local banks.

What surprised him most, though, was my answer that newspapers have no regulations. Newspapers, protected by the First Amendment, pretty much have free reign. They are under the same labor laws as any business and potential libel is a concern, but there are no government examiners inspecting our operations.

Government also doesn't get involved in our operations by requiring certifications or other types of licensing for journalists. Individual newspaper operations set their own standards and draw people from a wide variety of backgrounds, which puts a big hole in the conspiracy theorists who claim America's media operates as one, unified front out to take down one side of the political spectrum or the other.

Even with all that freedom, there are a lot of similarities between media. I always thought it was because we share common principles and learn from what has proven successful in our field.

I was surprised, though, when a speaker at one of the educational sessions at the Minnesota Newspaper Association attributed the similarities to a copycat syndrome that has taken hold because we don't have a clue what works. The speaker, who has consulted with all sizes of newspapers in many countries, said we're all making it up as we go along.

He cited some evidence, including an example of most daily newspapers copying the large, colorful, graphic weather map introduced by USA Today more than a decade ago. It works in some markets, but he showed the map in a desert region publication where every high temperature for each city that day was the same--100 degrees. Those residents won't care about that information because they 11 be sitting inside in air conditioning, he quipped.

As someone who has been in this business quite a while, I would like to think I'm doing more than making it up as I go along, but that's probably closer to the truth than any illusions that I'm some kind of expert.

However, I wouldn't be surprised if many businesspeople, at least self-aware ones, in other fields feel that they are making it up as they go...

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