Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

And now the news

Posted by boakley59 on May 15, 2009

They say to be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. In “A study in contradictions,” I wrote that I thought newspapers were dying of blandness, parroting falsehoods from spin machines and no longer doing the hard digging and taking a strong stand for truth. A couple of comments on the piece require followup.

Ben Pollock wrote that he wishes that those of us from the newsroom had more input from circulation and marketing folks, because they can put sales figures and hard numbers behind all the theorizing about what’s causing newspaper circulation losses. I submit that we already have loads of that input, and the methods it suggests, like adding sugar to soft drinks or nicotine to cigarettes, may help sales without really helping the product.

As a practical matter, the lessons are simple, embodied in the pages of USA Today: Short articles with lots of break points (subheadings, graphics, small images, highlight quotes), plenty of color and summaries or roundups everywhere. This approach appears to favor the visual over the verbal, but USA Today’s copy editors will tell you this is not exactly so. They will tell you that it is ruthlessly edited, as it must be to compress the essential information of each article into the least space that allows the story to be told. Its editors contend that a USA Today article will contain every essential fact found in a typical piece on the same event from any other source, which may be twice as long.

Still, a heavily edited and highly visual newspaper is not necessarily a heavily reported one. USA Today is the national circulation leader because it is intended for a national circulation: It has something for everybody, in small doses. It has broken some important stories, but by and large it does not have blockbuster, Pulitzer Prize investigative reporting. It is meant for nomads, a slice of the essence of any wanderer’s home, a national snapshot.

The real lesson of USA Today is that it is entirely committed to what it aims to be, even if many may think that aim is not particularly high.

The trouble for regional or local papers is that the news-for-nomads, something-for-everyone approach doesn’t scale down well. A collection of quick hits about a reader’s home community will ring hollow and seem shallow, unfilling. Away from home, a light reminder serves, but sitting at home, it takes a fuller tale.

The snapshot approach is particularly bad for what I believe is the true mission of newspapers: the watchdog role.

This is self-evident in what passes for election coverage nowadays. Candidates, campaigns, are allowed to say any damn thing they want, sometimes to the point not only of knowingly lying but even to where the statements could not possibly be true. That is, these are not mere misinterpretations, misrepresentations or misunderstandings, but insane fantasy for the intentionally self-delusional. And I’m not talking about fringe candidates on fringe issues, but leading candidates on mainstream issues such as health care or the economy.

If journalists only present a snapshot of what such candidates say and do not examine the message and expose falsehood, and if citizens don’t demand such effort, we get the ridiculous horse-race coverage — and the incompetent public officials — we deserve. It’s too high a price to pay.

If government or business coverage is just going to meetings and recording what is said, newspapers should rightly die. This recording role is gradually being handled by the Web sites of the source organizations themselves. Without interpretation of documents or examination of statistics and understanding of meaning or impact, journalists might as well stay home.

Insistence on significance and investigation is an unwelcome prescription, like telling children to eat their spinach. It may seem self-defeating: Some may rather not eat at all if they can’t just eat candy. But everybody really does need nutrition.

I have said the circulation folks and the marketers have pointed newspapers to certain mechanical approaches best exemplified by USA Today. Newspapers also have a lot of data from rack sales and their websites about what types of articles interest readers. As editor of the online version of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I often looked at daily site traffic and monthly reports ranking visits to individual articles.

The tendencies are understandable, though disappointing from a civic watchdog standpoint. The high-traffic items are obituaries, sports and entertainment reports (particularly scandals) and opinion columns. Major events like Hurricane Katrina or the Clinton-Lewinsky testimony of course generated massive interest, but most of the time people couldn’t be bothered with anything that wasn’t about them or their leisure.

Further, the opinion columns that drew the most interest were the least polished from an editor’s standpoint and the most devoted to matters of taste: That is, they were bad writing and weak logic about preferences, such as whether a local sports team was living up to its potential or whether the summer was too hot and humid. More people would read clumsy writing (clumsy thinking) to which they could respond “Your Mama!” than would read an elegant examination of a proposed public works tax or a well-researched investigation of a troubled prison system.

Journalists are often accused of being different, a little more left-leaning and head-in-the-clouds than average. Newspaper editors are commonly perceived as paternalistic elitists, force-feeding readers their decisions on what’s important without real understanding or connection with those readers. Of course, editors who do seem to give people what they want are considered money-grubbing sensationalist panderers.

Sorry folks, but the doctor is in: Journalists do know their business better than readers, and as I’ve said elsewhere, it’s a messy business. What the people want, by and large, is beneath them (literally, as in who’s been buried, and figuratively, as in who’s been a slut or pig). Journalists who supply this demand are doomed to fail, because our species is just evolved enough that it cannot live on entertainment alone. We need to be fed our spinach.

So, my advice to newspapers is to stand for something and be relentless in its pursuit and in your insistence on being recognized for it. Earn respect through the integrity of your enterprise, which includes fighting and exposing spin and lies in the public forum. Insist that those whose messages you report or repeat have conducted themselves with integrity, and be sure you challenge them with integrity and not mere bitterness. Hold people — and yourselves — to a high standard.

That brings me to the comment from Sarabeth Jones that my earlier piece made her want to go out and read a newspaper. Her remark is unfortunately a source of shame, a “Doh!” moment, for I no longer have a newspaper subscription myself, nor do I visit the newspaper website I ran for nine years. I always read any newspaper that reaches my hands, when visiting friends or sitting in a lobby somewhere, but those occasions are few. I go to the BBC website for world news (I prefer the inherent distance of their perspective on U.S. news) and I almost never attend to local news at all. Mostly, I am a lazy, selfish, uninterested citizen. I am not holding myself to a high enough standard.

That points to the real solution. If newspapers want better circulation, if readers want better newspapers, if citizens want better government, they can have it.

As with most things, the answer begins with ourselves.


One Response to “And now the news”

  1. dj said

    Once again Bruce your hammer was dead on in hitting the nail. Too bad other hammers are nailing down the coffins of newspapers nationwide. I take over full responsibility as editor come June 1 and have the chance to put into practice of which you write, if not the breath of experience to pull it off yet.

    But, I intend to do my best for my readers to remove as much of the paper’s “stenographer” style of writing as I can. This little weekly has done a good job in covering the governmental meetings in the five towns it covers (not easy with two people), but not to the depth I hope to instill on the staff writer.

    It will take time to get him to think like a reader more, to realize that the writing isn’t done if the graphs written present more questions than answers. I had great mentors who gave me some insight and they hover over my shoulder now to nudge me towards giving the best coverage time and training permit.

    With luck, you will continue nudging me along with your writing—thanks.


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