Tuesday, May 01, 2007

"Maximum Occupancy," Or, Why Letting Readers Attend News Meetings Doesn't Help Increase Circulation

I recently read the diatribe of Free Your Newsroom's Mark A. Phillips on how newsrooms are out of touch with reality, and I have to say, he's a hell of a sensationalist for a former newspaper executive.

"In short, [journalists] think they know what’s best for newspapers. Many may, in fact, know what’s best for newspapers, but those are the newspapers of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Here’s something that deep down most journalists probably realize but don’t want to admit: Newspapers are a product and newsrooms must get on board with the business side in order to craft a product people want."

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hang on there, Phillips. That's pretty condescending. Aren't you a former editor, too? What makes you the voice of reason?

Despite this apparent confused bias, I think Phillips' arguments are sensational, assuming and altogether generalizing. He argues that newsrooms and business need each other (I agree -- ever see an ad for a weight loss program next to an article blasting the trend?), but thinks that ideas for the paper should come from advertising and other departments, too. I hate to say it, Phillips, but journalists don't listen to other departments because they don't know, either. It's all guesswork.

At the recommendation of a mentor, I recently picked up Michael Schudson's decades-old book "Discovering the News," a history of American newspapers from the penny press onward. And you know what? Schudson alludes that this kind of hazy "guess what the public wants" thing has long been a part of journalism. Not because of a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality, but because it's just impossible to get a feel for hundreds of thousands of people's collective "taste."

(As an interesting sidenote, he also mentions that we tend to look back on former journalistic enterprise with rose-tinted glasses. After reading Chris Wallace's claim that the old standards of journalism were "higher," seems his arguments are right. But that's for another post.)

Phillips suggests having business people attend newsroom meetings. I welcome the invitation, but I think the result would be a longer meeting, more time wasted, and less productivity.

Another person in a news meeting is...just another person in a news meeting. That's it. They are no oracle. They know no more or less the people they serve than the reporters. Sure, journalists get tied up in all those ethics and subscribing to a higher power and all, but they still are out on the street, and as long as top editors are listening to their men (or women) on the ground, that's the best they're gonna get without delving into some serious polling and statistical studies (which can be valuable, but also expensive). Those new faces in the newsroom aren't conducting polls in their spare time, are they?

How about this novel idea: Maybe readers don't like the newspaper format anymore. Maybe broadsheet is to tabloid (or the web) as hardcover is to paperback. Get what I'm saying?

Maybe readers are less interested in reading newspapers than they used to be, and it has nothing to do with editorial content.

Phillips suggests that furthermore, we should invite readers to the party:
Missing from these discussions is everyone else in the building who helps to get the paper out and the people who actually buy the product. Why aren’t advertising people invited to meetings? Why isn’t someone in classifieds asked to sit in? Why aren’t parents, gas station attendants or anyone else who might read a newspaper asked what they’d like to read?

Those people aren't invited because that'd be a hell of a crowded meeting. Really, though, they represent one sliver of the whole. Everyone wants something different from their paper. I'd like a little more Brooklyn coverage from the Daily News, but my friend thinks it should remain Manhattan-centric. Who are the ones to find that middle ground? Probably editors, at the end of the day. Phillips says, "News geeks aren't always the best people to decide what should go in a newspaper." And he's right -- but no one else is, either. Few people, if any, have the wherewithal to make decisions for a collective. Journalists think they know. Advertisers think they know. Readers think they know. Phillips thinks he knows.

Why can't we just admit -- no one really knows? At the very least, the comments on Phillips' column seem to indicate a bevy of opinions.

I think it's time that we stop looking for who knows and start paying attention to circulation levels, reader reaction, and so on. Phillips asks, "Newspapers have for too long given readers a thousand reasons to not want to subscribe. Why can’t newspapers give them a thousand reasons to stay?"

Because the reader has to give him or herself a reason to stay. Let me ask this: when are we going to stop thinking that readers need to be spoon-fed?

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