Reader as client

 AJR  Features
From American Journalism Review,   May 1997  issue

A veteran editor argues that it’s time to jettison the widespread practice of viewing the newspaper reader as a customer. He proposes an alternative model in which the journalist strives to serve readers’ interests as opposed to their wishes. 


Put that way, “reader as customer” seems self-evident: If people don’t want your product, they won’t buy it. Hence, you’d better find out what they want and make sure you’re providing it.

In fact, the model leads to consequences that are disquieting to those of us who believe the press has a traditional obligation of independence, not just from the rich and powerful, but from popular fashion and taste (which has, at times, included jingoism and bigotry, as well as mindless consumerism). It encourages a reflexive, supportive attitude toward cultural and political trends and prejudices and, in its most extreme forms, a restructuring of entire editorial operations to bring them into a crudeýconsonance with the reader’s day-to-day experience. Editors place greater emphasis on coverage of shopping malls, for instance, with which the reader is thought to be intimately acquainted, than they do on complex governmental institutions, about which reader focus groups supposedly express indifference. For the reporter, knowledge of “inside baseball,” rather than a mark of sophistication and mastery of a beat, becomes a symptom of journalistic self-indulgence.

Indeed, the “reader as customer” – or consumerist – model is so ingrained in the current generation of newspeople that it’s hard to tear it free and expose it as a historical aberration, one that has pointed the news industry in the wrong direction and must, if we are to survive, be overthrown.

It’s hard for us to recall what preceded the consumerist model, though I have an idea what must succeed it.

The earlier model can be described as “reader as citizen.” Newspapers were offered not as a series of discrete purchasing choices, but as a daily ritual of participation in public life, an opportunity to become an informed member of the public – to be, in the fullest sense of the word, a citizen.

Journalists were writing for The Public, not for an agglomeration of individual newspaper-buyers facing a daily retail decision. Reporters were engaged in making the news public. True, hot news ultimately would sell papers. But only some people would actually buy the paper; others would read their copies; still others would simply learn the news from those newspaper readers. A paper that consistently put the news before the public first and best could expect to achieve business success. Business success derived from editorial success.

“Reader as customer” turns that approach on its head. Editorial is measured by the business side. Success comes to be determined by the newsroom’s conformance with a formula derived from marketing strategies: Have targeted subgroups been prominent in appropriate ways in news coverage? (Or, in contemporary newsroom-speak, “Are we fully reflecting the multi-ethnic makeup of our community?”) Have reporters been assigned to develop a “product” for teens, in which the young can sound off regularly about dress codes? Do high-tech advertisers have a dedicated venue (with appropriate staff), in which the promise of the Internet is touted convincingly?

As if the inherent distortion in journalistic values weren’t bad enough, there’s not a lot of evidence that the consumerist model has worked. Newspapers have been tarting themselves up like a cheap diner’s commemorative placemats for better than a decade, and they’re still shutting down, and readership numbers are still declining.

That may be because the notion that the reader is a consumer, in the sense of a buyer of a discrete retail product, is fundamentally flawed. Readers aren’t buying packs of gum on the basis of which ones go pop in their mouths; they’re buying into a relationship with a paper, which tells them things they ought to know. The basis of that relationship has to be how much the reader believes and trusts what the paper has to say – not just that the paper speaks truthfully, but that its selection of what to say derives from an honest and disinterested appraisal of what it is the reader needs to know. Nobody wants to listen every morning to a timid and obsequious clown, decked out in flamboyant color with “Hey Kids!” screaming overtop its retooled flag. Dumbing down and dressing up impose real costs. Newspaper managers may fret about the loss of their mass readership, but the more serious erosion has been among the more thoughtful readers, who have lost respect for the daily press as anything but a sad barometer of cultural decline (and who, incidentally, include some of the very people who decide where to pay their ad dollars to have their names and their wares emblazoned).

The reader buys a newspaper in search of a daily relationship of trust with the provider of a professional service.

Therein lies an alternative to “reader as customer.” It’s a model that retains some of the truer insights of the consumerist model: That the reader must lie at the core of the journalist’s concerns. But it understands the reader as something other than an impulse buyer. And it restores the journalist to being something other than a stock clerk in a grocery store, making sure the shelves are packed according to a formula engineered to entice, titillate and provoke a buying decision.

The model is reader as client, journalist as professional.

Reader as client means the journalist strives to serve the reader’s interests, not necessarily his wishes, by fulfilling the professional obligation the reader has conferred upon the journalist by the act of buying the paper. Any professional – lawyer, doctor, CPA – is duty-bound to tell clients things they don’t want to hear. The journalist too, under this model, has a rock-bottom professional duty: To use specialist skills of disinterested observation and analysis to identify important events and developments in public life and bring them to light before the reader.

Is it arrogant to assign the journalist the role of deciding what the reader ought to know, rather than the blander responsibility of bringing the reader things he wants to hear about? It’s arrogant only if you think reporters should be brokers of fact-based amusements, or that journalists are little more than channels for transmitting the momentary predilections of “the community.”

The professionalist model not only permits the journalist to exercise judgment in deciding what needs coverage; it makes exercising judgment a central obligation of the job, which is to report impartially on those things in the society that, in the reporter’s fair and honest opinion, most warrant being illuminated.

There’s more. If the reporter is professional then it follows, as with any professional, that his or her principal obligation is to the client, not to the employer. The traditional professional is paid directly by the client, so no conflict arises. The journalist is more akin to a physician working for a health maintenance organization; the HMO signs his paycheck, but that isn’t supposed to attenuate the doctor’s professional obligation to the patient. So if reporters are professionals, don’t newsroom managers need to let them use their skills for professionally appropriate ends, rather than as sales tools to penetrate new submarkets with alluring near-news? One can only hope so.



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