Should journalists ignore what their readers want?

May 11, 2009

Things have not been going well at the Chicago Tribune, where the new owner, gasping under acquisition debts, is in bankruptcy, and where circulation is falling. A few weeks ago managers there decided to ask readers what they’d like to see in the paper, and questionnaires went out to 9,000 people.

The surveys asked which of 10 prospective stories readers liked best. The problem is, those stories weren’t just some editor’s fantasy: They were actually being worked.

Bowing to a protest e-mailed by 50-some newsroom employees, The Tribune’s editor, Gerould Kern, spiked the project. “To prematurely disseminate information about stories in progress compromises reporting,” Kern observed, a mild understatement.

Of course, they could have just asked readers about stories the paper had already published. But then, when your company is circling the drain and you reach frantically for a plug, you’re liable to grab something that fits badly.

The dustup has been framed as another tale of marketers wielding dubious influence over newsroom decisions, but I think the basic problem is more perplexing. It’s something newspeople have puzzled over for decades—and it’s a question they’ve bequeathed to the Internet sites that now compete fiercely for eyeballs: Shouldn’t journalists just find out what people want and give it to them?

That seems to be what Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, advises. Mind you, his company has grown fat from hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising sold against content it doesn’t pay for and does nothing to create. Still, it’s insanely successful, so Schmidt naturally felt entitled to offer this pearl to a recent newspaper convention: “Try to figure out what your consumer wants. If you [upset] enough of them, you will not have any of them.”

Well, fine. But for journalists the hitch has always been that news, if done honestly, is routinely unwelcome and—more to the point—that it isn’t just another consumer product. It’s a kind of civic good.
Sure, it must be bought, but if success were measured solely by marketability journalists could safely ignore vast areas of coverage that help keep leaders honest and the public conscious of significant realities.
Hence, the paradox: If all you do is give the public what it thinks it wants, you aren’t doing your job. But if you ignore those wishes, you won’t have a job.

I think the Trib’s misfired survey exemplifies what’s wrong about the way the news business understands what its audience wants. The logic of such a survey is that if you then went with the respondents’ story picks, you’d improve your marketplace success.

Would you? That suggests the demand for what journalists do is a simple matter of adding up the public’s interest in particular stories. And I think that fundamentally misunderstands what people use news for—and consequently, what it takes to satisfy them.

I’ve long argued that news is best understood not as a consumer product, but as a professional service. People buy a newspaper or go to website not to consume a good, but to renew a relationship with an informant they trust.

That’s not to say readers don’t want to be amused or don’t like reading the comics and hearing about celebrity bust-ups or money-saving recipes. And they aren’t passive receptacles: They’ll make vigorous use of new media feedback channels to dispute, correct, redirect and enrich the news they get.

But what this suggests is that ultimately, people look to journalists for a special service—keeping them on top of what they need to know. They can’t say exactly what that is, any more than journalists know in the morning what they’ll report that day. But they trust the news source to tell them.

Today’s news aggregators exemplify that. Because I follow media news, I regularly visit three or four sites that monitor media coverage. I read only a fraction of what they link to, but I’m a fan because if there’s something I need to know, I’ll probably find out about it there. That’s a service of great value to me, and its value has nothing to do with any ranking I might assign to particular stories I could imagine seeing there.
The sites understand what their public needs and deliver it. After 160-plus years, even without surveys a great newspaper like the Chicago Tribune should have a pretty good idea about what its city needs. The problem is delivering on it.

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