Monday, June 29, 2009

What do readers know?

In explaining his approach to telling jokes for the Tonight Show audience, Andy Richter mentioned something that could relate to the newspaper industry.

Richter, who reunited with Conan O’Brien to replace Jay Leno, was featured in an NPR segment over the weekend that obviously had nothing to do with examining the mentality of today’s newspaper executives.

But Richter’s comment makes sense for print journalists who are constantly being told they are losing their readers. Here’s the quote:

“If you start to just aim for what the audience wants to hear, you’re already hamstrung because you don’t have any freedom,” he says. “So the only thing you can do is do something that you think is funny. And I don't mean, become a big artist, but do try to tickle your own funny bone as much as you can, and hope that you have a sense of humor people can relate to.”

Just replace “funny” with “interesting” and that sums up the approach I tried to take for stories I pursued. I figured if I found something interesting, readers would too. Maybe not all of them, but enough of them.

It’s an approach that works well for feature writers. We try to find a topic that will interest as many readers as possible. But I also know it’s impossible to write something every reader will find interesting.

A newspaper’s audience is too fragmented to appease everybody. Yet newspaper executives seem to believe it’s possible. They think they have the answers by talking to each other during endless meetings and regurgitating what the other geniuses have said.

Readers want local stories. Local, local, local.
Readers don’t have time for in-depth stories.
Readers want information they can use.
Readers want less opinion.
Readers want more opinion.
Readers want pictures of puppies.

Some say readership surveys are needed. Find out what readers want and then give them that. That’s an admirable notion – if it was possible.

But in today’s environment that could lead to a newspaper geared toward the loudmouths and online trolls who make the most noise. That leads to a continuous dumbing-down of the product, further alienating sophisticated readers. You know, the ones who are more likely to actually buy and read a newspaper.

Maybe I’m wrong about this. I freely admit the problems of the newspaper industry far exceed my ability to solve. But I know as a reader, newspapers continue to offer me less and less.

I spend fewer than 15 minutes a day reading the two newspapers that come to my door. Not because I don't have time. But because that's all the time it takes to get through. Give me something to read, dammit.

When I was back in Duluth earlier this month I thought someone had stolen the sports section from my mom’s paper. I soon discovered it was buried inside the front section. The paper I grew up reading, where I worked my first job in journalism, no longer has a separate sports section most days of the week.

Here in Chicago, the Tribune continues to shrink. This weekend they printed their final Sunday magazine, a supplement to the Sunday newspaper that was always anchored with a piece of narrative, or long-form, journalism.

Staff writer Rick Kogan – who is the epitome of what a Chicago journalist should be – wrote the article announcing the changes. His ending grabbed me.

"To wander through the McCutcheon show is to understand how much newspapers, specifically this one, which was born in 1847, have remade themselves over the years in response to events and currents and tastes. Like McCutcheon and his many contemporaries, we remain in the business of trying to provide, as the title of the exhibition states, 'Chronicles of a Changing World.'

That about says it. The world changes. So do we. And we move on."
Readers do, too. Keep giving them less and we won't have to worry about satisfying them anymore. There won't be any left.

1 comment:

  1. Was searching for something else. Came across this Web site.

    I'm basically in same position as you -- and have had articles printed in Naperville Sun although I actually worked for other papers (have ethical problem with that, but that's another story)

    Your comments on newspaper industry were incisive. I knew in mid-1990s industry was falling apart. Decisions managers made were ludicrous.