What is a Newspaper?

by Roger Pynn

Rarely do public relations people gather that the question doesn’t arise.  “Can newspapers survive?”

A GIGaom report by Mathew Ingram turned my head today and made me wonder if the question really ought to be “What is a newspaper?”  Ingram is reporting on the opinions of Joy Mayer who some are calling the “queen of engagement” because she’s preaching that the future of media is a two-way street where journalists have to engage and interact with their readers/followers/friends.

I agree with Mayer on many things.   But her guide to for the newsroom of the future has some interesting tips, including the need for “value statements” like “we continually alter what we cover, and how, based on what the audience responds to.”

To which I say, that isn’t a newspaper, Ms. Mayer, it is a highly commercial approach to delivering the news people want to hear rather than what journalists determine they need to hear through careful and thoughtful reportage.

If you follow that “value” to a logical end, newspapers of the future could expect to be manipulated by activists who bombard them every time they publish something they don’t like.  Imagine how easy it would be to redirect your local newspaper by “liking” them into not covering your blemishes.

In Ms. Mayer’s world the answer to the question “can newspapers survive?” is very simply a great big “NO,” because they won’t be newspapers they’ll be fulfillment services responding to our every whim rather than doing what newspapers are supposed to do … inform and educate us by employing journalists who will ask the questions we would ask if we could be on the scene when news is breaking.

8 Responses to What is a Newspaper?

  1. Joy Mayer says:

    Hi, Roger. Thanks for the link to my engagement guide.

    The argument you make about catering to the whims of an audience is one I’ve heard before, but it’s also one that misinterprets my aim, and takes it to extremes.

    In a study I did of 500 daily newspaper editor this spring (at papers 100K circulation and under), only 49 percent said they used their web analytics reports to help make news decisions. That means half of the editors were provided with information about what resonated with their audiences and then chose not to factor that into what and how the newsroom would cover.

    There’s certainly a way to take audience preferences into account without giving into pressure from activists or chasing salacious page views.

    Newsrooms should be paying attention to things like:
    — how much time people are spending with which kinds of content
    — what search terms land people on the site
    — which kinds of stories draw new users, and which are popular with loyal users
    — which kinds of stories prompt comments and drive conversation

    Altering what we cover based on what works is good business, and is not at all the same thing as being, as you say, a fulfillment service.

    Joy Mayer, mayerj@missouri.edu

    • Roger Pynn says:

      Thanks, Joy, for reading what I had to say. I agree with much of your advice for the future … but I have to tell you that I took all weekend to digest the implications of the 49% vs. the 51% in your study.

      I’ll go to my grave believing that NEWS editors should make news decisions based on time-honored elements of journalism such as how many people are affected, not how many people like the story.

      The distinction to me is that what you cover should be based on the judgment of the newsroom staff and should have nothing to do with business. That’s where op-ed pages came from.

  2. Anna Tarkov says:

    I too have heard this argument many times and I emphatically reject it. Taking aside for a moment the fact that such a ready and willing response to readers’ “whims” would mean the reversal of decades-long disdain for the unwashed masses of news consumers, the engagement scenario doesn’t have to play out this way.

    First of all, Joy rightly points out that editors don’t have to (andin fact shouldn’t) act on, say, every traffic metric. It has to be done in a thoughtful way. If a gallery of dogs from the local animal shelter garnets a lot of views, does that mean the news

  3. Anna Tarkov says:

    My apologies, I mistakenly hit submit.

    …does that mean the newspaper should start publishing cute animal galleries round the clock? If course not. A smart editor would look at that and say hmm, what sort if visitors did that attract? Are they local? Likely to become loyal readers? Depending on the newspaper’s audience goals, they might not be worth pursuing.

    As for activists, or anyone else with coverage complaints for that matter, an open dialogue between reader and newspaper need not mean caving in to every complaint by altering that coverage. No, what it means is being open and honest about the reporting process and being willing to share it with the community. It’s saying, here’s how and why we chose to tell this story, here’s what our thinking behind it was, here’s why we included this or left out that. Over time, these conversations build trust with even the most difficult readers. So in the end, they may still not like what a newspaper publishes, but they will respect their decisions because they will understand how they arrived at them.

  4. Roger Pynn says:

    Anna … thanks for your comments … and for your most appropriate puppy analogy. I’d suggest you visit my local daily’s online photo galleries at http://www.OrlandoSentinel.com. They’ve clearly found that readers connect with bikini-clad babes and outrageous tattoos.

    And their fascination with the word “Disney” — surely one of the most searched terms in connection with the word Orlando — is clear. Any way they can get it into a headline works.

    Please convince me that this has something to do with creating a relationship with their readers and not catering to the folks who are demanding more clicks for the sake of revenue.

    The model is broken. Journalism as I studied it is dead and newspaper companies are now 24-hour entertainment machines where a few dedicated journalists struggle to earn a living amidst an arcade mentality.

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