Monday, August 4, 2008

Janus and Julian, Vol. 2

The post "Janus and Julian" was written to be provocative, which I usually don't do and thus probably failed at doing. Here's what it wasn't saying.

It wasn't saying editorial independence is bad. Decades ago, local bigwigs and advertisers told newspapers what to print and what not to print. DUIs involving the sons of major advertisers were killed. Anything that reflected negatively on the town or its major industries was killed. A department store would open a new wing and there would be five stories about it. This was pernicious.

It wasn't saying the wants of the readers are all-powerful. Journalism, as a public trust, must do stories that most people won't want to read. Journalists, through their work, become aware of things that must be covered and that almost no one else knows about. Readers don't know what they don't know.

It wasn't saying major takeouts and projects and fanciful stories are unneeded. A diet simply of town boards and people-in-the-news gets old. The offbeat story or the project about something unexpected draws readers in.

It wasn't saying that people don't want serious news. The Miami Herald heard from its readers after its most recent cutbacks, a large number of whom said -- hey, we want investigations, we want hard coverage.

It wasn't saying that the major problem facing us isn't the business side.
Whether you believe that the newspaper business should have cornered the Internet classified market or just think it should do a better job delivering the physical paper, management in the newspaper business has showed singular ineptitude.

No, it wasn't saying any of that. It was saying that a newsroom culture that sees responding to what readers want as "pandering," that enshrines a disdain for appealing to the business' customers, puts itself in a box, because any change can be defined as pandering, and then you are a philistine to support it. "Readers don't like jumps?" Well, our stories are important, so we will jump all of them, even to different sections. "Readers like color weather maps?" Weather happens every day. Readers are stupid. "Readers like news, but also like pet photos?" Gawwwwd. "Readers like long stories on big issues and short stories on everything else?" Who are they to tell me how long my story should be? "Readers want to know about whose house was on fire when they saw smoke?" Covering your fires isn't our line. We deal in issues, friend. Don't tell the brain surgeons how to do their work. We're all Halberstams on this bus.

Again, none of this discounts poor customer service or poor ontime delivery or throwing the product in the icy street or bad reproduction or ink ruboff or inefficient technology or lousy Internet strategies. The business side has myriad sins. What we face today is largely a failure of advertising. Yet we have our issues, and among them is that we have created an unassailable high church from which any idea can be not only rejected, but dragged into the square and publicly pummeled, in the knowledge that this will be roundly cheered and zellcake will be eaten in newsrooms. You, the owners, the readers, cannot measure our work or even comprehend how it is done. Your role is to appreciate us for doing it. Do not tell us what you want or need. We deserve better owners and better customers. Someday, perhaps we will find them.

Back when Knight Ridder used to measure relative readership in each market, The Wall Street Journal had 4 percent penetration in greater Philadelphia. I have no figures but I expect that would hold true in most major metros outside New York and Chicago, and be less in smaller markets. In 2005, the average employment income of a Journal reader was nearly $200,000 a year. (Lord, was I a piker.) So The Wall Street Journal has great customers. The Wall Street Journal is Bloomingdale's. Even so, the most-read thing in each day's Journal before its recent changes was the two columns called "What's News" that summarized all the things that weren't in that day's Journal.

The front page of the Journal had its three long stories, and the paper then had page after page of financial-news arcana, business-related Washington coverage, comprehensive stock tables, editorials from somewhere to the right of the planet Jupiter, and "Pepper ... and Salt." (Do I remember right that in the 1980s there was a controversy about this standard-bearer of journalism running largely verbatim news releases on inside pages under the byline "By a Wall Street Journal Staff Reporter"?) Saying the paper was being read primarily for the ledes and the A-hed is like saying most people bought Playboy for the interviews.

Probably unlike most journalists now in their 50s, I grew up with The Wall Street Journal; my father got it every day, my mother made a Dictabelt recording of my reading it aloud when I was very young -- and I remember in the 1960s my father's commenting on the amusing A-heds. But he bought the paper to read about the financial climate and its effects on soybeans and combines. (He took Playboy, too, and he liked the interviews, but he knew what he bought it for.)

We shall continue.

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