Working for readers, what a concept
I read as I wake up, drinking in stories as well as coffee. I read myself to sleep, generally slipping from one of a handful of books I’m working on to the next.
I nearly ended my true-love relationship before it began by taking my future wife out to breakfast for the first time and then reading the Sunday LA Times. More damning, I didn’t understand how that could possibly be a problem.
My mother, the teacher, knew to read to her children at every opportunity. My father brought home the paper – we kids fought over the funnies after he was done, like puppies on bones. And when he wasn’t working or sailing, he was reading one thick book or another. The TV was broken; we only got the sound. Looking back, that was a good thing.
So, though it took knees going south on me, I wound up in a reading career. I can’t say newspapers, first shot at history, minor leagues of literature, are my favorite. Can’t say that about magazines, books or Web sites, either. I’m stuck on all of them. The printed word’s the thing.
I’m all too clinical about my own paper. I see the warts, I read for the goofs, I rue where we fall short. Free of the editor’s lament, though, I read other papers for the nuggets of perspective, clues I guess to the very meaning of life. The eclectic nature of the newspaper is what intrigues me, once I’m past the day’s box scores, a last vice along with coffee and the occasional beer.
The other night, in the bathroom actually, I flipped through my pile of papers, tossing pages with stories that interested me into the bath tub and the rest on the floor. It was about 50-50 between the keepers and recyclers.
What caught my eye? “”Ecoroofs’ lure urbanites, planners back to the garden,” the headline over a story about enough sod atop some commercial buildings in big cities for gardens and lawns. On the same page there’s a brief about the president of the University of Massachusetts defending his decision not to tell the police that his fugitive mobster brother had contacted him.
There’s the inevitable medical study that having a pot belly raises your chance of heart attack, along with the coverage of eternal Sen. Strom Thurmond turning 100 in office; no pot belly, the photos reveal.
Let’s see, continuing ed for doctors sometimes is a rip-off, in reality junkets provided by pharmaceuticals hoping the docs will buy their drugs. Molds have become a problem for certain large hotel chains. More Americans really are putting families ahead of work. Motorists like to use their computerized navigational systems on the road, creating yet another hazard for the rest of us. Scientists have decoded the mouse genome, breaking new ground in the gene race. A war in Iraq would have an unpredictable effect on the stock markets, the experts say.
Oh, and a piece on how fitness clubs, yoga practitioners, cell phone businesses and others are giving discounts to out-of-work Yuppies. Those folks get all the breaks.
I made myself read up on United Airlines’ woes, and then an editorial on their situation for some more perspective. And there was a little history lesson on how German and English soldiers declared unofficial cease-fires for Christmas Eve in December 1914, the first one of World War I. It was more complicated and chaotic in life than fiction, but touching nonetheless.
Not bad for a half-hour’s reading outside my own paper. Of course, I know that somehow I’m not the typical newspaper reader. For one, I spent more time and plowed through more papers than is typical. For another, despite such treasure troves each day, daily newspaper readership has slowly declined over the past half-century in America even if I’m a lifelong lock.
I do think there are reasons outside the newspapers themselves – advent of television and the Web; fewer papers and more one-paper towns, with less competition; a rising supremacy in entertainment over knowledge; literacy at a low ebb; less interest in “news” as the newspapers traditionally have known it.
A book or two recently have pointed fingers at perceived partisan or ideological biases among the news media. I think the far bigger concern should be over the growing legion of Americans who don’t care about any of that “political” stuff and as a result are rather clueless about decisions that govern their daily lives. The line tracking voter turnout in elections nationally looks roughly like the one showing daily readership, interestingly and depressingly enough.
The newspaper industry is hardly helpless, though. We can make our papers better, and more relevant to today’s readers. The biggest factor may well be in our power to correct. We need to really, truly work obsessively, single-mindedly for the readers. What a revelation!
The freshest readership research, unsurprisingly, shows that the mission extents outside the newsroom, as well. Customer service, more attractive advertising, promoting the paper and its upcoming coverage – all these things can make a difference. But the core of the challenge lies with the journalists, even if the onus of responsibility falls to the owners.
The Daily has been working to improve and – I’m happy to note – mainly along the lines suggested by the latest research. We well know we’re not nearly where we want to be, or ought to be – this road is long and full of bumps. We need to make our papers far more compelling than an “eat your peas” experience while avoiding the pitfalls of sugary pandering. The dark side of an initiative to build readership lies in neglecting our imperative to inform.
Still, the quest is just, at this bastion of democracy as we know it. No matter where we are read – just as long as we are read, and are worth reading.
Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or firstname.lastname@example.org