Newspapers Writing for Selves, Not Readers?

Jim Romenesko summarizes a CJR editorial:

Walter Pincus points out that the Washington Post won nineteen Pulitzers in the last decade, but lost more than 120,000 readers in that time. “Why? My answer, unpopular among my colleagues, is that while many of these longer efforts were worthwhile, they took up space and resources that could have been used to give readers a wider selection of stories about what was going on, and that may have directly affected their lives.”

Now, I’m not sure there’s any evidence that striving for Pulitzers is a major factor in the decline of newspapers. But there is something to the larger point about the mainstream press striving to produce news they consider “fit to print” (that thing which the NYT claims to give you all of) rather than things their potential customers are actually interested in reading.

Matt Yglesias cites David Simon’s sneer, “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day I will no longer be worried about journalism.”   Matt rightly notes that very few people are interested in reading the resulting reportage:

Most people I know are pretty ill-informed about local issues in Washington, DC. And while it’s true that the coverage of local issues in DC offered by The Washington Post is not all it could be, the fact of the matter is that most people don’t even know what you could be learning by reading the Post. Not only is it going to be intrinsically difficult to ever find a viable revenue model for paying a reporter to cover the zoning board if people don’t want to read about the zoning board, I’m not actually sure how much social value is created by unread articles about zoning boards.

Quite so.  And, presumably, part of the reason WaPo doesn’t have the best possible local coverage is that its management realizes this.   Further, as Matt also notes, Simon’s premise isn’t even true.  Lots of bloggers are doing hyper-local better than the newspapers, as they’re written by people passionate about a niche for people passionate about a niche.   The guy who would be covering DC zoning issues for the Post almost surely is doing that biding his time until he can get a more interesting beat.

Photo by Flickr user Matt Callow, used under Creative Commons license.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think the premise isn’t entirely wrong but is an overstatement. Copy writers and editors have their own objectives and that’s reflected in what they do. That’s always been true. When the cost of entry into the newspaper market was high and there wasn’t any competition from other sides those objectives could be allowed free rein without hurting the bottom line much.

    It’s that last bit that’s changed.

  2. Boyd says:

    I think this misses the point.

    The problem in journalism as I see it is not so much what topics the newspapers decide to cover. It’s rather how they end up writing the articles.

    From reading today’s major newspapers, I can only conclude newspapers no longer employ reporters because they’re all authors. They’re writing for those Pulitzers by making their articles “interesting,” as opposed to reporting.

    Nothing infuriates me more than not being able to find out about a topic without having to fight my way through the author’s opinion and “cuteness.” Don’t they teach reporting in J-school any more?

    Give me Who What When and Where. Some How might be good. Keep the Why back in the Opinion pages, labeled as opinion.

    I don’t know, maybe those types of articles would be more boring than the crap that passes for reporting these days, but at least it imparted information, unlike today’s reportage.

    Yeah, I’m an old fart. And GIT OFFA MY LAWN!

  3. lunacy says:

    Here, here!

    –Nothing infuriates me more than not being able to find out about a topic without having to fight my way through the author’s opinion and “cuteness.”–

    Often it doesn’t strike me as cuteness or an attempt to make things interesting. I think there is a real lack of the concept of reporting all the meat at the top of the article and elaborating as it goes on.

    I never went to J-school but I’m degreed in language arts ed (no longer occupied as such, having moved on through post grad). BUT (I digress!) I learned, and taught, that the reader should be able to find who, what, where, when, and possibly why, within the first sentence or two, or three if the story is complex. Then the reader can decide if they wish to proceed.

    I HATE it when they make me struggle for the most basic information. It’s like they leave the facts lying around someplace on the floor of the article.

  4. Mike P says:

    Well there already are outlets in both NY and DC that do the local thing better than the big boys. Nobody here in NYC reads the Times for local news, because the Times isn’t a local paper. If you want to know what’s going on in NYC, you read the Post, or the Daily News or the Observer. In DC, you probably can get a good sense of what’s shaking by reading things like the Washingtonian and the City Paper.

    I’m getting a master’s in journalism now and while the basics that both lunacy and Boyd mention are both stressed, I think, again, it really depends on what paper you’re reading. The Times will frequently use delayed leads and the like, where, again, if you picked up the Daily News, you’d get a pity intro, but the story would spool out quickly for the reader.

  5. dennis neylon says:

    As another former journalism major now doing something else for a living, I am not so much frustrated by coverage or lack thereof of zoning boards issues (which are, for the most part, tedious and boring most of the time) but the lack of any meaningful coverage at all. I happen to live next to Detroit (literally; we are 250 feet from the city line). The two metro outlets (since they cut back on print, you can barely call them newspapers) barely covered the suburbs before, made obvious errors (having parallel streets cross, moving boundary lines, etc) when they did and coverage was shallow. Now it’s worse (a condition I would not have believed possible). The suburban 4 day a week paper does an infinitely better job. World and national coverage depends on the wire services, feature writing is nearly non-existent and they have early sports score deadlines that the newspaper I worked for 30 years ago would have found unacceptable (the cut off seems to be around 10 p.m. for non-local teams). Oddly, the local business coverage is very good. If it wasn’t for sports and the byzantine politics of the city of Detroit, I could get by with the local paper and the Wall Street Journal (thank God for the Wall Street Journal, a paper which still seems to employ reporters). I am often reminded of a line from when I was in Journalism school — Journalists are unemployed reporters. Unfortunately, today it would seem to be that the journalists are working and the reporters are not!

  6. lunacy says:

    Mike’s point about varied news sources isn’t valid in one newspaper communities like mine. Our population is roughly 400,000.

    So, one newspaper. And, sadly, the readers’ preference do play in this. I haven’t done statistical analysis but I’d bet the bank that readers here are more interested in the sports section than the local gov’t/zoning issues.

    Still, I don’t want to pay 1.50 to struggle to get my news.

  7. sam says:

    @Boyd

    Nothing infuriates me more than not being able to find out about a topic without having to fight my way through the author’s opinion and “cuteness.” Don’t they teach reporting in J-school any more?

    Well, maybe we could go back to the philosophy of journalism followed by one of James Thurber’s editors when Thurber was on the crime beat for a newspaper. The editor assembled all the reporters and told them, from now on, all stories had to begin with a one-word lede. So the next day, Thurber submitted a story that began:

    Dead.

    That was the way the man was the police found on the corner of 1st and Main yesterday morning.

    I once wrote for a magazine, and my editor was himself an old crime reporter. I told him this story, and he said, “Hey, that’s not a bad idea.”

  8. Mike P says:

    @Lunacy,
    You’re right in that one newspaper communities don’t have that luxury. That paper literally does have to be all things to all people, which means it won’t be able to do everything well and will, in fact, do some things poorly.

    @Sam,
    That’s actually the kind of thing you’d almost see in the NY Post or Daily News. They encourage their reporters to go for punchy, pithy ledes.