As newspapers seek profits, where are the prophets?

November 03, 2007

This column was originally posted in 1999 in
The American Reporter
July 9, 1999
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IN A PROFIT-CONSCIOUS JOURNALISM, WHERE ARE THE PROPHETS?

By Allan R. Andrews
American Reporter Correspondent

WASHINGTON – The words have become a mantra of modern journalism: “Keep the readers in mind; we work for our readers; we must give the readers what they want.”

I confess I sometimes take a cynical view of these admonitions, believing that for many in the newspaper business the term “reader” has become an acceptable euphemism for “sale,” as in “keep the sales in mind; we work for our sales.”

In fact, it’s become quite natural in the growing economic jargon of journalism to slip into speaking about “customers” instead of “readers.”

Quite recently, I heard a well-known newspaper designer making an eloquent plea for editors to keep readers in mind. His ringing personal charge in this direction was expressed when he said, “I am a slave to the customer.”

Well, that may be fine for designers working to satisfy corporate clients, but it’s a worrisome stance for an editor to be taking.

Surrounded by and pressured by the fiscal realities of the newspaper business, editors can be forgiven if they slip into a mentality that appeals not to intelligent readers but to units of the market subsumed as consumers (or customers, if you will).

Editors who slip may be forgiven. Editors who commit to such a mentality must be challenged at every turn.

In the business offices of many newspapers, the question of whether or not the newspaper (aka “the product”) is read becomes secondary to the question of whether or not the consumer has plunked down his or her money to carry off the product.

In the business of journalism, the product, like so many bars of soap or models of automobile, becomes generic; its packaging and marketing defines the mission of not only the business office but of the editorial staff.

Perhaps I speak for a minority, but I think modern journalism’s suspect credibility has less to do with our ethical lapses than with our mimicking of promoters and advertisers. We’ve barked so much about our product that we’ve fallen in with the snake-oil salesmen and the carnival con artists.

In our compulsive concern with “giving our readers what they want” we’ve redefined our readers as persons who do everything with a newspaper except read it.

Modern editors have begun to put more stock in the judgment of consumer focus groups than in the editorial judgment of their professional staff.

In a frightening irony, many modern editors are worrying more about readers they don’t have than concerning themselves with supplying the readers the publication does have.

I know the financial arguments against my case: Newspapers are losing circulation. We live in a visual age. Young people want pictures not words. The modern digital age of computers is sounding the death knell of the printed page. No customers, no advertisers; no advertisers, no newspaper. News is changing. It’s no longer gathered; it’s created, shaped and spun.

Which leads me to my premise, a perhaps overshadowed and forgotten premise, but the most important premise nevertheless: News is not a commodity! It is vital information to the defense and growth of pluralistic democracy.

Just as politicians alienate constituents when they begin to perceive the people merely as votes, so editors alienate readers once they begin to perceive readers as customers.

It is the job of newspaper advertising departments to go after readers the newspaper doesn’t have; it is the job of editors to educate and inform the readers a newspaper already has.

Faithful readers don’t want news as a commodity; they want good stories and reliable information.

Editors who allow their mentality to tilt toward customers who are not buying the paper are doing a disservice to established readers. A slave to the customer cannot be a servant of the reader. In trying to build circulation with gimmickry and condescension, many newspapers are taking faithful readers for granted and feeding them more style than substance.

My corollary is that while editors may determine what is news, they don’t do so in order to sell newspapers. The best editors work to inform and educate the public; they do it to keep the public from becoming the sorry and silent sheep that marketers, bureaucrats and manipulative politicians often assume them to be.

My argument flies in the face of the philosophy of modern corporate media moguls. I’m sorry if my premise represents a dying, minority view; it may well be that the editor’s voice has become a voice in a profit-wilderness.

Treating news as a commodity delivers such bastardized information categories as “celebrity journalism,” “sensational journalism,” and “news you can use.” It also turns over responsible editorial judgment and criticism to accountants, bookkeepers and amateur journalists.

It’s not newspapers that are threatened by our devouring “bottom-line” mentality; it is the very core of democracy that depends on the free flow of information that newspapers should be pressing for and providing.

I’m not attacking newspapers as businesses. That’s why newspapers have advertising, marketing and circulation departments. I’m attacking editors who surrender their editorial vision for the sake of customers.

An editor’s calling is to keep the prophets among us in view, not the profits.

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