Thursday, August 17, 2006

A key purpose of my book, and the idea behind the title, is to shatter the false but oft-invoked dichotomy in news judgment between what's "important" and what's "interesting."

The latest example of this false dichotomy is displayed in a provocative and generally useful essay by design consultant Alan Jacobson called "How to sell more newspapers."

Jacobson's first premise is that, inherent in any newsperson's plan to redesign or innovate, is the intention to boost circulation, and that recognizing this will allow for more creative and realistic decisions. (The development of this premise leads to how readers much prefer crosswords and comics to news content, so stop being so smug, Joe Editor.) This is all useful rhetoric to the extent that it encourages holistic thinking toward the newspaper and reminds news folks to be humble as they pursue their goals, which include selling newspapers but -- and this is where Jacobson jumps the tracks -- are not SOLELY to sell newspapers.

If the single overriding goal of a newspaper were to sell itself, and public service journalism weren't an effective sales tool, the solution would be to run the jumble and Soduko all over the front page, with extended horoscopes and comics through the rest of the A-section. To do that, though, would be to kill the newspaper. The idea that any content and marketing decision is acceptable if it sells papers neglects the simple fact that a newspaper without news has ceased to be. Call the result whatever you want -- a shopper, a direct advertising tool -- but stop calling it a newspaper.

To preserve newspapers, then, we have to direct our innovations -- and Jacobson is correct that they must be bold, noticeable and sustained -- in the service of providing news and information the community finds valuable enough to pay for.

Here's where the false dichotomy comes in. In his section titled "Update the news paradigm," Jacobson says, "If anything, we're losing readers because we're too focused on what's important to the exclusion of news that matters to them."

This is an oft-repeated and readily accepted argument, but it leads me to wonder how its proponents are defining the word "important." Because, without participating in the literary ritual of reaching for a dictionary, I'd define "important" as "something that matters."

Jacobson goes on to contrast "importance" with "compelling, relevant and interesting" stories, which again implies some mutual exclusivity.

Here's the part that's easy to concede to Jacobson: The overwhelming majority of important newspaper stories are not compelling, relevant and interesting. But here's where I challenge the dichotomy: The overwhelming majority of important newspaper stories CAN and SHOULD be compelling, relevant and interesting.

Part of the problem in this debate is that detractors of "important" news use it as a synonym for traditional government process news emanating from institutions. This is the stuff that's loaded with proper names and large jargony terms and never seems to meet readers on their level. The news is IMPORTANT because what the president, and Congress, and the state legislature and City Hall do -- which includes taking the country to war, monitoring the safety of food and drugs, deciding how old you have to be to drink alcohol, telling you how much of your paycheck you can keep, dictating whether your kids go to nice bright schools or drafty old shacks, determining where you can skateboard, fixing bridges that are about to collapse and a few hundred thousand other things -- MATTERS to people. These decisions are of unquestionable day-to-day relevance, whether you're a policy wonk or a total civic recluse.

Journalists' job is not to pick "interesting" stories over "important" ones -- it's to use journalism to demonstrate why the important news IS interesting and relevant and compelling. As Jacobson points out, this often comes down to news judgment. The traditional process story might not be the most important story on the budget. And figuring out new ways to communicate important but incremental news -- through the update format or formatted graphics or whatever -- while devoting more time and energy to ferreting out the people and impact behind significant news stories, gives newspapers the flexibility to produce compelling content that fulfills their public service role.

So for a shot in the arm on what newspapers need to build audiences and sell newspapers, read Jacobson's piece. But don't buy the argument that selling papers means being less important. Be more important, more interestingly. Be so important that people feel like they can't miss a day.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:03 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.