Want a Cookie, Little Reader?

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Posted August 15, 2007 by DAN MCGRAW in News

Ten years ago, I got four newspapers delivered to my house every day. These days, I don’t get a single one, not even the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The management folks in the newspaper industry blame the internet for this trend, and I agree to some extent. No reason to read the sports page in print, because I have gotten the scores the night before on ESPN.com. National news breaks online, and the print version of the S-T always seems a few days old. That part of the argument is true.

But when newspaper editors and bean-counters explain why circulation numbers have been dropping in recent years, they avoid one word: content. This is the same as a baker claiming people aren’t buying her cookies because grocery stores have put them on a bad shelf or because of an ad agency’s crummy ideas. But maybe it’s because the cookies taste bad.

When I did a story for Fort Worth Weekly recently on issues surrounding Lake Worth, area residents – most of them older – told me they weren’t getting the daily paper anymore either. These are not young folks raised in the online world, and most said they remembered the day when picking up the local paper was their sunrise. Most said they could read the paper now in about five minutes, because there wasn’t much in it they cared about.

Idon’t mean to pick on the S-T. Travel anywhere in the country, and you see the same thing. Reprints of wire service stories. Local coverage so intent on objectivity that it fails to tell the real story. Columnists who are more afraid to offend than to stimulate debate. And coverage of cultural and political issues so superficial that it leaves out the real world. The problem with newspapers in terms of content these days is twofold. Newspapers cover stories in the same way they did 50 years ago, just because that’s the way they have always done it. And at some point in the last 20 years, when the populace decided that bias was the key problem with the media, news bosses started avoiding controversy.

The old model was simple. Most citizens had no time to attend things like council meetings, no easy way to get police reports or corporate news, so reporting on those things made it easy to fill the space in between the ads. Times have changed, yet papers still do the same thing. I go to Fort Worth City Council meetings, and most of them, on the surface, produce little important news. The stories about them, therefore, aren’t that interesting.

Then there’s just habit. Why do most newspapers publish their food section on Wednesdays? Because that was the day grocery stores ran their biggest ads. Ever wonder why the features sections seem to be dominated by feminine issues? That is because, in the old days, women weren’t seen as being fit to work on hard news, so they got the section about weddings. And after all these years, the feature section is still mostly about women and weddings and where to put plants in your yard.

The point news executives are missing is that the problem is not how news is delivered, but what it says. Instead of digging deeper on local stories, they are making everything shorter, dumbing it down. “Focus groups” tell researchers they don’t want to read long investigative stories. But maybe they should ask whether people want to read long and interesting pieces.
I became aware of the Lake Worth issues – environmental, political, historical, and social – about a year ago. I figured it was such a big issue the S-T would pounce on it pretty fast. So I waited. The daily did a couple of stories on dredging and Barnett-Shale money, but never connected them. I waited some more. And then my editor said (in a very forcible voice) “Let’s go with it.” And as I researched and wrote, I figured each morning that I’d see the story in the daily (online, not from a paper in my driveway).

So why didn’t the Star-Telegram write that story? It had lots going for it: financial issues, environmental questions, citizens battling to preserve a major natural and recreational area. Once again, it’s because of how they’d always done things. Each beat reporter covers his or her corner of the world – city council, environmental, business, political. This one had all of them, but no editor figured out that those can be combined.

Why do I want my direct competitors to be better? I just want the local paper to inspire what they call “appointment reading” – I want to feel that I have to take time to read it. Instead I get chopped-up sets of short takes, most of which feel rehashed or shallow. It takes five minutes. It’s a bad cookie.


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