Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tribune Make a Profound Misstep

During a brief respite from Swine, sorry H1N1, Flu Terror, I read this story about who the Chicago Tribune 'pre-tested' some stories on readers and surveyed them for opinions about those stories.

That may not sound like a big deal. Television and movie producers frequently pre-test on audiences. The purpose of that testing ? To determine if changes need to be made to please audiences.

That might be a great idea if your concern is box office receipts, but it kind of runs afoul of well, every tenant of journalism, basically.

Obviously newspapers are in deep trouble and are willing to try a lot of ideas that would formerly been rejected out of hand. They need revenue- advertising and circulation. Advertisers want to see circulation. Happy readers mean better circulation.

When it comes to issues like timely delivery, the design format of the newspaper, the quality of the paper and the printing, these are all areas where customer feedback should be tantamount to the paper's effort.

When it comes to the stories that are in development however, the customer can't be involved in that process while the paper maintaining any hope of journalistic integrity. It's one thing to to poll readers about stories they have already read as long as that is done in the proper way (even that can be problematic). It's quite another to collect their feedback about yet to be published material because it at the very least creates the possibility that reader input will affect the way that stories, or even which stories, are developed.

That may be fine for the internet, where news is much more viral and interactive- although I'll argue (not here and now) that there is a place for old-school journalistic process even on the web, alongside the free-range version- but in the newsroom the consumer should be just that, an end-user that interacts with the news by reading it, not by determining what t will be or how it will be presented. Even the suggestion of that sort of impropriety is...

...unfortunate at best.

Is journalistic integrity really that important ? If pre-polling readers can save a newspaper, shouldn't they do it ?

In a word, no. I would really like to see the big dailies get their heads out of their asses and figure out how to deliver the news 21st century style- and I have my ideas on that and it isn't cutting staff. But if it comes down to not printing the news, or printing the news people want to read the way they want to read it, then better to stop printing it all together. There's no point to having a sycophantic press.

Of course, the Tribune's misstep was a just a test, and there's no hard evidence that it actually affected stories as published. The problem that there's even one single nitwit (and this wasn't a case of one single nitwit) who would actually think this was a valid idea...

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