Why not use research to edit the paper?
More of them should do it. And it’s pretty easy, too, as I’ll discuss in a moment.
Well-executed research is a valuable tool for the managers of any consumer-oriented business. The long-running plunge in newspaper circulation is proof that the industry is not pleasing enough of its intended customers. Thoughtful research, thoughtfully applied, could help the industry arrest the decline by becoming more customer-driven.
Journalists at the Tribune were properly up in arms last week when they learned the marketing department was asking consumers what they thought of specific stories potentially destined for upcoming editions of the newspaper.
Telling the public what you are going to publish before you are done reporting and writing the story is poor practice, admitted Trib editor Gerould Kern, who said he was unaware of the research until staffers sent him an email urging him to stop it. “To prematurely disseminate information about stories in progress compromises reporting,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons, such as potential legal [issues], fairness, accuracy and completeness.”
Emailing summaries of upcoming news stories to 9,000 people seems particularly inadvisable in a competitive news town like Chicago, where the Sun-Times, Huffington Post-Chicago, ESPN Chicago and several enterprising broadcast outlets would be only too happy to spoil any pending Trib scoop.
The inelegant execution of the Trib project should not be taken as an argument against the value of blending consumer sentiment with sound journalistic judgment in editing a newspaper or website.
While editors would not have the time or money to conduct formal polling to determine reader preferences on a day-to-day basis, they can get instant, ongoing snapshots of consumer sentiment by monitoring the traffic on their websites and local Twitter feeds.
Website logs show not only the stories people are reading the most but also which ones they took time to email to their friends. Even though many newspaper sites actually publish a list of most-emailed stories, it is not clear that most editors consider this information when laying out the paper. (This is not possible, of course, when stories are published in print before they appear on the website.)
The editor of a distinguished newspaper in South America told me that he posts stories to his website as soon as they clear the editing process. He watches website activity through the evening and takes the relative interest in each story into account when he lays out the print product at 10 p.m.
This is not to say editors should yield their professional responsibility or news judgment to a stream of meandering tweets.
But taking advantage of the rich empirical data available to modern editors beats the decidedly unscientific research I conducted when I ran the city desk of the Sun-Times in the early 1980s.
While schlepping to the office on the bus and the L, used to peek over the shoulders of fellow commuters to see which stories they were reading. Although I occasionally gleaned some useful information, I also got a lot of dirty looks.