“No way to run a news organization that wants to grow”

The News & Record published a letter to the editor Sunday in which a reader attempted to school the paper on how to build its business. Well, not exactly: the writer was criticizing what he perceived as the paper’s liberal outlook on the world.

“Commercial media, especially newspapers and magazines, are losing subscribers and advertisers to the Internet. So what is the News & Record doing to survive? Not what a smart business would do.

“Instead of trying to build the base of subscribers, the paper seems determined to irritate and criticize them with feature stories and editorials that are totally biased and unbalanced.”

I’ve read dozens of letters similar to this during my time in the editor’s office. I wish I had responded to each one because they are based on a false assumption about newspapers. And any time spent explaining journalism’s role in democracy is time well spent. Here is the letter I would have written back. (Journalists, feel free to steal it without attribution, if you like.)

Dear sir,

Thank you for writing. We always like to hear from our readers. We especially like to hear from readers who think we get it wrong because it gives us a chance to improve.

It’s true that the newspaper business model is in disruption. I’ll even go further: it’s gotten half-assed crazy.

The news department prints the news as it sees fit, hewing the best that it can to the idea that it selects news that will help people live a productive, interesting and fruitful lives. The news department sees its customers as the community as a whole. At its core we believe that the purpose of journalism is, as defined by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthiel, “to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” More on that in a bit.

The advertising department sells placement in the newspaper to businesses, promising to deliver their message to tens of thousands of newspaper customers in the area. Its primary customer is the advertiser. Advertisers have no say in the news that surrounds their ads, which occasionally upsets some of them, but not that often. They simply want our customers to frequent their businesses. We do, too, because it means their advertising in our paper works.

Our circulation department sells subscriptions based on the premise that the newspaper delivers value for a reasonably cheap price: You  get news from the neighborhood and the world, information about shopping, and sports and puzzles and comics, all delivered to your home every day. Its primary customer is the person who buys the paper. And, oh my goodness, yes, it has to help readers upset about the paper’s content.

Our editorial department offers reasoned opinion on its page or pages every day. It attempts to offer a mix of opinion and analysis up and down the spectrum from conservative to liberal. It publishes nearly every letter it receives regardless of whether it agrees or whether the letter is critical, just as it published yours. The editorial pages often publish opinions from local and national writers it doesn’t agree with, as it should. It’s a place which embraces John Milton’s and John Stuart Mill’s idea of being a “marketplace of ideas.”

So, each department’s customers are different, and each department’s measures of customer satisfaction are different. Crazy business model, huh? However, it has worked for hundreds of years. It’s just not working that well anymore.

Back to the purpose of journalism and the idea of publishing information citizens need to be free and self-governing. That occasionally means that some people will not like to read that, say, their favorite candidate is being criticized by his opponent on the front page. Some might disagree with the opinions espoused on the editorial pages. But it’s what independent newspapers do. We follow the news where it leads us, and, like you, the editorial board voices its opinion. Unlike television news, we offer readers like you the opportunity to publish their opinions on the editorial page right next to our editorials.

You mention that you believe our readership is conservative; best we can tell our readership is balanced, although it frequently acts like a seesaw, moving back and forth. Regardless, we take pride in our independence and resist pandering to one particular political viewpoint. For instance, while we tend to be progressive, we have endorsed many conservative politicians. When we write about local people and issues, we try to be thorough, accurate and fair. When we fail, it’s not purposeful. I hope that when you see specific instances when we’re unfair or biased on our news pages, you let me know.

A final note just between us: We aren’t really trying to “grow” the business. That bird has flown, thanks to the internet and our industry’s short-sighted strategies. We, along with most other newspapers, are just hanging on as we try to figure out a workable business model. Yet we still value your business, and I hope you value the commitment we have.

Thank you again for taking the time to write. We will continue to publish a variety of news and opinion, and I hope you’ll continue to read us even as we raise your blood pressure on occasion.

Best wishes,

The editor

One thought on ““No way to run a news organization that wants to grow”

  1. Thanks, John, for this great letter. Please keep up the good work in bringing the news to us. Recently when all “news” stations could not stop repeating and repeating themselves it was helpful to go to your site for other real information.

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