Readers, not journalists, decide what sells newspapers

May 21, 2008|By BOB MAGINNIS

In French, a "canard" is a duck, but in modern English, the word has come to have a much different meaning. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes that while the English meaning is derived from a French expression vendre des canards moiti - to cheat, literally, to half-sell ducks, canard means something different today.

Now the dictionary defines it as a "groundless rumor or belief."

Like what? Like "all politicians are crooks" or "no woman knows how to parallel park."

Then there's my least favorite: "You're just doing this to sell newspapers."

Of course, people in the newspaper business want to sell their product. It's a business as well as a public service and success is measured, to a great extent, by the number of papers sold or by the number of times someone reads a story - or several - on a newspaper's Web site.

But what makes the allegation a canard is that it implies that instead of doing responsible reporting, newspaper staff members - in the cases their critics cite - are doing stories to sell the product, as opposed to responsible news coverage.


The easiest answer to that accusation is that although we know, through market research and focus groups, what readers want in general - the same things in the same place in the paper each day, for example. But determining which story will catch the public's imagination is difficult.

For example, in February 2004, two residents of Antietam Drive in Hagerstown found a small deer wandering near Godlove's Liquors.

The residents took the deer in, named it "Bucky" and began feeding it. That put them at odds with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which told them that private citizens can't keep wild animals as pets.

DNR officials said they would like to euthanize the deer and test it for disease. Readers responded as if someone had suggested exterminating all of the nation's bald eagles.

The Today Show did a segment on Bucky, actress Kirstie Alley got involved and the plight of one deer became, for many, a riveting story.

Who'd have predicted that the fate of one deer would become such a public cause, especially in a county where deer hunting is a revered tradition?

A more recent story - the energy-saving light bulbs that Allegheny Energy sent to its customers - at their cost - riled readers far more than other, more expensive problems they were facing.

But the two stories had a couple of things in common. Both were relatively simple, as opposed to a lot of government policy stories. And both offered readers the chance to change things, if they protested loudly enough.

But could the newspaper have orchestrated either one of them? Probably not.

Those other stories, the ones about technical subjects or political-insider stuff that journalists struggle to write about in ways that will make readers care, are a tougher sell.

Don't take my word for it. In September of last year, the Pew Research Center for the Press and the People released a study of which newspaper stories people read and why.

The study of newspaper reader preferences from 1986 to 2007 found that readers' top subjects of interest had remained almost unchanged, with the top five topics including war, weather, disaster, money and crime.

In the 1990s, when Americans felt more secure, those who said they followed the news "very closely" dropped from 30 percent to 23 percent. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it jumped back to 30 percent again.

Roy Greenslade, who wrote about the study for The Media Giraffe Project, said that "In other words, peoples' interest in news is much more intense when there is a perceived threat to their way of life. They care much less about what happens around them when they enjoy relative peace and/or relative prosperity."

Greenslade concluded that, in many cases, readers don't pay close attention to the details of how government works unless there is "a perceived threat to their way of life."

That could be a tax increase, a bridge closure or something else, but in all cases, it's something beyond the newspaper's control.

The survey suggests that newspapers are sold not because journalists deviously craft ways to whip up circulation, but because the paper provides good and useful information on topics that readers are already worried about.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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