Last spring we released a report titled “How to Appraise and Improve Your Daily Newspaper: A Manual for Readers” at the Washington Hilton, where the nation’s newspaper editors were having their annual convention. Since, to our knowledge, no similar manual had been produced before, we awaited the reaction from the press with more than normal interest.
With a few exceptions, including the newspaper trade press, the response was quite sensible. Indeed, a slowly growing number of newspapers are beginning to treat, readers as consumers entitled to feed back their needs and opinions.
In a remarkable full-page feature on June 10,. 1978, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution printed excerpts from the manual and devoted nearly half the space to readers’ criticisms about the newspapers along with the names of editors to whom complaints or suggestions could be sent.
Other newspapers are opening their pages to opinion columns by local residents and are enlarging their letters-to-the-editor space. A few of the larger newspapers have full-time ombudsmen who handle reader complaints and write occasional articles of self-scrutiny about their papers. One paper, the Louisville Courier-Journal even added an ombudsman for circulation and one for advertising in 1977.
Paying attention to readers as consumers comes not surprisingly at a time of rapidly increasing concentration of daily newspaper ownership. These newspapers enjoy local monopoly in more than 97 percent of the towns where they operate.
In a candid article on newspaper chains, the Los Angeles Times noted that “almost 1,100 of the nation’s 1,759 dailies are now chain-owned and independent papers are being acquired by chains at the rate of 50 or 60 a year.” One report predicted that in two decades, almost all daily newspapers in America will be owned by about two dozen major communications conglomerates.
When a daily newspaper has a monopoly in its city or town, the advertisers have no other comparative print alternative (apart from some weeklies). So the more enlightened publishers try to deliver a wider readership and a more intensely interested and loyal reader. This is especially advisable in areas where overall readership has been declining.
But both publishers and editors know that readers often do not have a set of standards for judging whether their paper is meeting their needs or wants. True, they may and do turn off a paper whose reporting, feature and editorial resources are strip-mined for conglomerate or single-company profit. However, switching off is less likely to produce higher newspaper quality than a responsible assertion of reader contact with their newspaper.
The purpose of our reader’s manual is to provide people with information about various ways some newspapers have sought to be more responsive and to highlight standards which can be applied to various sections of the newspaper.
A.M. Rosenthal, managing editor of The New York Times–a newspaper that has no ombudsman and has resisted any cooperation with the National News Council–nevertheless made a telling point when he said: “The consumer who would raise hell if he were shortchanged at the supermarket or who found himself buying watered milk says nothing and does nothing to try to persuade the local editor or publisher or broadcaster that he does want to know what is going on in the world….”
It’s really a matter of asking basic questions as readers arid then deciding the best way to communicate them to the editors. Here are samples Does the food section print stories about nutrition, food additives and sanitation problems which help consumers, even though they may irritate the food companies in stores which advertise heavily in that part of the paper? Does the real estate section provide news to homeowners and tenants which they need, notwithstanding the displeasure of the advertisers of that section?
How many reporters are there to cover state and local news? Are the editorials written on the premises or are they often “canned” from the national service that grinds them out? Do readers have an adequate opportunity to write letters or columns for publication in the newspaper? Is there is a balanced mix of syndicated columnists or is there bias for columnists who criticize government but rarely take business to task?
How much space does the newspaper devote to theinternational and national news? What is the ratio betweenspace sold to advertisers and space dedicated to news, features and opinions?
Readers who wish to know more about newspaper standard may write to the National News Council, 1 Lincoln Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10023.