Wake-up call for newspapers: News begins closer to home

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The newspaper industry seems to be exhibiting the same indifference to what their customers actually want as the auto industry.

In my last column I wrote about how Ford Motor Co. is intent on trying to shape its brand as an idealized version of what it wants its cars to stand for-without taking into consideration what car buyers already think about the brand.

The company is starting a big ad campaign to emphasize the "scientific innovation" that goes into its cars, even though the lineup of hybrid vehicles that is inspiring this approach won't be available for another five years.

Newspapers are encumbered with similar hubris-at least the editors are. They want to give their readers what they think they should read with little regard to what they want to read.

But as Bob Garfield so brilliantly pointed out, consumers don't listen to marketers talk about themselves: "They're listening to each other talk about" marketers.

The moral of the story is that marketers no longer have control of what consumers think about their brands, but the poor souls are still acting as if they do. Can you imagine what car buyers are going to say to each other about Ford's empty claim?

In the same way, big-city newspapers sometimes have delusions of grandeur. A case in point is The Los Angeles Times, whose editorial gyrations were profiled in The New Yorker by Ken Auletta. The editors' "obsession with matching America's best newspapers," Mr. Auletta reported, "came at the expense of local coverage."

The newspaper, for instance, cut its Orange County bureau from about 200 people to about 20 (Orange County has scaled back, according to one of the editors, because "it was marketing; it wasn't journalism.")

The Washington bureau was expanded from 55 to 61 people, second in size only to The New York Times; and the editors spent millions of dollars covering Iraq. The paper has 24 overseas bureaus-three more than The Washington Post, Mr. Auletta reported.

The crux of the problem, from management's point of view, is that "journalists make `too many fake arguments' about how newspaper companies are trying `to dumb down,' rather than asking how newspapers can attract new readers ... We have to be more open to what consumers want," Dennis FitzSimons, Tribune Co.'s CEO, told Mr. Auletta.

But editors too often think they know what readers should be reading rather than what they want to read, and they view any attempts to find out what readers want as pandering. "It's not always our job to give readers what they want," an L.A. Times editor told Mr. Auletta. "What if they don't want war coverage or foreign coverage or to see poverty in their communities?"

Fair enough, but what if they also want to read about the lighter side of local news-church socials, high-school sports, new-business openings? That's considered "just marketing" by editors, and it's gotten to the point where good journalism is at odds with marketing efforts to grow circulation.

Marketing in too many circles is considered a pejorative word, associated with smoke and mirrors and sleight-of-hand tricks. I remember reading about a Ford guy saying he slapped some extra chrome on a Mustang and was able to charge several thousand dollars more; that, to him, was what marketing was all about.

Newspapers are in a fight for their lives over diminishing circulation caused in part because readers don't view them as pertinent to their lives. The question that newspaper people on both sides of the fence have must resolve is whether to give readers what they want even if it's not what editors think they should have.

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