Nutritious French Fries

Over the last week or so, there has been a really interesting discussion on the Poynter online news listserv about local news, which has bopped all over the place from discussing what is local news to does anyone really care about local news? And, as the listserv’s recent activity proves, you know we’ve hit a new level of industry jargon when local news is referred to as a “niche vertical” or something to that effect.

Still, I’ve enjoyed reading it. (I wish I could link to it, but I can’t find an archive of it anywhere on the Poynter site.)

For me, one of the best lines in this discussion came this morning from Paul Swider, and — man oh man — does this quote work on so many frickin’ levels:

“… if we don’t ask what the customers want and respond, we’re done. Right now, we’re in a limbo between that and some idealistic view of journalism as art form produced for its own sake. I don’t think that when the readers ask for french fries we can insist they take brussels sprouts. We could offer nutritious french fries.”

Amen, Brother Swider.

For years, I’ve been saying we shouldn’t be ashamed of serving our readers, which is why I talk all the time about the need to produce both “Big-J” and “little-j” journalism. It’s the reason why on, we build huge local election guides and cover high school proms.

It’s not an “either-or” option. You’ve got to do both.

When I was back in Kansas, we would sometimes treat the family to a night at the Hereford House steakhouse. Holy crap, does that place rock. Anyway, believe it or not, there’s an important lesson about journalism to be learned from eating at the Hereford House.

When you order steak and potatoes from that place — and I would recommend you order the twice-baked potatoes with cheese on top when you’re lucky enough to eat there — you get exactly that delivered to your table.

But, as you look at your meal, you’ll notice that there also is some broccoli on your plate. You didn’t order the broccoli, but the chef knew you needed it. You wanted the steak; you needed the broccoli. So, you got both.

At every newspaper I’ve worked at, I’ve seen this to be true. If you give the readers their Kansas Jayhawks basketball story — even on the front page if it’s a big game — then they’ll also find the story on corruption in the police department. You give them what they want and you give them what they need.

Yet it seems to me that the problem with a lot of newspaper editors is they’d much rather feed you broccoli for every meal, without the steak and potatoes. And when they do try to serve up something a little more palatable, it sure tastes a lot like broccoli. It’s like they’re trying to impress the other chefs instead of trying to please the folks in the restaurant who actually pay their salaries.

(Sorry to mix metaphors here — or is it analogies? — but if you would like to hear the audio equivalent of most traditional newspapers trying to be relevant, click here.)

I know this is probably going to make me a little unpopular — or maybe that’s more unpopular — with some of the traditional journalism folks out there, but I actually agree with a lot of the things that Sam Zell has been saying lately.

We need to become more relevant to our audience. We have to make ourselves indispensable to our readers. We shouldn’t let a false sense of self-importance get in the way of trying to make news organizations matter to most folks again. Zell is absolutely correct on these points.

And to be honest, I’m not all that against someone saying “fuck you” to a reporter from time-to-time. I know when I was a beat reporter back in Topeka, I had at least one editor say that exact thing to me. Actually, more than once. The problem with Zell, at least as I see it, is that these extra little comments he’s been making all too often likely hurt the credibility of his core message, which is that we shouldn’t be ashamed of serving our readers. And he’s right.

But I digest …

I don’t have the answers to all of the dilemmas facing the newspaper industry. And it’s obvious from reading the current posts on the Poynter listserv that there aren’t a lot of easy answers there, either.

I know our team at The Washington Post is not giving up or burying our heads in the sand. We’re looking for new ways to connect with our readers, and we’re not afraid to fail.

And while we’re working through all of this, I’m going to look for a good steak and some nutritious French fries on the restaurant guide.

Published by


Dad. Journalist. Nerd. Music lover. Baseball fan. Puckhead.