Friday, April 04, 2008

A reader's complaint ... and our answer

I received a sharply worded criticism from a reader this morning. In short, this reader, whose name I’m withholding, is unhappy with our format changes and strongly suggests that our editorial board’s views are improperly influencing our news coverage.

I’ll address the first concern below, after publishing the complaint.
As to the second charge of bias, I reject the allegation, which is a shop-worn complaint employed against far more media outlets than The Anniston Star.
(This post from the Center for American Progress is a handy primer.)

To cite but one small example from today’s paper: The editorial page strongly opposed the U.S. invasion in Iraq and has steadfastly chronicled the many disasters that have proceeded from that ongoing war. Yet, this morning’s Page 2A headline boldly states, “Report says Iraq security has improved since August assessment.” Would a biased media outlet proclaim what appears to be good news out of a troubled place? Doesn’t seem likely.

As I said, that’s a small example. I’m confident we could do much the same every day we publish.

Or maybe that noted political scientist Stephen Colbert was right when he said, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
Granted, this isn’t the last word on the subject – either from the newspaper or its detractors.

Now, on to the unhappy e-mail:

Mr. Davis -
the recent changes to the lay out of the front page is totally unacceptable to either myself or my wife. Most days more then half the stories either end on the front page or only preview the story inside. This morning, of the 6 stories on the front, every one of them is finished on the front page, or promotes a story on the inside. I expect better from the paper I read every morning.
You recently greatly reduced the number of pages in the paper. Now you are wasting an entire front page. Often the promoted stories are everything you need to know about the issue, so when you turn to the actually, somewhat longer story, it’s a waste of time. Nothing new is learned, yet more spaced is wasted.
Finally, it makes the paper look like either USAToday - which I read on the road because THEY GIVE IT AWAY - or a supermarket tabloid. That is not what I want to read in the morning. I can not understand what you all were thinking.
While I am use[d] to the pitiful way that the editorial views color this paper's coverage of nearly everything, and indeed I can live with your total inability to be even handed in your coverage of any national event, I can not continue to read a paper whose front section on Mondays & Tuesdays is 4 pages, one of them wasted telling me what I can find inside, and the final page wasted by a generally mean spirited attempt at humor. What was the point of printing and delivering that?
This is journalism 101 as I recall - if it is important enough to be on the front page, its important enough to discuss in some detail. If underage drinking is the problem folks say, then it deserves more then the pitiful 20% of the front page it got. Students "claim" the[y] drink - do they? Other studies show the actually don't, but think everyone is so they do. Is under-age drinking a problem, or is our inability to teach responsible drinking the problem? What about the movement to lower the drinking age in several states?
- NH, Vt, SC, SD, all immediately jump to mind. How can an 19 year old just back from Iraqi be told he's too young to drink?
You all have about a month to change the situation before I cancel. We already get the Birmingham News 4 days a week. Your recent changes are about to be the final nail in the coffin. I would like to see you correct the problem before its too late.

[Name and city of residence withheld]

I believe a good starting point is to note that this newspaper is not perfect. We – meaning the writers and editors -- can and do make mistakes, simple spelling mistakes, mistakes of fact and mistakes of news judgment (i.e. not putting enough emphasis on stories that deserve more attention).

We do not shrug this fact off with an “oh well, mistakes happen” attitude. We work every day to get better, to correct errors and to contemplate what we do and why.
Second, I welcome letters like this. They keep us on our toes, forcing self-evaluation. We have a loyal reader here; he wants the best for “his” newspaper. I’m glad to get the e-mail, even if it delivers unhappy news.

Now to the central complaint about the paper’s format.

We started with a simple premise. In a time-squeezed world, readers have consistently made a request, Don’t waste my time. Tell me the essentials that I need to live and work in this community. This includes jumping fewer stories from the front page to one on the inside and offering more community news, the news most unique to our cover-age area. This is based on research from reputable sources; two are here and here.

Our design changes are an attempt to address those concerns by emphasizing more local news, in ways that offer readers a condensed version on Page 1 and more details on inside pages. It's also worth noting - re local news - that this newspaper is the only source for much of the reporting within our coverage area. (Along with this local news report, we cannot and will not ignore that wider world around us. ) Our format serves two camps -– those who want a “just the facts, ma’am” report and those who prefer a deeper drilling down of the story.

The results in terms of newspaper circulation, while not glowing, are that the trends are improving from last year. Like I said, our reports are not great, but they are better than the national trend for newspaper circulation. While not a perfect model to study, we take it as encouragement; readers appear to support our changes to (a.) go more local and (b.) become more user-friendly. By anecdote, we have heard from readers who would disagree with my e-mailer; they have said they prefer the paper’s new look.

I hope our loyal-yet-unhappy reader will stick with us. We can’t promise he’ll be 100percent pleased. I can promise that we will – as we do daily – work diligently to improve this community newspaper.