Why Was It Bad For The Chicago Tribune To Find Out What Readers Wanted?

from the i'm-confused dept

There was a recent dustup in Chicago as news came out that the Chicago Tribune had been running reader surveys on certain news stories before they were published. This has upset a bunch of folks at the Tribune who claim that it somehow "breaks the bond between reporters and editors in a fundamental way." The Tribune has apologized and claimed the whole program was a mistake. But, for the life of me, I'm having trouble figuring out what's the problem. Actually finding out what your community wants? Getting feedback? Being more interactive and engaged with the community? Listening to them? Being open and recognizing a story is a living document? These are all things that any newspaper should be doing these days.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    lulz, May 4th, 2009 @ 4:39am

    Because newspapers like to do it the old fashioned way.

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 4th, 2009 @ 5:20am

    "But, for the life of me, I'm having trouble figuring out what's the problem."

    The old fashion way: lie, con scam, and feed the readers a corp of so that the readers may be manipulated to produce the desired political results.

     

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  3.  
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    Crabby (profile), May 4th, 2009 @ 5:24am

    I'm currently enrolled in a communications bachelor's degree program. And no, I'm not 22 years old; more like 50. From what I see both in the online classroom message boards and in real life, I think the biggest problem with journalism is the huge egos that most journalists have. They really think that they know best; what can the stupid masses know, anyway? A public relations class I took referred to people as "the obstinate audience" if they didn't automatically accept everything that a public relations writer or journalist threw their way. What ego!

    The problem is simply this: journalists think they're too good to listen to the people.

     

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  4.  
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    R. Miles, May 4th, 2009 @ 5:28am

    Hopefully...

    Techdirt sent an email with links to the topics of why this wasn't a bad idea, instead of just posting this article on its blog.

     

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  5.  
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    DS, May 4th, 2009 @ 5:46am

    Humm, maybe because news is not a democracy?

    There's enough 'focus groups' already entrenched in the industry, I'd hate to see this extrapolated to the general public.

    All you'd see was sport and stupid criminal stories.

     

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  6.  
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    JEDIDIAH, May 4th, 2009 @ 5:56am

    Re:

    Reporters like to think that they are "above it all". Contaminating the process by actually getting feedback from any of the stakeholders (including the public) very much contradicts the notion that they're better than everyone else, more moral than everyone else and know best what to do and what to print.

     

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  7.  
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    Karl, May 4th, 2009 @ 5:58am

    Well, yes, I think the argument is that news shouldn't be a popularity contest. If a mayor is engaged in corruption charges, or the local coal plant is dumping toxic crap into the river -- whether readers WANT that reported should really be irrelevant.

    I'm not sure what's wrong with doing post-print surveys regarding layout and particular feature focus?

     

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  8.  
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    John Duncan Yoyo, May 4th, 2009 @ 6:00am

    I think it depends on the Focus Group but they sure do seem to be cause of a lot of bland material. Movies remove sad endings because the test screening didn't like it. They don't like the story of Darfur so it doesn't make the paper.

    It might be better to use the web page to gauge what is popular by reads and throw everything up there.

     

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  9.  
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    David Hobby, May 4th, 2009 @ 6:08am

    This being the Fox News of Web 2.0, most Techdirt readers have a pretty one-dimensional view of newspapers. As a former (20+ year) newspaper-based journalist who is now (3+ years) a full-time blogger, I have a foot in both ponds. It is a little more complex than can be summed up in the typical Techdirt post.

    In this case, yes, it is absolutely valid to use readers to get feedback on coverage. And frankly, newspapers could (and should) be doing a whole lot more in this area. Ditto embracing the whole 2.0 conversation, etc. They will never make that jump, as they were far too long used to being one of only a few access points for information.

    But to actually test out stories before the fact is pretty boneheaded on a number of fronts. First, it gives away any informational competitive advantage the paper may have on a story. You never know where those focus group people may work. And in the age of Twitter, etc., a story can get out pretty quickly.

    This can happen WRT to both competitors and the subjects of stories themselves, who would be only to happy to try to shape a story before the fact. Hell, they try to do it without the prior notice. Web 2.0 aside, there are lots of reasons not to telegraph your punches.

    Add to that the internal morale issues it raises:

    "We just fired half of your coworkers, so the rest of you should be grateful and even more dedicated! There will, of course, be no raises this year. And we will be sharing your stories with readers and sources before the fact. Now get out there and do some fine journalism!"

    Not that anything newspapers can do at this point will change anything. It is all deck chairs on the Titanic now. But even so, previewing stories is about as tone deaf as running car dealership ads on the front page.

    Sorry for the balance. Cue the accusatory "fanboy" responses in 3, 2, 1 ...


    -DH

     

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  10.  
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    lulz, May 4th, 2009 @ 6:09am

    Re:

    because news is not a democracy

    Maybe so, but just because it isn't, doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make it so. excuse my overuse of negative contractions

    Comment systems help to encourage the sharing of stances on issues, as well as independent bloggers sharing their views on issues; not just "the big three" perspectives (FOX, CNN, MSNBC).

     

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  11.  
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    Ick, May 4th, 2009 @ 6:13am

    The news

    is what we tell you it is. 'nuf said.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 4th, 2009 @ 6:24am

    People are stupid, that is the problem

    If we allow the general public to determine the news, how long will it take until the only news is the American Idol winner, who Angelina Jolie is dating, where Paris Hilton partied and whether Linsay Lohan and Britney Spears are wearing panties or not?

     

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  13.  
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    lulz, May 4th, 2009 @ 6:25am

    Re:

    Please explain the comparison of FOX news and TechDirt.
    This place is not one-dimensional... there is a comment system the reader gets many more than one view on the issue. Exemplary commenters link to other sites that talk about the topic, thus giving more sides to an issue; in this case, newspapers. Your comment itself validated my point. You come from experience with newspapers and give your input. I learn from that. Thus, this is not a noe-dimensional site as you claim.

    Or, what you are saying (could be missing the point though) is that people come here and only here, are Republican, and the bloggers have their heads up their asses.
    I would venture to say that none of these things are true.
    Hey, there's always cnet if TD isn't to your liking.

     

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  14.  
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    Tgeigs, May 4th, 2009 @ 6:31am

    Re:

    "This being the Fox News of Web 2.0, most Techdirt readers have a pretty one-dimensional view of newspapers"

    There's nothing like starting off a comment by ensuring you won't be heard by those you're trying to convince, is there? Did you attend the Dick Cheney school of debate, or what? Don't insult, just convince.

    "But to actually test out stories before the fact is pretty boneheaded on a number of fronts. First, it gives away any informational competitive advantage the paper may have on a story. You never know where those focus group people may work. And in the age of Twitter, etc., a story can get out pretty quickly."

    Why? What are the chances that someone in the focus group run by the Tribune is going to work for the Sun Times? Or the Herald? And what is Twitter going to do to harm the story? When you accept that you are not in the business of selling facts, and instead sell something worthwhile, like the analysis, or the community, then the story leaking isn't a bad thing, it's a GOOD thing. You should be ATTEMPTING to get a Twitter message along the lines of "Did you see that story in the Tribune? They said blah blah blah". How does that do anything other than sell newspapers?

    "Add to that the internal morale issues it raises"

    That's the journalists problem, not the consumers. If the so-called journalists would stop seeing themselves as the dispensers of information, we wouldn't have this problem. They were overpaid for a very, very long time and now your seeing the industry shrink. Cry me a river, it happens.

     

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  15.  
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    David, May 4th, 2009 @ 6:35am

    Personally I believe that the issue isn't that they were conducting surveys but when they were conducting the surveys. If you write a story and want feedback so you can make improvements that is one thing but if you solicit this information before the story is published then the "integrity" of the story can be affected. How? Well it would be easy to to change/adjust/modify the story based on the feedback, for the better? That really all depends now on your interpenetration, from censorship to propaganda.

     

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  16.  
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    lulz, May 4th, 2009 @ 6:39am

    Re: Re:

    "you are not in the business of selling facts, and instead sell something worthwhile, like the analysis, or the community"

    Excellent point. QFT

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 4th, 2009 @ 6:43am

    An example of what went wrong.

    Teto was dying, allegedly, (He actually died several months later.) and I am on a flight from London to Belgrad.

    Business class a class half way between luxury and cattle car consisted of some 15 to 20 seats.

    All seats are filled. I am to only non journalist.

    A composite story was written by the collective news hoard that projected what they conceive the Eastern European situation would be in the upcoming week including a Soviet tank division on the Yugosalvia border.

    Buying the national and international publications the following week I was amassed to find that the stories were exactly what I had observed in the composition stage.

    Now you do not know if that story is true or not. You was not there but I was and I know it is true.

    So the question is after being presented with numerous such events and actions by the press which I know are true why should I believe anything they have to say?

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 4th, 2009 @ 6:44am

    Re:

    "Well it would be easy to to change/adjust/modify the story based on the feedback, for the better?"

    As opposed to changing/adjusting/modifying the story based on their bullshit agenda? When are people going to understand that thoughtful analysis and a reporting of the facts died long ago.

     

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  19.  
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    R. Miles, May 4th, 2009 @ 7:08am

    Re:

    They will never make that jump, as they were far too long used to being one of only a few access points for information.
    Then they should accept their death with dignity, instead of trying to rip apart foundations which have evolved from this model or trying to get consumers to delay the inevitable with marked-up costs with no return on value.

    The newspaper industry isn't the only one, either.

    "News" is no longer news. It's fear-mongering, celebrity style reporting. Yes, this is apparent even in newspapers.

    My local "newspaper" wrote up a series of reports based on the changes my community is going through. The write-ups seemed more about pushing the agendas for investors rather than newsworthy items relating to the needs of the community. It's just a good thing I didn't have to pay for this crap (funded by ads).

    Going from this, I'm often dumbfounded when Techdirt uses the New York Times as "reference" material when posting its own blogs. This once preferred source of "news" has turned into biased-shilling garbage, more times hiding facts rather than report them.

    What I see today is a shift in using blogs as news items, rather than newspapers. For example, the recent swine flu news. Blogs have (correctly) stated the common flu has killed more people than this swine flu all the while newspapers feed on the fear mongering to sell their crap.

    If a message was asked to me if a newspaper should run a story on the swine flu, I would say "no". This has been covered so much, it's rather hard not to find a source of this "news" anywhere.

    I find myself staying away from typical news outlets anymore. It can't be helped as they killed themselves off with idiotic coverage. When the "chase" scene from the O.J. Simpson fiasco was broadcast on every damn channel, that was enough for me.

    Good luck with your blog. Let's hope you stick with what made newspapers years ago worth the price of purchase and not the "media sensation" idiocy just to get viewers to your site.

     

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  20.  
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    FromChristina, May 4th, 2009 @ 7:12am

    Re: People are stupid, that is the problem

    EXACTLY

    The majority of newsreaders aren't going to vote that they'd rather read about legislation, government budgets, zoning issues, insider trading, the direction of industry, "boring" environmental issues, and so on.

    They're going to vote instead for stories about already-dogged celebrities, litters of new puppies, and other useless space filler.

    It's all well and good to be a screaming populist, but think of the wealth of information you stand to lose if it all comes down to a text-message vote among the public.

     

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  21.  
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    Tgeigs, May 4th, 2009 @ 7:18am

    Re: Re: People are stupid, that is the problem

    Why do you assume that these masses are reading your "intellectual" type of news anyway? There's no loss, because people that don't want "real" news aren't reading it now anyway.

     

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  22.  
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    Tor, May 4th, 2009 @ 7:21am

    Beta testing articles

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 4th, 2009 @ 7:41am

    @David Hobby

    I agree with your dismissal of any opinion written on TD. This is just another flameblog (it's easy to get attention when you're just bitching about everything everyone else is doing).

    On the other hand, filtered RSS readers are stomping newspapers because no one has to read shit to get to the good stuff, and much of the content comes from douchebags rewording stuff on the businesswire or other articles that were published first. That's not adding value, and I welcome the demise of anyone who tries to make a business model of out that.

     

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  24.  
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    John, May 4th, 2009 @ 7:42am

    Re: People are stupid, that is the problem

    So you are saying Fox news is determined by the general public?

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 4th, 2009 @ 7:57am

    Re: Re: People are stupid, that is the problem

    @John

    No, Fox News is determined by it's audience. Its audience is determined by the political agenda of its editorial and management team.

     

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  26.  
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    Todd, May 4th, 2009 @ 8:41am

    There is a simple answer to why they should not run surveys on a story before it is released: The news is supposed to be a factual and un-opinionated record of what has transpired. I know that seems like allot to ask by today’s standards. It is very hard to find a news source that does not lead a story in a certain direction using its own opinion.

    Let the public provide the opinion; just provide the facts and all of the facts that you have access to.

     

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  27.  
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    Ernesto, May 4th, 2009 @ 8:53am

    I think you missed something

    Upon rereading the original article in the Trib, the issue was that they were leaking headlines, synopsis and sometimes full outlines of articles BEFORE they were even finalized or ready to go to print. The concern the newsroom had was that this info should not have been given out to readers in such a state or with such detail. When it was just headlines I think they were cool with it.

    To address some of the things posted on here, I agree that asking a readership what they want is like assuming that the current Billboard Top 40 is a reflection of what people SHOULD be listening to rather than what they PREFER to listen to. The RedEye is a prime example of this: Fluffy stories mostly about nightlife, the hot celebrity, the Cubs, the hot neighborhoods and maybe, MAYBE, the current hot topic on all other news outlets. Most media outlets have become sensationalist entertainment channels, rather than giving the cold, hard facts and letting everyone make their own opinion. Crap like Wolf Blitzer's "Situation Room" add drama to things that already, inherently have drama, or blow things up more than they need to because CNN needs the ratings to keep their advertisers happy.
    People need to stop expecting everything to entertain them. News should just be facts. This is what happens, this is what we know. Period. No blazing intro text that brands a news segment or series (ie: DECISION '08, AMERICA UNDER ATTACK, etc.).
    Finding out what your readers want is great, IF you're readers actually cared about anything outside of their small sphere of existence. We're too comfortable to care about what is really going on in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Who cares what Blackwater does? Why should I spend any energy reading about some conflict in Darfour? How does that affect me?

     

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  28.  
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    Tgeigs, May 4th, 2009 @ 9:07am

    Re: I think you missed something

    First of all, the RedEye caters to a certain market in Chicago, and seems to be intended as consumption on public transportation mainly. Hence the "articles" are ridiculously short and the topics far reaching.

    Secondly, I have a problem w/the idea that there is something people SHOULD be reading. Who gets to make that distinction? You? Me? The Government? People should read whatever the hell they want to read and if they are uninformed as the result, they should suffer the consequences of being uninformed.

    Yes the news media today fans the flames wherever they can in order to gain viewers. They are in the business of MAKING news, not reporting it, which is a shame. But it's on you and me to recognize what it is and not be taken in.

    Chi-Town love.

     

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  29.  
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    Jason, May 4th, 2009 @ 9:28am

    Some concerns seemed legit

    Completeness and accuracy for starters. If a story hasn't be researched, if sources have yet to be confirmed, if no fact-checking has been done, then the "surveys" will have a tendency to produce rumors that spread like wildfire.

    I would say that's bad for journalism.

     

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  30.  
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    The infamous Joe, May 4th, 2009 @ 9:58am

    Re:

    And in the age of Twitter, etc., a story can get out pretty quickly.

    Yes, and we definitely don't want that, now do we? I'd much rather get my news when you're good and ready to give it instead of while it's actually happening.

    /sarcasm.

     

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  31.  
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    The infamous Joe, May 4th, 2009 @ 10:03am

    Re: @David Hobby

    This is just another flameblog

    Yet, here you are.

    (it's easy to get attention when you're just bitching about everything everyone else is doing).

    There are many posts on people who (finally?) get something right. Just because the applicable industries get things wrong more often than they get them right doesn't reflect poorly on TechDirt.

    Have a wicked decent day.

     

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  32.  
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    David Hobby, May 4th, 2009 @ 10:52am

    Re: @David Hobby

    On the contrary, anonymous coward, I refer my friends who are still at newspapers (a number which declined by 37 at The Baltimore Sun this week) to read Techdirt every day.

    TD gets what is now wrong with newspapers, but often lumps it in with the knee-jerk assumption that just because a newspaper does something it is wrong. They trot out the occasional "hey, they got something right" posts, but that is generally the exception.

    Newspapers were an outstanding business model for many generations, but got leapfrogged by technology. Yes, there will still be journalism after papers. But there will be less in-depth coverage on important issues -- especially local issues that are not covered by national media.

    Just because the web is more efficient does not necessarily make it better in all cases. And frankly, if you can make a lot of money cranking out snarky posts about why newspapers are dinosaurs, why should you bother to spend six months investigating hormone and antibiotic levels in the drinking water around the local chicken farm?

    I make my living from -- and value -- the niche-oriented, instantaneous info model of the web. But I was also deeply involved in the newspaper model, and know just how much this new efficiency is going to cost us.

    I believe in the power of the web, blogs, Twitter, Google, etc. But I sometimes feel compelled to add a little balance to widely read posts about the newspaper model which are written by people who likely never worked at any newspaper of substance and may not have ever even subscribed to one.

    Not a big fan of absolute dogma from either side. I am more like one of those political moderates who would be as unwelcome at a Howard Dean fundraising dinner as at a racist-taunt-yelling Sarah Palin rally.

     

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  33.  
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    JustMe, May 4th, 2009 @ 12:14pm

    Re: Hobby

    I'm a daily TD reader for several years and I find something worthwhile of comment about once a week. I suppose this makes me a fanboy in your view.

    I also follow the publishing industry and have been reading Romenesko even longer than TD. I think they have a good handle on why the old media is failing. Some of it does have to do with an outdated business model and a plethora of other news/entertainment/etc. options. However, I also have gotten a strong sense of being 'above it all' and being 'better than our readers.'

    Romenesko's Journalism Education program is a great start at reversing the previously mentioned limitations of old school journalism. http://www.poynter.org/

    The old newspaper industry is at odds with crowd-sourced journalism. While not necessarily good at the Deepthroat style of reporting, the masses are (mostly) capable of reporting events as they happen with a reasonable level of accuracy.


    I'm confused/amused that you would compare TD to Fox and label anyone who disagrees with you as a 'fanboy.' As best I can noodle out, you don't like extremes of opinion (although you seem to be happy with your own). I realize that the unmoderated opinions of other readers can bypass your normal filters. This may happen should you scroll down below the article summary. If this scares you enough that you make knee jerk assumptions about the readership then I suggest reading another site or not scrolling down.

     

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  34.  
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    nasch, May 4th, 2009 @ 4:25pm

    Re: @David Hobby

    On the other hand, filtered RSS readers are stomping newspapers because no one has to read shit to get to the good stuff,

    So the purpose of newspapers is to make sure people have to read shit before they can get to the good stuff? No wonder they're struggling!

     

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  35.  
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    Shane, May 4th, 2009 @ 5:39pm

    I asked a journalist

    So I forwarded this to a friend who works for a newspaper. Her attitude was that one of the most important roles of a newspaper is to expose readers to things they didn't know about, or didn't realize were important. Doing that consistently is how a paper builds its reputation and its community.
    My background is in social science, so my perspective is that while it would certainly benefit newspapers to have a better picture of what their readers want, it would be very difficult to craft a survey that could really tell you that. The difficulty would be in determining what they want to read, without asking what they want to read about.
    I think this is a subtle, but important distinction.
    If you ask people what they want to read, you get a sense of direction for your paper. Do the readers want a paper that uncovers complicated and intriguing stories, one that has fun-to-read articles, or one that just keeps them abreast of local happenings. Do they want all three?
    I think when you start asking about specific content, you really don't need an editor, or a paper anymore.
    Admittedly, its a model i would like to see tried out, but i don't think its one that's necessarily good for the industry as a whole.

     

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  36.  
    identicon
    Mr. Workman, May 6th, 2009 @ 1:22am

    Re:

    Deck chairs on the Titanic we are not, totally. In tech savy communities the point may be mute, however, in small communities the paper press will continue to run for generations to come. With that being said, there will be many paper presses that will fall by the wayside that cannot afford a lower profit margin alternative. While this is sad, this truly is capitalism and it is what will drive our next generation of true newspaper journalists.

    To say it is all doomed is entirely short sighted, especially so considering this viewpoint with which I clash came from a fellow newspaper journalism practitioner.

     

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  37.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 6th, 2009 @ 1:03pm

    Re: This being the Fox News of Web 2.0

    A journalist who doesn't even know the difference between "to" and "too"! Give me a break...

    VRP

     

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  38.  
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    Kate Smyth, May 9th, 2009 @ 9:23pm

    final answer

    After reading this TechDirt article AND all of it's supoorting stories (linked directly or indirectly), I think:

    A. It is scary that the marketing dept was involved.
    B. The protested surveys were okay because they were
    done after completion of all story research
    and fact-checking.
    C. The protested surveys were okay because they were
    done before completion of all story research
    and fact-checking.
    D. The timing of the surveys, relative to completion
    of all atory research and fact-checking, was --
    at best -- obfuscated.
    X E. A and D

    My answer = E.

     

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  39.  
    identicon
    ROBERT, Nov 13th, 2009 @ 2:45pm

    men of devorice

    IFyou caught your wife with a nother man do just give up or fight

     

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