As Others Read Us


June 06, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Readers do more than read. A friendly guy who works near The Sun calls me on days when we hang the Maryland flag upside down. It's rare. By the way, the yellow and black of the Calvert family go on top by the pole.

Readers offer challenges. One joker asked for a follow-up story on what happened to each of those thousands of couples married in mass ceremonies led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

They call from funny places. A Coast Guard officer gets on the horn from the Chesapeake Bay to tell readers about Coast Guard opportunity for women. A Bangor, Maine, reader objects to a syndicated Sun column poking fun at TV reptile Barney, "whom we love up here." A fifth grade class turns thumbs down on the "Pluggers" cartoon.

Some newspaper editors don't get excited by readers' calls unless there is a bunch on one subject, but one critical reader is enough for me if he or she is on the mark.

Of course, there are bunches of calls, too, such as last weekend when The Sun failed to list on Sunday or Monday the Memorial Day services in the area and didn't give enough warning on Memorial Day closings.

Thoughts reinforced in talking with readers is that they are creatures of habit, have different interests and often don't look at the paper the way its workers do. Here's a primer:

1. Many don't start with Page 1A. They may start with sports, business, features or comics, and they may never get to Page 1. It helps to index backward as well as forward to related stories.

2. "All I want is outdoor news and the comics," says William Biddison, a retired mechanic from Middle River who thinks "the other news is either always bad or always the same." Some readers look just for one specific bit -- tide times, soap opera recap or stock quotation -- every day and get mad when it's not there. They may not know what today's news is but they know where to find those little fixtures, so they'd better be there.

3. Or they look closely at pictures, other graphics, headlines and captions before they read stories -- if they read the attached stories at all. Often the last thing tossed off by newspapers, captions may be the first thing read beyond Calvert Street. The cutlines are criticized if wrong or incomplete.

4. Reader patience may be as rare as ink that doesn't rub off, so better satisfy them in the first few paragraphs called "the lead" (rhymes with feed), or readers will wander off while the reporters clear their throats before getting to the point. Yet, answer the key questions.

5. Money moves readers far more than, say, Bosnia. When The Sun decided last year to delay by a day running a new expanded list of 3,000 mutual funds, many readers echoed one man's portfolio interest. I thought he was kidding when he said: "I just can't wait a day until Sunday to find out exactly what I'm worth." The Sun's Balkans' coverage has been laudable in many respects. It's too bad that some readers could not care less. "I have no relatives there, never had, never will . . . not interested", one said.

6. Some readers read only advertisements.

7. Readers view seriously the newspaper's claim to be a public service enterprise. Some have been disappointed that The Sun library has not been open to the public since 1980. More recently they see further distancing caused by budget considerations. More than a year ago, The Sun stopped most childrens' tours of the Calvert Street plant and stopped selling copies of published photos. Some readers are frustrated that they can't buy copies of the papers more than a month old from the business office.

8. Some readers watch TV or listen to the radio first, then want an expansion of that issue or see if the newspaper has the story, too. When gay, abortion or civil rights activists parade across C-SPAN, for instance, viewer/readers become reporters and compare the newspaper with what they saw.

9. When readers call me with "a factual mistake," they are as often right as wrong, a better batting average than radio call-in motormouths who view facts as obstacles. They vent a lot. Not alone, unfortunately, is one man who wrote, "America is freedom for the majority, not the minority."

10. Readers forget homework. They wander in at the end of a long Clinton fight, General Assembly battle or trial and 1) assume they're at the start, or 2) want the paper to start from scratch, or 3) think they're at the base of Mount Everest when, as the blind man, they feel the elephant's foot. Some days there's more than meets the eye, some days less.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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