You decide, we report

December 13, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - Dear colleagues:

Have you had enough bad news?

I don't mean the bad news we report. No, I'm talking about the bad news that is reported to us, the steady diet of doom and/or gloom that goes with working for a daily newspaper these days. I'm talking about reports that, despite all the focus groups we study, all the redesigns we commission, all the shorter stories we write and all the bigger typefaces we employ, newspaper readership is still falling like a boulder from a skyscraper.

It's increasingly difficult to escape a sense that in a video-driven, semi-literate world, people who transmit information via words on paper are uncomfortably akin to those who transmit it via stone tablets. The demoralizing truth is, the folks we purport to serve seem to be saying they can get along just fine without us.

Well, cheer up. It turns out you'll still have a job in 10 years after all. I have seen the future of American journalism.

You have, too, if you read a story that ran Dec. 2 in USA Today. It was about Las Ultimas Noticias (i.e, The Latest News), a newspaper that has, we are told, become Chile's most popular by adopting a radical new strategy:

It allows readers to choose the news.

Here's how it works: The paper has installed a system whereby every link that is clicked on its Web site is recorded for the newsroom to see. This gives reporters instant, continuing feedback on which stories are most interesting to readers. Editors assign follow-ups to those stories and look for more like them. Stories that fail to generate reader interest are killed.

USA Today reports that in one recent week, the most popular stories among Chilean readers included a report on where the U.S. secretary of state ate dinner while in the country to attend a trade meeting. Readers also gave a thumb's up to a story on which international delegations were the biggest tippers. This report, we are told, was accompanied by a photo of scantily clad waitresses.

There's more. Publisher Agustin Edwards says he will soon offer a financial incentive for his staff to write stories readers want to read. A reporter's salary will be based on how many clicks he or she racks up online.

Colleagues, I can hear you harrumphing from here. This will never happen in a U.S. newsroom, you say. U.S. newsrooms have higher standards. We take our profession too seriously for that.

All I can say is that you must work in a different newspaper business than I do. The one I work in has been hijacked by bean counters. It is a place where costs are cut with the mad glee of an ax murderer, talented people are being shoved out the door and editors are required to prostrate themselves each morning before the altar of the holy profit margin. It's entirely possible for me to imagine newspapers in that industry following the Chilean lead.

After all, what would we have to sacrifice to do it? The need to make informed judgments about what matters and what does not? The obligation to be a watchdog of the public interest? The mindset that says maybe you publish a story because a reader needs to know a thing even if he doesn't know he needs to know it?

Get over yourself. How 20th century can you be?

As Mr. Edwards puts it, "I am not of the school that says, `Eat porridge, it's good for you.' I'm focused not on what people should be reading, but on uniting them around what they want to be reading."

In other words, no more stories about budget deficits, congressional hearings, international summits and other boring stuff nobody really cares about. From now on, no news but fun news.

Welcome to the future, guys. Enjoy.

If you need me, I'll be running a little bed and breakfast outside Modesto. Look me up if you're ever in the area.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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