I see that the Washington Post’s new publisher, Katharine Weymouth, says the following in a memo: “We must focus better on what the consumer indicates they want, and be less quick to emphasize only what we think is important.”
These are words that most journalists have conditioned themselves to grimace at. To the old-school reporter, “listen to the customer” is assumed to be code for one of the following: (a) cave to the politician; (b) coddle the advertiser; (c) pander to the ignorant; or (d) give credence to the crazies. Customer research is for the marketing guys on the other side of the wall; here in the newsroom, we chart our own course, and we must stuff our ears and tie ourselves to the mast any time our ship passes close enough to readers for us to hear what they’re saying. Otherwise, we might betray our values.
To those of you in businesses outside of professional journalism, where listening to the customer is simple common sense, I realize that this sounds nuts. But it’s true. Here is a very amusing statement of it from one of the most successful journalists of our time:
At the Post I learned how to cruise the newsroom from the master, Michael Specter, who is now the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times… Michael also taught me how to deal with angry and rude readers, which is a major occupational hazard in the newspaper world. I used to get all flustered and apologetic and depressed when people called up to yell at me. But Michael would just listen for about 10 seconds, roll his eyes, and say: “You seem to have forgotten one thing. I DON’T WORK FOR YOU!” Michael is my idol.
This is Malcolm Gladwell, writing in 1996 in Slate. He is recording what a surprising number of journalists believe: They do not work for their readers. This is a fine thing to say, until the person they do work for turns out to be a profit-hungry capitalist less interested in the values of journalism than in boosting shareholder value (or, today, avoiding bankruptcy). At that moment, suddenly, the journalist becomes a convert to the notion of Serving the Reader. Only the commitment is an abstract one; it is made to The Reader, not to specific readers, and so defining its specific meaning remains in the journalist’s hands.
I am writing harshly here because a profession that I love is falling apart. Once upon a time I, too, would have heard a line like “we must focus better on the consumer” and rolled my eyes. Today? I wish the Post luck in figuring out who those consumers are, what they want, and how to get it to them.
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