I sat through plenty of official focus groups in my years as a Washington Post assistant managing editor, watching people on the other side of a one-way mirror read and comment on my newspaper. The sessions were often excruciating, as participants eagerly picked apart our carefully calibrated content.
Now that I am no longer a part of “my newspaper,” I conducted a focus group of one to observe how I read newspapers. I was curious about whether I could set aside the typical reactions of an egomaniacal journalist—“I could have done such a better story!”; “Ack! Have they no editors!?!”; etc.—and just be a reader. This was easier to do than I had anticipated. I am a CJR Encore Fellow exploring the future of news, and I realize I don’t want to be in a newsroom right now, slugging it out for a share of shrinking resources. I like the distance and the time I have to consider what is working for me in journalism and what is not.
Like the observations of any focus group, my reactions are idiosyncratic and their value debatable. Some data points: I’m a married, forty-seven-year-old mom. We live in Washington, D.C., in a time-pressed household where both parents are self-employed. My husband and teenage son get 90 percent of their news online. I get 90 percent of mine from newspapers. And I am a lover of newspapers, not just the news in them, but also the inky, smelly paper itself. I rejoice in the immediacy, the interactivity, and the visual potential of Web journalism, but I see it as something separate, not as a substitute for print. If everyone were like me, newspapers would be thriving. Clearly, they are not. Still, there may be lessons from my reactions—as well as warnings—for newspaper executives looking to rebuild their businesses with their dedicated readers at the core.
My news consumption follows a basic rhythm. I start most days as I have for years: I am the first up to drag my son off to school. I begin cooking breakfast and then pad out the front door to scoop up my Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal. I scan the headlines, photos, and section fronts before putting them all aside to finish a somewhat chaotic morning routine. At some point I flip on National Public Radio, but unlike when I was working, I rarely feel any need to go online to survey the latest breaking news and blogs. (I do check for urgent e-mails and texts on my BlackBerry, so I’m not totally unplugged.) Then, when everyone in the family is where they need to be, I turn off all distractions—bliss!—and settle in to read. I check the Web around lunchtime and again after dinner for news updates and oddities, and also scan a few blogs. Increasingly, in my after-dinner computer session, I check out links sent by Facebook friends. (I don’t Tweet.)
Probably the biggest change in my news-reading habits since leaving the Post involves taking early reads on stories. I find today that I rarely read full stories planned for the next day’s newspaper that are posted online early, and I never read features online—I prefer to read these in print. That makes the spread of my morning papers particularly lush.
Despite industry-wide newsroom cutbacks, the three newspapers to which I subscribe still offer stories to get lost in, to read for the joy of a good yarn or to gain insight into a complicated topic. True, there are fewer of these kinds of pieces than there used to be, and more that miss the mark (a likely result of rushed editing), but I still find far more to read than I have time for.
My habits support three of the most basic tenets of newspaper journalism:
1. Good headlines are golden. “Leaving Iraq is a Feat That Requires an Army” (A-1, New York Times, October 9). I read that and was hooked. The story delivered on the hed’s promise, and I read to the end, satisfied I’d learned something. Contrast that with “A Slow March to Change; VMI is Steeped in Traditions Dating to 1839. Until 1997, Female Cadets Weren’t Part of Them” (A-1, Washington Post, October 15). This screamed “don’t read me.” Not that the hed is terrible; rather, it nicely previews the story, a deeply reported piece by a journalist I admire who got inside a tough-to-report-on, transitioning institution. But why this story now? The A-1 portion had no news hook and the full-page spread inside looked like a time sink. I skipped it.