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.
2. Good reporting is essential. I am drawn into stories by their precision, detail, authority, and the introduction of facts I didn’t previously know. Generalizations, especially overly broad nut graphs not immediately supported, annoy me. When I sense an editor-driven story, I breeze right on by. I am finding I particularly don’t like “how we live” stories, such as the daily bombardment of anecdotal pieces on people trying to get the swine flu vaccine. Ditto faux-trend stories, like “Breakfast Can Wait. The Day’s First Stop is Online” (A-1, New York Times, August 10). It relied on too-thin evidence for its broad conclusions, according to the Times’s own public editor, Clark Hoyt, in his August 16 column. I used to assign these kinds of stories when I was an editor; now, I often find them wastes of space as writers stretch to make something new out of very little.
3. Good writing is born of good reporting. This is the reason why I subscribe to newspapers, the glory spot: the stories most worth telling, well told. They are the best expression of our free-speech democracy. The truly impressive story may appear only once a week or once a month. But they are there, making the paper a bargain at twice the price or more. Examples are too numerous to count. The most recent: I read every word of a two-part series, “The Damage Done: When Heroin Hits Home”, published in The Washington Post’s Style section November 3 and 4. It wasn’t news—the paper had covered in detail the deaths of four high school students who overdosed on heroin—but the narrative captured the terrifying reality and made a visceral connection with me and, I suspect, with every parent of a teenager who read it. It never generalized. It wasn’t larded with quotes from “experts.” No fancy prose. It let its reporting speak.
So, with all this good stuff, why are newspapers nose-diving?
Time is their greatest enemy.
At least it is in my house. If I miss that 8 a.m. window to read the papers, it’s likely they’ll never get read. And then I feel guilty. And when I feel guilty I think about all the wasted trees and I ponder cutting back to just one paper. I find I’m guiltier still when I have only a short amount of time available to read, as I flip through the pages getting only a taste of the feast, a glance at all I’m leaving on the plate.
The average U.S. newspaper reader spends thirty-nine minutes a day with newspapers, according to the most recent biennial news-consumption study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, published in August 2008. There are figures showing that the average person spends just thirteen minutes a day with newspapers, but those include the growing contingent of non-newspaper readers. Those non-newspaper readers? I believe they won’t come back. For the dailies to thrive they need people like me.
And there’s a problem with that. I positively, absolutely hate it when I have just thirty-nine minutes or fewer to read the papers. My whole experience changes in an ugly way. I kind of wish I hadn’t even taken them out of the wrappers.
To try to quantify this pressure, I timed myself on October 15. My goal was to read my three papers in thirty-nine minutes. I started at 7:57 a.m. Took a deep breath and opened The Washington Post.
Luckily, it wasn’t a day for big news. The lead story was about the Dow Jones Industrial Average cracking 10,000. As a former business editor, I’m familiar with that non-story, the market breaking through an essentially meaningless if round number. Skip. The aforementioned VMI feature, with big art: read to jump and stop. The Obama administration proposes $250 cost-of-living increase for Social Security recipients, even though living expenses actually dropped year-over-year. Interesting story, well-handled; a quick read. An analytical feature on the Medicare Advantage program. Skip. A faux-trend story about people who don’t use Twitter. Skip. I read all the keys to the inside stories and paused on one for a home-section story offering tips for how to furnish a newborn’s nursery; that one took me back fifteen years. I smiled and turned the page.
I covered the whole of the A section in eighteen minutes. I had to read favorite columnists: Dana Milbank’s Washington Sketch, David Ignatius on the op-ed page. In between I surveyed heds and photos. I read the first five graphs of a story about the Justice Department, the entirety of a piece about the U.S. strengthening its ties with the Chinese military (a special interest, since I covered China), and an analysis of North Korea’s then-recent spate of friendly gestures. Tom Toles’s editorial cartoon was dessert.
On to the next course: Metro. That got four minutes. Read to the jump of a section-front story about a fifteen-year-old boy killed in a gun battle, sped through an obit for Bruce Wasserstein, the Wall Street dealmaker, and glanced, as I always do, at the photos in the paid obits. I frowned at the weather page. It’s printed so small it’s useless, a sure sign I am getting older. (Apparently, others felt the same way, prompting Post editors to restore the weather info to its former, larger footprint. It had gotten squeezed in a recent redesign.)
Style and Sports got four minutes each. Style often has a long feature that catches my attention, but not today. Sports had a column by one of my favorites, Thomas Boswell, so I was miffed that I had to rush. Lucky for me, my other favorite sports columnist, Tracee Hamilton, wasn’t writing that day. Home and the District Extra got three minutes apiece.
Despite feeling like I’d run through the Post at a sprint, I had only three minutes left of my thirty-nine-minute allotment. I skimmed headlines in The Wall Street Journal, taking mental notes on a few stories I wanted to go back to. That took four minutes. I was already over time and hadn’t even looked at New York Times. Well, I couldn’t help myself. I speed-read my way through in fifteen minutes, feeling wholly unsatisfied and defeated. How do people do this?, I wondered.
On October 16, a much better newspaper day, I gave myself no time limit. I started the Post at 8 a.m. and finished one hour and seventeen minutes later. I polished the other two papers off in an additional hour, skipping their versions of stories I’d already read and concentrating on their enterprise offerings. I felt informed, entertained, and in touch. In celebration, I attempted New York Timescrossword right then, instead of waiting until after dinner.
My experience leaves me in a quandary about the future of newspapers. I believe in mass-market, big-city journalism; it’s what I grew up in, both at New York Newsday and at The Washington Post. It’s all that I know. But few people have the time to really experience the wonders of a newspaper. You have to commit to it, to devote the time, which gets harder and harder to do in our fractured, distracted, multimedia world.
The only future I can see clearly is one in which newspapers cater to their loyal core. In my future they serve up superior journalism and charge readers the full freight, no longer relying so heavily on advertisers that are deserting in droves. If people pay more, perhaps they’ll place a higher value on what’s delivered, and spend more time with it. There is a market—I hope, I pray—and I’ll bet it’s larger than just me.