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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Daily News

It occurs to me that I may be a bit of a dinosaur in this category ... I like to read the news. Each day, after my time in the Bible, I eagerly retrieve the newspaper from the front lawn and settle down to devour it. I read each section thoroughly. Why would I do that? Because I always walk away considerably more informed. And something about that feeling just appeals to me.

People say that the newspaper industry is a dying breed. We hear about circulation numbers dropping and we hear about newspaper companies falling on hard times financially. This doesn't seem to be true of magazines though. I've read that they are more popular than ever. As an industry, magazines continues to grow --- while newspapers struggle to survive.

We could speculate as to the reasons why magazines continue to grow as an industry in the face of a declining newspaper industry. But I think the reason is fairly obvious. You see, both medium seek to inform and entertain. But one does that much better than the other. And being the connoisseur of newspapers that I am, I'll suggest that I'm well qualified to weigh in on what's wrong with the newspaper industry. They aren't biased enough.

Okay, I did just say that. Newspapers aren't biased enough. Magazines take a position and run with it. Newspapers, on the other hand, spend so much time trying to present a fair and balanced view that they render themselves irrelevant. In fact, they shoot themselves in the foot. A newspaper can take a completely newsworthy story and render it irrelevant with just a headline. Let me explain.

Often a newspaper has good news to report. Maybe the unemployment rate dropped, or home sales improved. Perhaps the state met a budget constraint. Or it could be that fewer people died in the war. The point is that often there is good news to report. But the newspapers will douse that good news such that it may be obscured altogether.

Let's look at what the newspapers do with good news. The headlines will scream, "Violent Crime Down Across the City." But underneath that will be a tag line that says something like, "But White Collar Crime is Growing."

Maybe the headline will read something like, "Better Prenatal Care is Reducing Birth Defects." But the tag line just under that headline will read something like, "But Latest Health Care Legislation Will Reduce Insurance Coverage for Pregnant Women."

"New Car Sales Are the Highest in Two Years," will be accompanied by a tag line that says, "But Auto Makers Have Had to Offer Steep Discounts." "Existing Home Sales Doubled in Past Year," will be accompanied by something like, "But Appreciation Rates Remain Soft."

Do you see the pattern here? The newspapers will take a solid piece of good news ... and wreck it by coupling it with an opposing piece of potentially bad news. The bad news doesn't even have to be real or factual. It might be something as remote as something not meeting analysts' expectations. If it's even remotely possible it will capture the tag line behind a good news article.

Frankly, I think Americans are sick of it. We're bombarded with bad news every day. And we're grown up people. We can take the truth. But we don't find truth in every opposing viewpoint. Frankly, it looks like a spirit of pessimism. It looks like a bunch of crap, to put it bluntly. If new car sales are up, do I care what sales initiative it took to move them?

I'm just saying that if Kohl's or Macy's has a big sale, reducing their margins and offering deep discounts, and it incents my wife to buy three times as much stuff ... I still think Kohl's or Macy's are going to be happy about that. I mean they are intelligent retailers and they considered the dynamics of having a sale. They knew that lower margins would increase sales volume --- and they obviously decided it was worth it.

But often in business, especially in a politically charged environment where tensions run high, there will be at least one person who likes to "play devil's advocate." No matter what the conversation is about, these wretched individuals always feel compelled to present an opposing viewpoint. Usually they'll offer it with some sort of insincere smile (that looks more like a snide smirk). And they'll deny their suspicious motives. They claim to believe that it's valuable for everyone to hear the negative perspective on the subject. But I am convinced that they are the only ones who feel that this is valuable!

People like to think in terms of possibilities --- and not boundaries or limitations. We want to focus on what's possible instead of what's not. We'd rather spend time on good news than on bad news. And when there is good news, we'd like some time to enjoy it before someone rains on our parade with a bad, opposing view.

You can call it "fair and balanced reporting." Do that ... and let me know if it sells newspapers. (I am sure that it doesn't.) So you can provide a fair and balanced view, or play devil's advocate all you want. But I promise you, people won't be reading or listening to you if you do. Such is the case with the decline in the newspaper industry today.

The world is looking for hope. It's looking for encouragement. And we're looking for it through rose colored glasses. We want to see that glass as half full ... with the promise of rain. Can you just report that fact to us when it is true? Can you leave out the part about how experts see no rain in the immediate forecast and believe that the half-full glass doesn't have enough water to last us through the drought?

The next time you pick up a magazine, look at the difference. Most of the magazines in print today will take a topic and dive into it. But they don't dive into the negative possibilities. Magazines stay away from the worry and fret in any story. Instead, they'll build a feature story, presenting the facts. But without the pessimism, the story is inherently better. Even when there's bad news to report, a magazine will take the issue and dissect it in several ways to present it as a story that someone wants to read.

I am a confessed connoisseur of the daily news. I read my local Dallas Morning News thoroughly each day. I read several on-line news sources, such as Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Associated Press, some foreign newspapers and even the Huffington Post. What I can also count on from the daily newspapers is reporting that is full of good news, obscured by bad connotations. If I want to find encouragement or hope, I have to go to the magazines. Time or Forbes will tell me what's working in the world. The daily newspapers will make sure I know what's not.

So you tell me, is "fair and balanced" reporting really worth it? I'm all for freedom of the press. And I would never suggest that the press be forced to do anything that violates that freedom. But if I were a consultant to the newspaper industry, I would sure rebuke them and exhort them to do a better job of printing something that everyone wants to read.

It would be a higher calling and a better challenge to package the news in a way that people want to read it (without, of course, compromising its integrity). Or I could just put the integrity of my reporting out there and hope that someone will want to read that. Look at the statistics on circulation from these two industries, and tell me which one is working.

Old dinosaurs like me who like to read the news, devour and digest it, are probably going to find ourselves with nothing to read. The newspapers will have all gone out of business, because they were so focused on "fair and balanced" reporting that they missed the whole point of journalism.

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