Reading through this morning’s San Jose Mercury News reinforced my belief that U.S. newspapers are contributing to their demise by printing stories that are, in many cases, irrelevant to the majority of readers.
The word “relevant” has an interesting origin. The dictionary says it derives from medieval Latin in the 16th century meaning “raising up.” Instead of “relevant” then, we might ask ourselves: “are newspapers raising us up?” Are they enlightening us about events and issues that might change our views on the world, whether from a local, national or global perspective?
Sometimes newspaper articles are irrelevant because they’re sensational or incomplete. (I give two examples below.) Whether “irrelevant” or “incomplete,” however, is not an either/or answer to the plight of newspapers. Content that interests and illuminates peoples’ lives is the issue.
I sent an email this morning to Mike Cassidy, a reporter for the paper who’s been collecting feedback from readers lately. I complimented the Mercury for a page one article dealing with Chinese entrepreneurs who are leaving Silicon Valley to build their businesses in China. (The Chinese government is wisely funding a variety of start-up companies as VC money in the valley dries up.)
As I read the rest of the Mercury today, however, I kept asking myself: “Why did the Mercury News’ editors decide to print this?” How is it relevant to my life? What’s the value of the content? Some examples:
“At Least 25 killed, 55 hurt in Egyptian train collision.” The article featured a full-color photo–same amount of space as the article beneath–of people climbing out of the wrecked train. A horrible event, yes, but I kept looking for information in the article that was relevant (“raising me up”) and I didn’t find it. What if the Mercury editors had used more of the AP reporter’s news story by reducing the size of the color photo? Or maybe added additional information about the growing need for improving the world’s rail systems.
Here in California we had a rail initiative on the ballot during our last election. Why not integrate local content into a national disaster story?
“Church janitor charged in slaying of N.J. priest.” I’m 99.5% certain this article would never have made the front section of the Mercury unless the victim had been a priest and had been stabbed 32 times.The article, again written by an AP writer, described blow-by-blow what happened, how the killer’s son graduated from the church’s school, his daughter still attending the school and how the slain priest was well-loved in the community.The story clearly had local interest for the priest’s community. But here in California? Why would the Mercury use nearly a quarter page in the front newspaper section to cover a sensational, horrible local event 3,000 miles away?
During the reign of William Randolph Hearst, the famous–some would say “infamous”–newspaper publisher, “yellow journalism” reigned. Hearst was rightfully accused of sensationalizing the news, causing wars and more.
If Hearst were the current editor-in-chief of the Mercury News, he probably would have put the slain priest article on page one with even greater detail of the killing. Maybe his readers would have enjoyed knowing which parts of the priest’s body were stabbed, the type of knife used by the killer and other gory details. Why not? That’s how Hearst sold newspapers and he was pretty darn effective marketing his publications.
Like other newspapers, the Mercury continues losing millions of dollars in revenues as advertisers move their ad dollars to the Internet and other digital media. While readers flock to the Web, however, newspaper publishers, editors and reporters should examine their role in the loss of readers. Publishing online is not the solution. The Internet only offers a bigger white board to write on.