Chicago Tribune Story Idea Survey: Good Idea, Poorly Executed

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The Chicago Tribune recently reported that it has halted a “short-lived research project in which the Chicago Tribune solicited responses from current and former subscribers to descriptions of Tribune stories before they had been published.”

The project — a collaboration between the paper’s editorial and marketing departments — was stopped because reporters raised journalistic concerns. Originally it had only surveyed selected “would-be readers” about general topics and previous Tribune coverage. But in the last two weeks, participants had begun being surveyed about their preferences on synopses of stories currently in the works.

In all, 55 reporters and editors voiced their complaint in a letter to Tribune editor Gerould Kern and managing editor Jane Hirt. The letter “expressed concern that providing story information to those outside the newsroom prior to publication seemed ‘to break the bond between reporters and editors in a fundamental way.'”

Here’s more detail about how the research was conducted: “Surveys were sent by e-mail to around 9,000 would-be readers on two occasions. About 500 responded to each, indicating which of 10 story ideas they preferred. Kern said the stories ‘tended to be news features,’ and the results never made it to him or had any impact in how stories were handled.”

I can understand the reporters’ complaint if their story ideas were shared outside the newsroom without their prior knowledge and consent. However, if that consent can be obtained, I personally think this type of research could be surprisingly useful. Especially if the people being surveyed truly represent younger people (i.e., the news organization’s future market) as well as demographics that historically have not been well served by the news organization…

I’d even take it farther — rather than just vote on a packaged list of story ideas, I’d survey them about which angles on those stories would most interest them. And I’d give them room to critique the story ideas, and get new story ideas. A combination of qualitative and quantitative data could shed light on how news organizations can make their news more relevant by being willing to step outside their comfort zone.

Chicago Reader sees it differently, however. There, Michael Miner wrote:

“Tell any self-respecting reporter that the subject of his or her latest work in progress just laid an egg with a focus group, and the reporter will reply, ‘Maybe so, but wait till they see what I do with it!’ (While thinking, ‘What in God’s name has happened to our business?’)”

…I don’t doubt that many longtime newspaper reporters would feel that way. But I don’t think it has as much to do with “self respect” as it does with pride and fear. It seems to me that many journalists prefer to only present their perfect, finished work to the public in order to pretend that their reporting is more independent and infallible than is actually the case. They’re easily threatened by the thought that someone might witness their messy sausage-making process. It used to be that this pretense of perfection was assumed to support the veneer of credibility. In fact, these days being aloof from your community and pretending you’re perfect only undermines credibility.

When Jim Romenesko noted this news a few days ago, Poynter reader Gary McCardle commented: “Marketing people do what marketing people always do. Aside from special themed sections, don’t let marketing people know about stories in advance of publication.”

That comment lays bare the distrust of marketing — and perhaps indirectly of efforts to involve community members up front in journalistic processes — so deeply ingrained in traditional mainstream newsroom culture. And I’d dare say that it’s a big reason why news organizations are struggling for relevance and revenue these days. It’s hard to update your business model when an important part of your organization is inherently wary of market research.

NOTE: This is an expanded version of an article I originally published in Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.

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3 thoughts on Chicago Tribune Story Idea Survey: Good Idea, Poorly Executed

  1. The journalists are only upset because the survey process could possibly interfere with their CONTROL over the news. It’s like a bunch of Roman priests getting upset about some other denomination serving the wine.

  2. I wish the the research project was compared / contrasted to the conventional news development cycle in your article… especially with regards to HOW DO WE DECIDE WHAT IS NEWS (WHAT NEWS SHOULD BE PUBLISHED)? One huge issue here is that the survey (could / seems to) blur the boundary lines of news, business, and entertainment. In other words, would / should news entities only report on stories that entertain the reader? Or only report news that help pay the news entities’ bills? In other words, can a news entity be a ‘watchdog’ if it is too worried about paying the bills or entertaining its readers?

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