The Real Top Ten

| January 03, 2008

A friend once labeled me the ultimate optimist. That was after I confessed that I never threw out unmatched socks; I kept expecting to find their mates. But generally I'm a pessimist. I expect the worst to happen. To me, each New Year's is the start of what will likely be a worse year than the one that just ended.

I face the same contradictions with the news media. In some ways I'm the ultimate optimist. While media blogs moan and groan over layoffs and cutbacks in the newspaper business, I believe the Internet will force the need for differentiation. A new system of rewarding quality reporting and writing will replace a system that tended to reward reliable mediocrity.

But in other ways I'm a pessimist. Publishers of old-fashioned newspapers, particularly ones with heavy newsstand sales, know little about their readers. So advertisers expect only one thing — big numbers. To get big numbers, newspapers must interest as wide a range of people as possible. When the formula works well, all kinds of readers learn all kinds of things about all kinds of people from the newspaper.

With Internet publishing, sophisticated algorithms allow publishers and advertisers to know an awful lot about their readers. Since advertisers only care about reaching the people who will buy what they advertise, publishers can all but abandon everyone else. We live in a new era of media selectivity. In it, the reader, not the publisher or journalist, defines what is important. This forces publishers to focus on stories that cater to the interests of those with money.

It was the North Coast Journal's "Top Ten Stories of the Year," published Dec. 20, that got me thinking about this. In brief, the 10 stories were: The Pacific Lumber bankruptcy, the trails v. rails battle, marijuana grow houses, the settlement over the Klamath River, the new Eureka police chief, timber protection zoning, the housing bubble, the dispute between Robin Arkley and Larry Glass, the collapse of Reggae on the River and the deaths of Bill the Chimp and Kinetic Sculpture Race founder Hobart Brown.

I made my own list: Palco, budget cuts at HSU, the financial crisis at College of the Redwoods, marijuana grow houses, the zoning battle over the Teen Challenge drug and alcohol recovery center, the state budget crisis, the eviction of the Arcata Endeavor, the Cherilyn Moore case, the immigration sting in Fortuna and homelessness, not in any order of importance. They were all important. I think the difference with theJournal's list is the definition of a "top story." Hank Sims seems to have included stories that people liked to read about along with some stories that were important for people to read about.

He left homelessness off his list even though the Journal devoted a terrific cover story by Jim Hight to the subject of homeless students in the Eureka school system last April. Karen Wilkinson of the Times-Standard did two stories — one on new state poverty figures that showed that some 700 students at the Eureka schools system are homeless. She followed it up Dec. 27 with a story similar to the one in the Journal. In 2006 the McKinleyville high student newspaper did a story on the 95 homeless students that attend that school. Combine those stories with those of the upcoming eviction of the Arcata Endeavor and the financial problems of the Multiple Assistance Center in Eureka, and homelessness is clearly a top story.

I couldn't help pairing the stories about homeless kids with the marijuana stories — hundreds of grow houses in subdivisions taking up needed housing. I picture an awful lot of people with cash stuffed under their mattresses living next door to children who don't know where they will be tomorrow. I'm all for the legalization of marijuana, but in my book that's a social crime.

The mainstream press too often assumes that because people don't want to read downer news, they won't. If you ask people if they like reading bad news and they will say they don't. (Would you date a guy that said "I love reading bad news"?) But when the Washington Postbroke the story about appalling conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center last year and the terrible treatment of returning Iraqi vets, readers ate up those stories. It was the reaction from the general public that led to an overhaul of the U.S. Army top command. Though people don't want to read downer stories, they will if those stories are important and if the stories help point the way towards achievable reforms.

The North Coast Journal recently launched a redesign and seems to have adopted a new direction, striving to be the intellectual center of Humboldt County. As a free weekly the Journal has a more difficult problem identifying its readers than even daily newspapers. Because the Journal's readers pick up the paper at news racks, they can't be tracked except by location. I hope that with the new direction they don't forget that as many people read the paper in the Summer Street Laundromat as in Brio. And I hope that as part of a long history of alternative weeklies, it persistently prints stories that force the people at Brio to see the people at the 'mat.

With two daily newspapers, one regional weekly and an assortment of community weeklies we should have one of the most informed readerships around. But I fear that if papers focus on what people think they want to read about rather than what they should know about, we will have this: A blissfully ignorant readership in a very mediated region.

Add a comment