This time of year, reporters, editors and producers go back through their stories and submit the best for contests that recognize great journalism. But I'll bet you don't care about those awards. And you don't even buy the newspaper for those great stories.
The New York Times would go out of business if it weren't for the crossword. For many, doing the Times crossword is a daily ritual, like Yoga. A great story might make me angry or sad. But it won't give me the same lasting feeling of satisfaction as did the two times I managed to complete the Saturday puzzle. For other people, reading the comics or sports pages is the daily ritual and for that they can turn to the Times-Standard. But it is the entertainment section that makes a newspaper really useful. Without it, you don't know what is going on around town and you can't play out the fantasy that you will actually do something fun.
In San Francisco, you do not go to see a movie without first checking with the Little Man. You know it will be good if the cartoon drawing of the Little Man shows him falling out of his chair clapping because he loved the movie so much and you can pretty much avoid the movie if he's falling asleep in his chair or, worst of all, if his seat is empty.
While the Times-Standard has its fair share of comics it did something completely boneheaded when it comes to entertainment. It moved its entertainment section to its throw-away affiliate, the Tri-City Weekly. Now, you can argue over the quality of the Northern Lights section. I am only going to say here that it was necessary. You can't have a regional paper that fails to tell readers what they can do in their leisure time. You don't want to send people to the Internet just so they can find out what movies are showing or bands are playing. And you don't want to send your paying readers to your free paper or to the free weekly they can get at the market.
The goings on around town are part of what glues a community together. I don't run into people I know at the courthouse. I run into them at a play at the North Cost Rep or a movie at the Minor or a fundraiser at the Grange. And when I run into them we might talk about the stories we read in the paper. But we don't gather because of the stories.
Now in the Times-Standard, I find an entertainment section that is only one thin page, and if I want to find out what movies are playing it gives me only an ad for the Fortuna theater.
Someone on the paper feels that telling me about the latest trial taking place at the courthouse is important enough to pay a reporter to gather the information. But if a movie theater isn't willing to pay for an ad for the movies it is showing, well, too bad for me. This reflects a giant disconnect between those who produce the paper and those who read it. If the relationship between the newspaper and the reader is like a marriage based on mutual need and respect, I want to turn to it and say, "Do we even know each other anymore?" My need for relaxation and escape is just as great as my need to stay informed, especially when the information that comes at me is so negative and frightening. It says something about our society when during such a terrible economic time, the movie industry ended its best year ever.
Supermarkets know that if they can lure you in with a great deal on milk they can get you to buy a whole bagful of groceries, so they might offer you milk at a loss. That is called a loss leader. News stories are news product. To sell it, you must package it and place it properly and surround it with stuff that will draw people through the pages in the first place. The store manager puts the milk in the back so people must walk through the canned soup aisle to get to it. The publisher puts the entertainment section in the back so readers must leaf through the news pages to get there. But it would be insane for the supermarket to stop selling milk or to put it outside in stands so that shoppers could get it without going into the store.
Last month Rupert Murdoch wrote this: "The future of journalism is more promising than ever -- limited only by editors and producers unwilling to fight for their readers and viewers ..." I would go further. I think it is limited by publishers who refuse to consider what their readers want and need. Murdoch ended his column, which was printed in his Wall Street Journal, with a short lecture on the importance of journalism for democracy. Democracy needs an informed citizenry that only journalists can nurture and sustain, but it is entertainment that supports journalism. I joke in my classes that a journalist's challenge is to write stories compelling enough to keep the reader from moving to the stories about Tiger Woods. But thank God for those Tiger stories, because readers won't read any stories if they don't first pick up the paper or pull up the site. And it is Tiger who might get them to do that. The same goes for the crossword and the comics and the band reviews and movie listings.
The power of a story about secret CIA prisons is not diminished because people find themselves reading it while trying to find out what time Spiderman 3 was playing. It is increased when more people read the story.
Got to go. My kid wants to see Alvin and the Chipmunks and I've got to find out when the matinee starts. Now, where did I put that Journal?
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State. You will likely find her some night this week at a showing of Sherlock Holmes because she has a thing for Robert Downey, Jr.
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