Thursday, July 23, 2015

"Reading" the Newspaper

 



It’s at a minimum interesting -- and usually instructive -- to “read” a newspaper, i.e. to be attentive to the kinds of stories that the editors present, and what that tells us both about them and about us.

When it comes to the cultural analysis that I call being a movie “critic”, one of the forms that I find particularly fascinating is to “read” the newspaper.

The quotation marks there are important, of course… I’m not talking about just reading the stories found in a newspaper, but about stepping back and being attentive to the nature and number of stories the paper contains.

In this post I’ll explain what I mean by this, give some examples about how to “read” a newspaper, and then explain why it’s important to “read” a newspaper.

To state the obvious, newspaper-publishing -- like most journalism in general -- requires some form of sales. That’s in no way to disparage journalists; I believe that most of them, especially print journalists, believe in the important role that a free press plays in a democratic society. But it goes without saying that a newspaper’s writers and editors will find themselves unemployed if their paper sells too few copies.

This means that an editor has to balance the content of a paper between the sorts of stories that he thinks people need to know about with the sorts of stories that he thinks they’ll want to know about. So one interesting way of reading a paper is to take each story and attempt to discern if it’s a story published for the public interest (what they need to know about) or one published for the public’s interest (what they want to know about), or -- as sometimes happens, of course -- both. And we can then take the next step of discerning why an editor might think a story is important and/or interesting.

Here’s an example: I recently visited my in-laws and was reading their local paper, itself a subsidiary of Gannett, which publishes USAToday and owns local papers all over the country. One day’s issue had three front page stories: one -- which dominated the vast majority of the page -- about a state politician’s entrance into the presidential race, another about the sentencing of a 21 year old whose reckless driving resulted in death and major injuries, and a third announcing a fall performance by 80's singer Bret Michaels at a local bar & grill.

Now, why did the paper’s editors decide these three stories were worthy of making the front page instead of any of the other dozen-plus news items in the rest of the paper? Front page space in a newspaper is hugely important, of course, so the editors need to be very deliberate in deciding what makes the front page and what doesn’t. Again, one interesting form of analysis is to consider why the editors have included any story in the day’s paper, but particularly why they’ve chosen to highlight a story by placing it on the front page.

Another way to “read” a newspaper is to be attentive to whether a given story is local, state or national in nature, and an easy way to determine this -- besides paying attention to the topic, of course -- is to pay attention to the byline: is the writer a staffer for the local paper, for the state office (in my in-laws’ example, Gannett’s state bureau), or for the national office (USAToday in this case, or the Associated Press). This is probably the first way I read a paper, for the simple reason that I can get national and even state stories from multiple sources, but when it comes to local news my options are much more limited, and hence I’m usually attentive first to the locally-written stories.

There are other approaches to “reading” a newspaper in this way but these are two that come to mind (and two that can be combined, of course). I’d like now to turn to the question of why “reading” a paper might be important, particularly for Christians seeking to engage the culture.

As I mentioned in the lead paragraph, “reading” a newspaper at a minimum reveals what the editors think is important themselves and what they think the public at large finds important. And because many editors at the national level are successful at the latter -- based on the fact that they are able to sell sufficient numbers of their papers to maintain a national newspaper -- “reading” a newspaper likewise tells us something about what we as a society find to be important as well.

Let’s look back at the example of my in-laws’ local paper and its stories on a state politician’s entrance into the presidential race, on the judicial outcome of a tragic automobile accident and a coming performance by rocker Bret Michaels. All three stories, I’d argue, were included by the editors because they thought their real and prospective readers would find them interesting: watching politics is a national pastime for many Americans, particularly when a state official is involved; we have a (generally) unfortunate obsession with deadly accidents (cf. rubber-necking at an accident come upon); and we have a likewise generally-unfortunate obsession with celebrities, even those whose prime is long past (yes, I’m anticipating possible pushback from the 80’s-hair bands crowd ;-).

So what is it about each of these types of stories that we find compelling? Why are we interested in accidents and celebrities? Our abiding interest in politics is easier to make sense of -- we are talking about our civic leaders, after all. But as has been well-commented on, our presidential campaigns have been becoming increasingly lengthy, and that seems to be happening with our cooperation, if not endorsement and prompting.

What do you think? Why do Americans in general find these sorts of stories so interesting that editors put them on the front cover? And more generally, what have been your findings in “reading” the newspaper?

4 comments:

Troy said...

Chris,

This is a much more subtle way of saying what my mom used to say when I was young: what you put in your mind you will become.

At the end of the day, we have to be more disciplined with what we read and watch, especially in this new world of intense non-stop "information." Being passive is a formula for becoming goulash made with leftovers nobody ate when it was fresh.

Yesterday, MJ and I were driving to see grandsons and she is reading the paper and she asks, "did you read the paper?" I said I had and she asks, " what did you think of x." I said, I didn't read the article. When she starts to give me a summary, I interrupted by saying, "I didn't read it because it is of no interest to me,"

First, let me say, I admit I handled that wrong. But, my point was the article had no redeeming value, was purely prurient, and I intentionally was going to not put that in my head. MJ made a legitimate point she read it not to absorb the content but she was effectively "reading" it as you challenged us above.

So, I concede the value of your and MJ's point but I still go back to my mom's point. I got enough crap in my head. Don't need more so I mostly read the sports page, comics and obituary.

Jeanne Schmelzer said...

What you read is what I find is what most people read. Hubby reads the sports, I read the comics, we both read the obituaries. I read headlines just to see the scope of the world. I seldom read the opinion page until I see someone who might be making a lot of sense. I think there is a lot of words that are just blather.

Doug Austreim said...

We canceled our Argus Leader subscription about 6 weeks ago. Had subscribed for over 45 years. Kept getting more expensive and taking less time to read. Haven't missed it yet at all.

Carl E. Olson said...

After decades of agenda-driven reporting, most newspapers seem to have abandoned trying to appear "neutral" and "objective" and "unbiased". And perhaps it's just as well, as that approach was mostly mythological. One of the nice things about editing Catholic World Report is that our editorial perspective is very clear: it's Catholic. My take on local papers is that they try, of course, to appeal to the demographics of their area, and then they try to work in some of their editorial perspective, not just on the editorial, but in the weight given to certain pieces. For example, this past year my pastor spent several months chronicling stories in the "Register-Guard" (Eugene, OR) about "gay marriage" or closely related subjects. He found that the paper averaged about two such stories every day (!), with most such stories being in the front ("A") section. Stories about Islamic terrorism, Christians and other being executed in the Middle East, and attacks on religious freedom in the West garnered almost no space at all. Was that surprising? Not really. But it was rather breathtaking how overt and relentless the pattern is when you start breaking down the data.