Years ago, Andy Rooney did his 60 Minutes curmudgeon shtick with the Sunday paper. He took up a Sunday edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer and methodically discarded the sections in which he was not interested, such as the classifieds ("I already have a job"). At the end, he had a heap of discards and a few flimsy sheets of actual news.
We in The Enquirer newsroom thought that the Rooney Shuck was hilarious. Perhaps we did not give enough attention to the prospect that many, if not most, of our customers were performing a Reverse Rooney every Sunday, discarding the news and going straight to the comics, the classifieds, and the coupons.
Now, of course, we have online metrics, as Derek Thompson points out in a recent article in The Atlantic, "Why Audiences Hate Hard News--and Love Pretending Otherwise." Mr. Thompson cites a Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism survey in which people identified how important serious news was to them; then he goes to the online metrics that identify the kind of junk people actually read. "Audiences are liars," he writes, "and the media organizations who listen to them without measuring them are dupes."
God bless journalism for coming to us to tell us the obvious.
It's not just the pervasiveness of that Huffington Post and Upworthy clickbait that should tip us off. We have always had reason to know that the public has small appetite for serious news.
One tipoff: If you have worked in a newsroom, you know that many colleagues regularly betray that they do not read their own publication. But I even have some pre-Internet metrics to share with you.
At The Sun, an editor once deprived a features columnist of his column,* and the reader editor got perhaps forty inquiries from readers wanting to know why the column no longer appeared. A marquee local columnist fell afoul of the same editor and was deprived of his soapbox. The reader editor got a couple of hundred calls and emails. The Sun dropped the London Times crossword puzzle, and two thousand blistering complaints poured in.**
It was ever thus. Professor Russel Nye's excellent book, The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America, explains in great detail what Americans really enjoyed and paid attention to, historically, and little has changed. Baghdad and Benghazi be damned, the American public is keeping up with the Kardashians and their appallingly vulgar mother. Ever since Barnum, a freak show guarantees an audience. And if you wish to argue against the proposition that the public's taste for trash is virtually inexhaustible, you will be at some pains to explain away twelve seasons of Two and a Half Men.
It is probably a psychological necessity for reporters and editorial writers to imagine that people read their work. But newspapers have always at some level known better than that. Whatever we decide is significant for the front page and the news sections, we keep supplying the comics, the classifieds, and the coupons. Online, we provide even more. (Two words: Ravens cheerleaders.)
But while we acknowledge and attempt to satisfy mass tastes, we also attempt to serve that hardy minority of readers interested in serious news. The literate readers, the serious readers, the cultivated readers.
People like you.
*Columnists tend to think that, like federal judges, they enjoy life tenure. And that is probably for the best, because after a few years of shallow opining they are not of much use for anything else.
**Thus a reminder of a bedrock principle of newspaper journalism: Never, never screw with the crossword puzzles.