With all the talk of how newspapers can retain readers, it’s still worth remembering some useful advice to newspapers from more than ten years ago. It comes from Mike Smith, at that time the assistant director of the Newspaper Management Center at Northwestern University.

In a publication titled Values. Culture.Content, he addressed the question, “How do you differentiate your product from the growing number of media and information options?”

Observing that “newspapers are place-based media,” he went on to note that the standard answer was that newspapers should “become the primary source of local news.” Rebutting this, Smith declared that “a better answer would be to maximize relevance to customers and the marketplace.” That in turn meant a newspaper should have a reader orientation based on “the enduring values of journalism” as well as “the civic values of the newspaper company.”

So far, so good. Not just good, but excellent. Despite the hype, local per se is not necessarily alluring. It certainly does not automatically resonate with a values-based approach.

Consumers Are Kin

But from here, Smith enters some slippery terrain. In short, he proposes that stories should correlate to the values of readers. That sounds deadly boring to me. It’s a recipe for a paper to forego any identity of its own, instead just reflecting what the readers already know and want to hear.

From a business point of view, it’s as conservative as anything. There’s the dangerous assumption that readers have shared values. Worse, the assumption is that newspapers exist to serve tastes based on these values. “Understanding the needs of readers,” as Smith says. (Although to be fair to him, I’m caricaturing his emphasis somewhat for the sake of correcting the balance!)

Perhaps it’s heresy to say this, but arguing that the consumers are king is actually a recipe for the death for journalism.

A better formulation is “consumers are kin” — and, as everyone knows, not everything goes smoothly between blood-relatives.

The mantra for the past decade at least has been: follow the market. Nope. Ask most journalists — did they get into the business as a substitute for becoming a masseuse? No, their motivation was to make a difference and to raise awareness of needs, not merely to meet pre-defined needs.

Where following the market does make sense is seeing where the market is — and having a presence on online social networks, offering widgets and badges, etc. But that doesn’t mean kowtowing to the market.

Of course, most newspapers are businesses so some would say they have to follow the market — but they’re the kind of business whose success depends on leading rather than following. A good newspaper helps to shape the market. The audiences for media outlets are continuously constructed and reconstructed.

A good newspaper therefore stimulates new interests instead of just tailing existing ones. Its voice (as evidenced through its selection and approach to news) is what sets it apart.

News Linked to Identity

This is not to say that people buy papers for their attitude. They want news — but news that is positioned and linked to an identity. And this is an identity that, while recognizing readers, does not try to posture as them. Newspapers aren’t about narcissism. On the contrary, it’s the difference between the reader and the paper that makes the difference between a successful paper and a dying one.

When a paper has fresh information and a perspective that the reader doesn’t, that’s all the more reason for a connection. Naturally, since Smith wrote his recommendations, tech has travelled a distance, meaning that the connection can now go both ways: a dialogue becomes possible.

But a newspaper should never be just a platform for citizens to dialogue with each other. That would be to relinquish being a player in the game. It’s not a question of journalists being arrogant or aloof, but of being true to the nature of the newspaper qua institution.
This prescription for the ailing industry doesn’t mean that a paper should adopt a single voice, nor a hectoring one. It means, simply, taking up positions in terms of the news mix and the comments thereon, and offering to engage people with this package.

In this way, a newspaper serves the public imagination. It puts onto the public agenda various conceptions and notions about community, locality, nationality, etc. If we’re talking about a value-based approach to newspapers, this is surely where it’s at.
That’s strategic, without being manipulative