The reader on the other end of the phone line demanded an explanation: Why, on the eve of arguments in one of the more substantial cases to be argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court this session, had The Island Packet not mentioned Fisher v. University of Texas?
She then rattled off to me details about the case and a brief history of Supreme Court rulings as they pertain to affirmative action, which, to her apparent satisfaction, the court seems poised to pare back.
She posed a valid question. In fact, we ordinarily would have included a preview of the opening arguments before the court.
But it wasn’t an ordinary day.
We had several local stories that were both important and interesting, and that couldn’t be held over a day. What’s more, we had a small section to fit them into. (Contrary to popular belief, the newsroom cannot phone the production department to order up more pages; newsprint is one of our major expenses, and we use it in an amount roughly proportional to the volume of paid advertising.) So the preview of the Supreme Court case was not included in that day’s section, on the premise that we would indeed have a story the following day when arguments were actually presented to the court.
And, of course, when a decision is announced, a story about this case would certainly contend for the front page.
We can debate whether the newsroom made the correct call on this issue. But there is another aspect of the reader’s reaction that is worthy of examination: The upbraiding I received came from someone who already knew far more about the case than we would have told her in a print story that day. Indeed, this sort of thing happens somewhat frequently — a subscriber reads a story in another publication, often a political journal or large metropolitan newspaper, then grows agitated when the story doesn’t appear in our publication, as well.
I don’t dismiss this concern altogether. So long as we continue to include wire copy and news from beyond our immediate coverage area, any habitual failure to inform readers about important national stories — particularly controversial ones — could be construed as indifference, incompetence or bias.
But there is a fourth explanation that the hot-and-bothered sometimes overlook: Consider the obvious space limitations of the printed, small-market newspaper; then weigh the value of local news, for which we are a primary source, against national and international news, for which there are many competing sources. Do we not best serve both readers and our own financial interest by giving preference to local copy over wire copy when we cannot fit it all into a particular edition?
It should be obvious, either by reading this post or reading our newspaper, that we typically answer with a resounding “yes.” However, I suspect our answer should not be quite so pat, for some readers look to us not only for information, but affirmation. They want us to agree with them — perhaps not on every particular of a story, but at least on the story’s importance relative to other news.
So what the lady was telling me, in so many words, is that the affirmative-action case is important to her and she expects it to be important to the newspaper, too, even if the news isn’t confined to our locality and even if she already knows more about it than we could tell her in a single article.
I’ve answered enough reader emails and phone calls to know this phenomena applies not only to “hard news” included in the A section. The same goes with the editorial and sports pages, too — in fact, perhaps more so.
In the long term, as online and digital products become more widely read and critical to our financial success, this problem will be mitigated, but it will not be eliminated. On the one hand, space and bandwidth won’t be an issue for textual reports, so we can publish just about anything under the sun available to us. On the other hand, we’ve recently had discussions about the best structure for the feeds and navigation for our Packet and Gazette iPhone apps. We’d like to provide a comprehensive package of news — that serves readers well and also serves our business interests by keeping folks engaged our site longer — but not everything can be the most prominently displayed thing on a smartphone screen (or a desktop browser, for that matter.)
Of course, that problem, too, is being addressed, by technology that can anticipate a user’s interests and preferences and customize a news presentation based upon that.
Until such technology is fully mature and the preponderance of our readers have shifted to digital products, I suppose we could twist ourselves into knots trying to balance local and non-local news for our print publications. However, I still don’t see a viable solution to the reader’s complaint about the missing Supreme Court story. To satisfy her, we’d surrender a portion of our local-news franchise or push some other important wire copy out of the newspaper.
And some other reader would then call because we excluded something they wanted to read about.
Nonetheless, I didn’t mind hearing from her or getting a reminder about what’s important to many of our readers. It keeps us on our toes and makes our product better, even if such conversations are ultimately a reminder that perfect is for the next life, not newsroom life.