By Muncie, John F.
Nieman Reports , Vol. 49, No. 1
The San Diego Union-Tribune
Right around spring training time a few years ago, we ran a saying the oldest Little League in our county was dying. The league was in an impoverished area; it had no sponsors; there was little parent involvement. Worst of all, the managers, some of whom had been involved for more than 30 years, were getting too old to continue. Their average age was 66.
It was a good story. A tear-jerker. It touched on such salient sociological questions as drugs, crime, changing demographics and the breakdown of family values. But none of those questions were as important to the readers as this one: whom do you call to offer help? All they could do was call the newspaper. We were overwhelmed and scrambled to route them to the right people. When the dust settled, all 12 teams had sponsors and new uniforms and new coaches and the league had $8,000 in the bank.
The league wasn't the only beneficiary. The paper learned several valuable lessons. Among them: we weren't as smart as we thought we were.
"Dialogue" has become a trendy word these days, but it's a valuable one when it means talking to and listening to your community. We got the Little League story and stopped there. The readers didn't. They were affected by the story and they wanted help dealing with it. If the newspaper had "dialogued" better, we would have known that.
Over the years, The Union-Tribune has taken this lesson to heart. We discuss more; we listen more. It began formally in 1975 when The Union appointed one of journalism's first ombudsmen. Our current "Readers Representative," Gina Lubrano, is probably the newsroom's top listener.
"Many call in with concerns about accuracy - it's our policy to correct errors of fact," she says. "But just as often it's just to let off steam. Reacting to the same story, one reader will say, 'You're so right wing I can't stand it,' or 'You are so liberal....'" Lubrano is particularly taken with callers who complain, "Your editorials are so biased!"
In weekly columns, the Readers Representative explains why newspapers do what they do. Usually twice a year, she publishes a you-be-the-editor column asking readers how they would handle a series of sensitive stories. Their responses are compared to those of two dozen editors. This particular dialogue has generated hundreds of responses and has helped us understand the role readers want us to have in the community.
For example, one scenario involved the death of a man once prominent in the community who lost his job after becoming involved in sexual misconduct and drug addiction. The question was whether to use the information in the obituary. (The original accusations did not result in criminal prosecution.) Nearly all of the editors, 89 percent, said they'd use the information. Most readers, 83 percent, said no. Some news, they believed, is none of anybody's business.
Soliciting reader opinion has become commonplace at The U-T. And it goes far beyond the obligatory what-are-you-thankful-for holiday write-in. Our Religion and Ethics writer has challenged readers to test their ethical standards on issues ranging from euthanasia to filching office supplies. Teens are writing to our advice panel. The Features section has jumped into the middle of the abortion debate.
Several times a year the Business department contracts with professional accountants to offer free tax and financial advice over the phone. This generates hundreds of calls and has become a kind of market research. During the last tax-advice day, for example, Executive Business Editor Jim Drummond discovered that one of our advice-giving CPAs had received four calls from people who, unable to pay their mortgages, simply walked away from their homes. "It was a perfect example of something that didn't occur to us," says Drummond. Several weeks later, Business followed up with a personal finance story on what happens when you abandon a mortgage. …