The Culture of Timidity: Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editor Says Newspapers Should Stop Listening to Consultants and Do Some Hard-Hitting Reporting

By Stein, M. L. | Editor & Publisher, May 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Culture of Timidity: Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editor Says Newspapers Should Stop Listening to Consultants and Do Some Hard-Hitting Reporting


Stein, M. L., Editor & Publisher


Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor says newspapers should stop listening to consultants and do some hard-hitting reporting

NEWSPAPERS are gripped by a "culture of timidity" that prevents them from the bold reporting that is their heritage, says former St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor William F. Woo.

In the wake of falling circulation and public indifference or hostility to journalism, editors are playing it safe by sticking to conventional reporting while listening too much to consultants and public journalism advocates, who claim the trouble with newspapers is that they are disconnected from their readers, he believes.

This notion "has attained the stratus of conventional wisdom" he said. "We actually believe it," he told the California Society of Newspaper Editors at its annual convention in Napa recently. "That newspapers are unplugged from their readers cannot stand critical analysis" he continued. "A boxcar that is disconnected from the one in front and behind is disconnected. Newspapers are not like that"

Woo is the second newspaper person to address a journalism forum in recent weeks who has attempted to debunk the increasingly popular notion that greater use of reader focus groups, consultants and community involvement journalism is the direction newspapers should be taking.

Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Barlett, formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer and now with Time magazine, recently said focus groups are part of what's wrong with American newspapers (E&P, April 12).

Some readers, Woo noted, may be connected to the main news and features but disconnected from sports, while others connect to the business section but not to the comics or lifestyle features.

"The trick is to shore up these connections, make more of them and reconsider," Woo said.

The speaker, who currently teaches journalism at Stanford University, also deflated an idea held by many newspapers that the road back to health lies in finding new readers rather than cultivating their present ones.

He conceded that new readers are needed but asserted that the decline in customers "has nothing to do with the people who never read us. Instead, the decline reflects the thousands of men and women who six months ago or last year read us and now no longer do."

Focus groups, consultants and public journalism are unlikely to bring them back, Woo contended.

Retention of traditional readers, he suggested, is more apt to be achieved by traditional journalism-- "the kind that kept them with us all those years, the kind for which there is no ready market among consultants, think tanks, and for which our new paymasters, the foundations, are not interested in making grants." Nor will in-service training seminars or conferences be sponsored by foundations seeking to "accomplish some... objective with roots in ideology," he stated. "Foundations do not give away money for the sheer thrill of it"

Another icon toppled by Woo is that readers want "feel-good, people stories" rather than ones about institutions on the theory that the former are inherently interesting while the latter are boring.

Some government stories may be dull but if the goal of newspapers is to write about subjects that relate to people's lives, the government story is probably a better bet, he opined.

"What six or eight people do around a table at a legislative session or regulatory board will have greater effect on the lives of ordinary people in public services, taxes, and recreational opportunities for our children than any number of stories about old people exercising in Spandex or kids and dogs"Woo declared. …

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