Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Forget Focus Groups

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Forget Focus Groups

Article excerpt

Focus groups and "he said, she said" stories are part of what's wrong with American newspapers, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Donald L. Barlett told Bay area journalists.

"Bringing a group of citizens into a room and asking them what they'd like to see in their newspaper" is generally ineffective in improving the paper, he argued.

"How in God's name is a focus group going to tell an editor what to print when they haven't the slightest idea what the reporter knows or should know, or what the story should be or shouldn't be?"

Rather, Barlett said, readers' needs are better served by inserting more context to stories, which should be written and edited by reporters and editors with a high degree of curiosity.

The speaker said that when he and James B. Steele, his investigative reporting partner on the Philadelphia Inquirer, traveled throughout the country, they found a lot of good reporting.

"The quality of small and medium-size papers has probably never been higher than it is today," he said. "What is obvious from reading the good stories is that it's clear . . . that the reporter had curiosity. And you can read stories and it's obvious that neither the reporter nor the editor... had the slightest bit of curiosity."

Barlett, who spoke at the Freedom Forum's Pacific Coast Center in San Francisco, recently moved with Steele to Time magazine, where they will work directly under editor in chief Norman Pearlstine.

DEBUNKING A PERCEPTION

Barlett debunked the perception -- held by many editors -- that people don't read newspapers because they don't have time or that the many government stories are too long, dull and boring.

"To that we would say, there are no dull, boring stories, only dull, boring, uninspired, unimaginative editors and reporters," he continued.

Barlett, whose trademark with Steele is the long, investigative piece, recalled that when one of their SerieS would run in the Inquirer, daily circulation went up over 10,000 and Sunday circulation over 20,000.

"We don't believe people were buying those papers simply to cut them out and not read them," he said. "It was clear from the mail they were reading them."

Terming newspapers "hidebound institutions" resisting change, Barlett urged them to go beyond standard reporting and give stories more meaning.

"Now, more than ever, newspapers have got to tell readers what it means and move away from the `he said, she said,' school of journalism," he stated. …

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