At Least They Didn't Say "World Class"
While I was on hiatus, the Commercial Appeal published their plan to be "the best 21st Century paper in the country." It is, sadly, a rather unfortunate and strange plan. Let's take a closer look:
# Tells the story of Greater Memphis through the master narratives that make us unique.This, to me, is really disturbing. For a better understanding of what "narratives" means, go to The Rhetorica Network and click here. He explains things better than I could in this short space. Basically, using narratives means having a pre-existing template that they facts to be reported are fit into. You see this all the time on the morning and primetime television shows. "Plucky child overcomes misfortune." "Good person struck by terrible disease; poignance ensues." Things like that. I'd love to know what the CA's narratives are, as they express the bias that the paper will be bringing to their future reporting. I guess we'll just have to read closely and puzzle it out for ourselves. Should keep me busy here!
# Actively engages and interacts with our current readers.This has manifested as lots of reader comment in the paper, something I have trouble with. I don't read the CA to know what readers think. I want access to places and people I would never otherwise have. Usually this translates into reporting on government, the property/banking/developer cabal, and the offices of big business. I would otherwise never know what goes on there, if newspaper didn't report it. I can ask any doofus what he or she thinks of the paper.
The new "Readers React" features and the brethren are just more, and more focused, Letters to the Editor. What might be more valuable, and is something that's not happening much so far, is for the people addressed by readers to reply! Break the wall of opacity at the Glass Fortress and let some light in on how the CA does things, how decisions are reached, what discussions they have and why. That's what I want to know.
What's also happened is that every by-lined story now has an email address and phone number to reach the writer. That's good, but how much time is spent talking with readers and is lost to doing original work?
# Vigorously seeks new readers among Gen Y, African Americans and suburbanites.What does this have to do with being a better paper? In that it broadens the scope of coverage and range of issues, that's good. If it translate into a broader array of columnists, with a broader range of opinions, that's good too. But this is phrased as "increase circulation," not "increase relevance." Read it closely.
# Reports from the center of issues and offers readers ideas of "what they can do.""The center?" Where's that? Does this mean inserting themselves into stories, ala "Amber's Army?" What have we heard from that endeavor lately? How do you report from the center of "Social Security?" "Downtown development?" "Urban sprawl?" See what I mean?
As for offering readers ideas of what they can do, is this to be part of straight news reporting? The who, what, when, where and why? Or does this mean on the editorial and columnist front? Who offers the ideas? Who selects whom to ask? Who gets left out of the discussion and under what guidelines and circumstances?
This is perilously close to advocacy, to taking a position, something the CA claims to abjur as a matter of professional ethics. I personally think this cornerstone of modern journalism needs to go. Regular readers of the CA already know that the paper takes positions all the time, working against those it perceives as opposed to it, while claiming to be fair and neutral. It's time the CA simply announces its biases and preferences openly, so readers know what to expect going in, like papers used to do before the Fifties. Instead of claiming to float above, dispassionate and disinterested, which we know is false, plant your feet on the ground, say "Here." and defend yourselves and your assertions.
# Presents stories in a visually exciting way.Translation: lots of photos, especially of readers.
# Attracts and keeps talented people and finds the right jobs for them.The snarky guy in me wants to make this say, "Get on the team or we'll shuffle you out." I'm sure it's just the usual corporate rah-rah, though.
# Rewards and encourages a constructive, innovative culture.More corporate rah-rah. "Think outside the box." "Speak up without fear or favor." "Increase profits, get a bonus."
# Acts ethically and works closely with all newspaper divisions to build the business."Acts ethically" with "all newspaper divisions" or with the community? How is that defined?
# Integrates new media into core operations.The CA has started on that with the CommercialAppeal.com, nee GoMemphis website, though the layout is ad-dense and slow to load on dial-up. Updates only happen on a small part of the main page, though; othewise the paper simply presents the next day's issue all at once. For example, during the Dyersburg hostage crisis, the paper was woefully off the mark. The only update they presented came from the Associate Press. Why they didn't have reporters on the scene, sending in short items to go right to the front page, or to a special page prominently linked from there? That was missing a golden opportunity for pulling in new readers and for getting ahead of the curve.
The paper has begun to adopt blogs, but the three so far are pretty dire. Only Blake's Blog shows signs of "getting" the whole blog thing. The rest is old-think slapped with a new technology paint-job. They really need to study those newspapers which seem to "get" blogging and the "constant-update" ethos of online newspapers.
# Builds our brand around high standards of fairness, accuracy and usefulness.Oh boy. That's why this blog exists -- to counter their lack of fairness and accuracy. "Rock-throwing mobs" anyone? Their treatment of Duncan Ragsdale and the woman who tried to organise the anti-FedExForum petition drive? The Ford family vendetta?
"Usefulness" is a difficult thing to quantify. For me, in-depth coverage of the local government and political scene is useful. Sports and recipes aren't. There are plenty of outlets for the latter, but where else can I find the former? Other than the Memphis Business Journal, who covers business?
I suspect usefulness is a mushy concept based around "touching our readers lives" or some such pabulum. No disrespect to Jon Sparks, but what purpose, exactly, does the "CA Eye" column perform? Daily dose of humor? "Fresh Eyes?" Long features about someone overcoming adversity? I dunno. It just seems to push out the "real news" to me. The part of the Metro section devoted to State and non-Memphis reporting has been getting smaller and smaller this year. I really hate to see that. It's as though we're being cut adrift, disconnected from the non-Greater Memphis parts of our neighborhood.
For all the bias and partisanship and favoritism of the old regime under Angus McEachran, it was lots and lots of hard news. The "new" CA is becoming a lighter-weight affair. Lots of name-checks and people pictures in a paper scream, "Buy lots of copies for your family and friends!" That, to me, seems a cheap tactic to build circulation, not quality. The major hard-news regular columnists are gone (Thorp, Wade Branson and Locker) to leave us with lighter folks like Kelly, Thomas and Waters.
I fear the CA is trading quality for social popularity. Dumbing down for being liked. The new direction is making it easier and easier for me to simply skip a day of reading. I don't fear I'm going to miss something any more. It matters less and less.