Charles McCollum: A simple but honest approach to reporting

The analytics approach doesn’t appear to be saving the day for journalism.

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan) New York Daily News staff photographers Todd Maisel, left, and Andrew Savulich walk out of the newspaper's office after being laid off, Monday, July 23, 2018, in New York. The tabloid will cut half of its newsroom staff, saying it wants to focus more on digital news.

Want to know what it feels like to be a ghost? Work your tail off as a newspaper reporter and editor for 45 years and then retire.

You used to see potential news stories everywhere you went – a unique building going up, a long line of people outside a government office, a patch of neo-Nazi graffiti on the sidewalk – but now things like this have a translucent quality. You are no longer positioned to pick them up in your hands, so to speak, then play “show and tell” with what you found to an entire community.

Simple as it sounds, this is how I always viewed my role as a journalist through a career that led to six different newspapers around the Intermountain West. But I doubt many other people would compare the profession to that innocent grade-school activity.

Not most readers. If they were to liken newspaper reporting to a kids’ game, it would probably be hide and seek. They suspect a carefully calculated and cloaked motive behind almost every article that appears in the local rag, even simple blurbs about dairy princess pageants and the like.

Not most newspaper owners either. Although they used to provide a lot of training opportunities to improve reporters’ newsgathering and storytelling techniques, the emphasis has largely shifted to teaching news staffs marketing principles to identify their audience and provide the types of news stories the target groups gravitate toward. Along with this has come a strong emphasis on internet analytics that track reader behavior with the aim of attracting more eyes online.

The sea change started in the early 2000s, at the beginning of the internet boom and the first signs of newspaper circulation losses as a result of papers giving their product away free online. Since then, print circulation numbers have outright plummeted, nearly all papers have put up internet pay walls and the quest to generate more web traffic to sell digital ads has become more and more urgent.

Now it seems every high-level news industry meeting is dominated by data, demographics, metrics and, for me, a stomach-churning amount of corporate jargon.

Despite how well this stuff plays in a conference call, the analytics approach doesn’t appear to be saving the day. At The Herald Journal newspaper in Logan, where I served as managing editor for more than two decades, revenue losses over the past 15 years led to multiple rounds of layoffs that ultimately cut the news staff from 22 employees to seven – all while we were trying everything the consultants recommended, from focus groups and reader surveys to social media strategies and click-bait headlines.

Through it all, all I ever really wanted our reporters to do was follow their noses to the most relevant and interesting stories they could find, not try to shape our content to the interests of a certain demographic that scans headlines on their phones at a certain hour while wearing a certain brand of sneakers.

An old-school business clobbered even worse than newspapers by the digital revolution has been bookstores, but apparently one of the toppled giants in this industry, Barnes & Noble, is making a notable comeback. Interestingly, its CEO, James Daunt, credits business instinct over market research for the resurgence. That’s my kind of guy.

Asked by the New York Times if Barnes & Noble tracks customer demographics, Daunt’s response was unequivocal:

“My predecessors spent enormous amounts of energy and effort to answer questions of that sort, and I spend literally zero,” the bookseller was quoted as saying. “I have no interest at all in even beginning to think of that as a question. It’s totally irrelevant. Our stores are for everybody.”

I believe news is for everybody, too, and my instincts tell me that journalism at its core is simply a matter of spotting something noteworthy and telling everybody about it. This could be anything: an inspirational story about someone overcoming a life challenge, an event, a trend, a hazard, a local government fiasco swept under the rug.

The need for accurate reporting is critical, of course. And although the news media’s harshest critics won’t admit it, even they know deep down that the chances of any story being true are a lot greater from professional news gatherers, who are answerable to the public, than whatever an algorithm feeds them after scouring the internet late into the night for partisan sources and conspiracy theories.

Yes, the information landscape has become very complicated, and as newspapers continue their well-documented slide, the reporters and editors who have stuck it out find themselves like fighters at the Alamo, surrounded on all sides with supplies running low.

What few people realize is that many of us only ever wanted to play show and tell.

Charles McCollum

Charles McCollum is the former managing editor of The Herald Journal in Logan. He teaches newswriting as an adjunct professor at Utah State University.