I've developed a new schtick for explaining the concept of news judgment to civilians: A newspaper is a big averaging machine, I tell them.
Here's how it works: When reporters and editors get new information, they estimate its newspaper value based on their subjective mental picture of the average audience they're trying to satisfy. If they're thinking very clearly, they'll also abstract the situation out to ask "If something similar took place with a different group or in a different place, how would I respond?" Then they'll execute the coverage in a way that is averaged out to deny material to as many predictable critics as possible.
The purpose of all this averaging is to generate a product that alienates the fewest people while generally presenting information of value to the broadest possible audience. If that's your business plan -- and for metro dailies, it is -- then strong emotions (unless predictably held by a near consensus of the population) are a bad outcome. Because for all the talk about the liberal media, a metro newspaper is much more like the Israeli parliament (a loosely cobbled-together group of competing constituencies, many of which are in direct disagreement on certain points) than an ideological monoculture.
The goal of such a product is maintaining that coalition, not doing any one thing particularly well. In fact, should your newspaper suddenly start doing a great job of covering sports, it's very likely that someone, somewhere, will question why so many resources are being put toward college football while so little is being devoted to the 2008 presidential election. And so on.
Which brings us to a key question about the future of metro dailies: If the spirit of the new media is niche and the concept of your existing product is general, how do you get there from here?
Well, here's one answer: Stop making papers with the goal of people not hating them and start making papers for people to love.
And there's only one way to do that: Make more than one newspaper. Let people choose which one they want to read. And then give them reasons to love that choice.
How many should you make? On what should each paper be based? What resources should be shared? How would you administer such an operation? Good questions, all.
But not show-stoppers.
Any news organization that would attempt such a transition would (or, more accurately, should) know its individual markets better than I would be able to imagine in the generic sense, so let's keep this at the macro level. The "take-away," then, is this easy-to-remember aphorism: In a niche world, the place to be is where people are grooving.
Not where you want the people to go, not where it's easiest for you to put them. You go where they want to be and make products that improve their lives, make them happy, fulfill their needs. So if that means you have one paper that serves the interests of conservatives and another that serves the interests of everybody else, OK.
I used to hate this idea, but now I simply accept it. Resisting it doesn't serve anyone, including "the public," and it certainly isn't a great way to build an enduring business. My worry in 2005 was that without a lingua franca (i.e., a mainstream media identity that persisted in this great averaging I mentioned above), American society would simply Balkanize. My epiphany in 2007 is that this has, in fact, already happened -- and might actually turn out to be a good thing.
In 2005 I thought it was a good thing that the media created norms that went beyond partisan control. In 2007, I don't care so much about that. In fact, I'm not sure that I like anybody having that kind of power. Period.
So why not let go of these outdated notions and focus instead on communicating our altruistic community-service values by putting love at the center of our business model? It's certainly a better starting point than our current position, which is everywhere... and nowhere.