Last month, one column shook the media world. It was just one column by one editor in one daily paper, no more than 800 words total, but it had the journalism world afire, shooting out letters to Poynter (a media trade newsite) with the “Indignant Lock” key on faster than the next day’s news copy.
The subject of the column was not as controversial as you would imagine. You’ve probably heard it all before.
Mark Yost, an editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, wrote a column questioning the quality of mainstream media reporting on the War in Iraq. Yost, a Navy veteran himself, was getting a jarringly different picture of the war from friends returning from combat than he was seeing in the pages of his own paper.
Yost’s column set off a wicked firestorm on Poynter. He garnered what could only charitably be called undiplomatic criticism from an editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, the Washington editor for Knight-Ridder newspapers, which owns the Pioneer Press, and the director of the Knight-Ridder Baghdad bureau, among many others.
This week, the Minnesota-based bloggers at PowerLine, got their hands on a leaked internal memo instructing the staff of the Press to cover more aspects of the war. The paper, the memo states, is strong on covering the deaths of soldiers and weaker on covering the more mundane details of the war, the reconstruction, and how they affect families on the homefront.
Odd, that’s almost exactly what Yost said. His column was called, “Why They Hate Us,” in reference to those servicemen and women who feel they’re unfairly represented by the press corps. The media’s response to “Why They Hate Us” offers many new lessons in that same vein, if the media is willing to listen. Here are the Six Golden Rules I gleaned from it.
1. Listen to reader criticism-- even from conservatives and military personnel.
Americans with conservative values make up about half of a newspaper’s audience. Yost was speaking for many of those folks, but the reflexive shrieking on display at Poynter revealed exactly zero regard for the concerns of those customers. That doesn’t seem like a smart move considering the precipitous drop in newspaper subscriptions over the past couple decades. A newspaper’s coverage cannot and should not be guided entirely by public opinion, but treating the public’s opinions with courtesy can ensure reporters retain a public for which to write.