Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tennessean has been newspaper run by surveys

One of the funniest yet saddest stories about the ineptitude of the top editors at The Tennessean is told by probably the newspaper's best graphics artist.

In Paris that news day, the Concorde had lifted off with fire coming out its tail. There was an incredible photo, but it was a little out of focus. The artist putting together the front page was pushing the photo hard in the afternoon news meeting.

But the top editor back then nixed the idea of running it prominently on the front page because a survey of Tennessean readers showed they did not like fuzzy photos. The artist was exasperated. By the same reasoning, a less-than-clear photo of the actual assassin of JFK on the grassy knoll in Dealy Plaza would not have been run either.

Yet that's the way too many decisions were made in the newsroom during my 10 years there. I had the same survey silliness pulled on me in a meeting with the same top editor. And who are you to argue? He has the survey; you don't.

Newspaper people rely on surveys not because of any insight provided. Surveys allow them to stay in their Ivory Towers and continue to look down upon the people. That's the way it was at The Tennessean in my day. And I doubt it has changed now.

During what was called a site visit by executives from corporate Gannett, then senior VP Phil Currie presented reader survey numbers about the newspaper to the newsroom. And on the issue of liberal bias, The Tennessean scored higher than the average for newspapers in the company. But Currie just brushed the number aside, saying it was just the typical kind of criticism from readers.

Sure, The Tennessean was biased on its news pages. On the editorial pages, however, that's fine. But their bias wasn't even pure or good liberalism. It was self-serving and self-promoting. It endorsed anything from Phil Bredesen's mouth.

The Tennessean and other newspapers like it will continue to falter until its leaders finally come down from their towers and meet the people they so dislike, listen and change.

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