Did you know you have a "social contract" with your newspaper? You do, and it is not standing up to the changing times.
This is the thrust of the latest study of a growing alienation between newspapers and their readers. It was done for the American Society of Newspaper Editors by Ruth Clark of Yankelovich, Skelly and White, a market research firm.
The old contract between newspaper editors and their readers -- an implied one, of course -- was simple and clear, says Clark. "Editors decided what readers should know and readers read what editors thought they should know." But now, she reports, readers want the contract revised. They feel their newspapers are aloof and unresponsive to their needs. They want something done about it.
Clark found that readers are willing to accept the old contract as part of the new one. They recognize that newspapers must inform and educate, not merely provide what is popular. But, she says, the readers want some clauses added.
The first calls for newspapers to do more to serve readers and help them cope. Clark summarizes readers' position this way: "We want to know where to go to buy things, enjoy ourselves, get satisfaction from institutions, look for assistance." This new clause is essentially a cry for help in dealing with life's complexities.
The second new clause calls for help in a broader area: "Don't just tell us about the world. Help us to understand it." Clark found that while readers did not want more national and international news, they wanted their newspapers to do a better job of analyzing and explaining events and making them relevant to the lives of ordinary people.
The third new clause calls for better reporting of local events. Readers, Clark found, want not just the usual diet of local news, heavily weighted by police and city hall coverage. In fact, they could take less of that. They want coverage of what is really going on in their communities and their neighborhoods.
A reader complained that "local news around here means city hall -- not what people are doing or have to know." Clark found widespread feeling that newspapers exploit crime news, but are cold to suggestions that they cover less sensational but more positive events.
Fourth, readers want their newspapers to be their surrogate. That is, according to Clark, they say: "We want to experience through you many of the things we can't experience ourselves -- whether they are in the courtroom, in Congress, or on a sailing trip around the world." This clause is on the vague side, but it seems to express a desire for more explicit, you-are-there reporting and less reliance on the traditional bloodless recital of facts. Finally, the new contract would include a clause reflecting the complaints familiar to editors:
"Remember we are hungry for good news, not just bad news."
Clark quotes a reader: "I get a little unhappy reading a newspaper. The news is all bad . . . Newspapers stray too far from my life and some of the better things that happen."
Clark arrived at her findings not by the usual pollster's gathering of responses to such questions but by long discussions with groups of newspaper readers and non-readers in 12 cities. The report stresses that the results are not conclusive, but are "preliminary insights" -- clues to what is behind an accepted fact: a growing gap between newspapers and their customers.
Throughout the report, two themes are constant: today's emphasis on self-fulfillment and self-gratification, and a lack of communication between the people who put out newspapers and their readers.
The second theme was reflected in a strong desire on the part of readers to know more about the men and women who bring them the news. "Why should I believe you if I don't know anything about you?"
Clark found that many readers felt put off by the anonymity of newspaper writing, a feeling intensified by the personal nature of television reporting. The current practice of putting bylines on most stories does not meet the need, she said.
"There are many signs that the era of 'impersonal' journalism is in direct conflict with the social values of today and the new emphasis on one-to-one relationships," she reported. "At least for the reader, personal journalism is very much in vogue."
After the Clark report was published, political commentator James J. Kilpatrick wrote a column in which he undertook to tell readers who he was. He told about his childhood, his mother's encouragement of "the writer's spark," the family automobiles, publication of his first poem in "Child's Life," his career as a reporter, editorial writer and editor.
Kilpatrick's folksy recital struck a responsive chord. It drew more than 200 letters, one of the largest responses he has ever received. In their letters, his readers thanked him for telling them about himself and, in some cases, reciprocated. Their reaction clearly validated at least one section of the Clark report.