Last week, there was much ado about spinach.
Not the actual leafy green stuff, but spinach of the metaphorical variety. It came after John Drescher, executive editor of The News & Observer, published a column titled, “On the new N&O menu: Less spinach, more reader-focused coverage.”
Drescher explained that the paper was making changes to accommodate its readers, whose online reading habits will help guide what the paper chooses to write about. “We now have a rich amount of data that shows which stories get read and which don’t,” Drescher wrote. “We’ll use this information to make decisions about what we cover.”
Which brings us back to spinach.
Drescher, in his memo, equated the vegetable with “obligatory stories about government process”—the not-so-thrilling articles about subcommittee meetings and hearings. Drescher said the paper would be doing less of that. Plenty of people who chimed in online seemed less than pleased. (To quote one, from the N&O’s comments section: “As one of the spinach-eating, pointy-headed elitists who has subscribed to your print edition for decades and has zero interest in the new and improved N&O (which will apparently be a churchy video newsletter covering local TV personalities as part of a third grade social studies curriculum, I guess), I’ll happily redirect my money at media sources interested in serving people with basic literacy skills and a rudimentary knowledge of government.”) After all, surely there are still ways to write engaging stories about spinach that resonate with audiences who genuinely want to stay informed about what’s happening in their backyard.
And then there’s the question of oversight, and what happens when you take away the reporters dedicated to covering mundane government updates. When local governments aren’t watched, they tend to do bad things, says Ryan Thornburg, a professor at the school of media and journalism at UNC.
“So when you take the watchdog away, you wonder what government is going to be doing, and you shouldn’t be surprised when they do things that they wouldn’t do if they knew that somebody was watching,” he says. “I think that’s the biggest social implication for pulling back on any sort of meat-and-potatoes civic coverage, is that governments have a tendency to do things they wouldn’t do if people were watching.”
Still, when asked how he interpreted Drescher’s column, Thornurg says he sees it as “a mix of good and bad. It’s probably good for the individual but not necessarily good for having a collectively informed society.”
Andrew Losowsky, the project lead of the Coral Project—a collaboration between the Mozilla Foundation, The New York Times, and The Washington Post that connects newsrooms to open-source tools—praised Drescher’s willingness to put the paper’s new direction out in the open and says the reader-focused shift is not a bad move.
“I think it’s a really good thing that he’s writing about what their direction is, vision is, what they’re trying to achieve,” he says. “The idea of moving to be more reader-focused, audience-focused, I think is really great. I have seen a number of different organizations start to produce fewer stories and make those stories more relevant and really focus much more on local stories that nobody else is doing that are more key to the mission of that publication. And organizations that are doing this—and these are still the early days of that change—there seems to be really positive results.”
Drescher’s column highlighted other consequential changes. As part of their new ethos, the N&O plans to make use of more video, beef up the reporting team covering the legislature, and dedicate more ink to public schoolteachers, the Triangle faith community, and the media. But the paper would also be axing things. Namely, its weekly news quiz, metro columnist job, and Barry Saunders, the say-anything writer who graced the N&O’s pages for twenty-four years.
In a phone call, Saunders says he had a “wonderful career with The News &Observer,” adding that wasn’t given a reason for his dismissal. In his column, Drescher suggested it was because Saunders wasn’t getting enough clicks.
“Whatever John said, I guess that’s what it is,” Saunders says. “Now it’s just onto something else. I hear Gladys Knight is looking for another pip. So I think I may be dusting off my dance moves and getting ready to get back out there and do my thing.”
Dance jokes aside, Saunders’s departure from the paper is meaningful. For starters, as a decades-long African-American columnist who gained a loyal following before analytics infiltrated newsrooms, it’s possible that he was better read than the metrics suggested.
“A lot of people who liked the column are upset,” Saunders says, “and a lot of people who didn’t like it are upset because now they don’t have anything to piss them off in the morning, and they said they counted on me to do that!”
Everyone knows these are tough times for newspapers—and for print media in general. According to the Pew Research Center, the total weekday circulation for U.S. daily newspapers fell 8 percent in 2016, making it the twenty-eighth consecutive year of declines. The industry’s ad revenue is also on the decline, from $49 billion in 2006 to $18 billion in 2016. Meanwhile, in 2016, digital advertising accounted for 29 percent of newspaper advertising revenue—up from 17 percent in 2011.
So for publications trying to navigate the inhospitable world of print media and stay afloat, the fact that revenue is connected to audience is not insignificant.
“Every place is dealing with the loss of print readership and the growth of digital readership, but not the growth of digital revenue,” UNC’s Thornburg says. “So you’ve got to find a way to generate revenue online so you can keep doing your journalism, and if people aren’t reading your stuff, it’s hard to justify.”
For many print evangelists, the “digital-first” mantra is both inevitable and a bitter pill to swallow. It’s hard to square the romanticized vision of a newspaper reporter—fusty, hard-nosed, poking around dimly lit bars for tips—with the reality of working in media today, with reporters producing a never-ending stream of online content that means many of them end up tethered to their computers. Close your eyes and imagine if Woodward and Bernstein had blog quotas.
At the end of the day, though, this is the reality of the business. And people complaining about the N&O’s shift might do well to examine their own consumption habits. Are they subscribers? Do they read, share, and click on the meat-and-potatoes process stories that are now on the chopping block?
“Anybody that’s upset about a lack of coverage of government should do what they can to support that,” says Thornburg. ”Whether it’s making sure that they’re buying subscriptions or they fund a nonprofit that does this. I think that you gotta put your money where your mouth is.”