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Friday, November 19, 2004

Is an Obsession with "Diversity in the Newsroom" Killing Daily Circulation?

It's buried in the Metro section, but there is a fascinating story in today's Washington Post that sheds much light on how the MSM is missing the mark in dealing with declining circulation and audiences in the Internet Age. Here are the key graphs:

"Downie told staffers that the paper has made strides to increase newsroom diversity in recent years, and said that of the paper's 30 to 40 top editors, 'white males are in the minority.' But he said the paper needs to hire more minorities and to improve its coverage of the area's increasingly diverse population.
"Downie and Bennett will hold a meeting to address diversity issues early next month.
"The Post just wrapped up its annual self-evaluation meeting, an offsite event that includes top editors and executives from the paper's business side. This year's meeting focused on the paper's declining circulation -- now at 709,500 daily copies, down 10 percent over the past two years -- and the results of an extensive readership survey taken last summer.
"In an effort to win new readers, Downie said Post reporters will be required to write shorter stories. The paper's design and copy editors will be given more authority to make room for more photographs and graphics.
The paper will undergo a redesign to make it easier for readers to find stories. It is considering filling the left-hand column of the front page with keys to stories elsewhere in the paper and other information readers say they want from the paper, which they often consider 'too often too dull,' Downie said. "

Two observations: First, circulation plunged 10 percent during the period when the newsroom's leadership focused so intently on diversifying that minorities became the majority. Could it be the newsroom leadership was focusing on the wrong problem during those two years in which circulation plunged? Nobody denies that minority journalists should get exactly the same consideration as anybody else in newsroom hiring. But where is the evidence that a quota-driven editorial structure is more likely to increase circulation than a structure governed solely by demonstrated talent and experience?

Second, why do all of the readership surveys done for declining circulation dailies always seem to conclude that circulation is falling because stories are too long and readers yearn for more colorful graphics? Is there a pre-packaged survey used by all dailies because they all want the same conclusions? And where do those 100,000 or so lost readers go for their news now anyway?

Maybe the problem isn't stories that aren't short enough or easy to find. Perhaps we might even learn something about the real problem facing the Post on its front page this very morning. There we find a front page dominated by a five-column photo above the fold on the Clinton library dedication and a story about how presidents Bush II, Clinton, Carter and Bush I made nicey-nice to each other. An inside-political-baseball story of primary interest to what is undoubtedly a tiny slice of the Post's remaining readership.

This on a day when The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times relegated the Clinton library dedication to an A1 photo with a reefer to an inside story. USA Today's front is dominated by a photo of NASCAR star Kurt Busch. In fairness to the Post, it should be noted that the Clinton library was similarly prominent on the front page of The Washington Times.

Here's the bottom line: The Post editors and anybody else seeking to understand why increasing diversity is not the major problem facing American journalism need only spend a few hours with Bill McGowan's "Coloring the News," from Encounter Books and available via Amazon.com for $11.53. A former Newsweek and BBC reporter, McGowan lays the issue out in blunt but instructive terms.

Then get your hands on Dan Gillmor's "We the Media," also available from Amazon.com, for $14.95. The biggest problem facing MSM giants like the Post is whether or not they can make themselves relevant in an age in which news is a conversation, not a lecture on diversity or anything else.