Press

All the news that’s soft enough to print

Doug Fetherling October 30 1978
Press

All the news that’s soft enough to print

Doug Fetherling October 30 1978

All the news that’s soft enough to print

Press

It’s increasingly true that politics are determined less by what goes on in Parliament than by what happens in public opinion polls. But few people realize as they pick up their daily papers that the same trend is happening in the newspaper business—publishers are relying on the judgment of pollsters hired to tell them what readers want rather than on the judgment of editors. And the pollsters have been reporting that the public wants what they call “soft” news, not the straight hard reporting necessary to keep readers well-informed citizens—resulting in the softening of many a Canadian newspaper scrambling to keep abreast of both profits and the times. “Speaking privately,” says Dick MacDonald of the Canadian Daily Newspaper Publishers Association, “I think many papers have responded in an almost knee-jerk way to some of these surveys.”

There’s nothing new, of course, in newspapers over-programming their customers on gossip columns, quizzes, self-help features and details of petty crime. Only recently, however, have some major papers reversed their order of priorities almost to the exclusion of staff-written national and international news. Such policies are tied to the general decline in newspaper circulation relative to increases in population and the age of the average reader. These factors in turn are tied to television and the rise of the TV newscast, but also to a nebulous, amorphous mood of otherworldliness on the part of readers these days. This mood has expressed itself in a demand for fewer and fewer facts

about the real world, or so say the papers that act on that assumption.

The Ottawa Citizen is one of the most recent and conspicuous converts to the soft news approach, with three sections feeding the readers’ appetite for trivia. There’s the daily Tempo section and the weekly tabloid TGIF, part of whose function, according to an in-house memo, is “to give the Citizen some attractive bait to dangle in front of the large group of non-readers, from highschoolers to young adults, who do not have the newspaper reading habit.” Noting the heavy emphasis on disco lifestyles, Citizen columnist Charles Gordon claims the whole phenomenon is aimed at “people who move their hips when they read.” Third and most controversial is the Neighborhood News

department, an entire page given over daily to replaced sidewalks, upcoming pet shows and the like.

Tempo and TGIF are new within the past few months; the Neighborhood page began more than two years ago. Says Managing Editor Nelson Skuce, who spearheaded the change: “If Trudeau announces a new policy and then on the same day the city decides to put up a new light standard that’s going to shine right in my window—well, which touches me more directly? This kind of thing has come in very high on any survey I’ve ever heard of. The people want it.” But the rank and file doesn’t necessarily agree. “A lot of people would say it’s a debasement of what newspapers are traditionally supposed to do,” says Bozica Costigliola, a Citizen reporter who wrote her BJ thesis at Carleton University on the slide to mushy news values. For the thesis, which “became a real sore point around here,” she inter-

viewed quite a few Citizen editors and

reporters who are at odds with the paper’s new policy.

By no means is the Ottawa experience isolated. Recently, for instance, the Citizen, the Ottawa Journal, and many other papers across the country, ran the first Canadian Press “happy story” from abroad—the result of a directive to CP’s handful of foreign correspondents to wire home as much good news as possible. This is in addition to CP’s new “weekend extra,” a schedule of soft news and regional news designed to feed all the new Sunday papers. According to Harold Morrison, its foreign editor, CP is taking cognizance of the trend “toward increased use by newspapers, and demand for, what some people call soft news.”

With slick city magazines in the major centres, a proliferation of suburban and even neighborhood weeklies, not to mention the perennial possibilities of community-access TV,1 the press has been forced to turn increasingly to service features, entertainment listings and how-to-cope material just to be competitive. No one objects to this. At issue, rather, is a change in the very temperament of newspapers, a change that would see drastic alterations in the idea of just what constitutes newsworthiness, a turn away from the controversial, the investigative, the tangible.

While all papers seem to be pondering their future in these terms, a few have already made substantial commitments to triviality.

The Edmonton Journal, faced with the intrusion of the racy Edmonton Sun (its first competition since 1951), has moved, simultaneously with the Ottawa Citizen and other papers in the Southam chain, into the neighborhood news arena. “It’s no problem getting news,” says the section’s editor, Catherine Carson. “Even in the dog days of summer, we get phone calls all the time with neighborhood news.” The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix followed suit—“and very successfully,” according to Executive Editor Jim Petro. Just last month the growing importance of soft news seemed confirmed by a thorough redesign of the Star-Phoenix.

Three years ago The Winnipeg Tribune, for so long second fiddle to the Winnipeg Free Press, went to a totally new design. The switch made it visually appealing besides bolstering the paper’s circulation and profits. It also provided cover for a modification in editorial ambitions, though not so drastic a change as endured elsewhere. “We decided to go in both directions at once,” says Dona Harvey, the Tribune's editor. “More of each kind of news—hard and soft.” Even so, the shift has not been without controversy in the trade, for all its success with the public—a public whose tastes may vary from venue to venue, but which seems to know when a paper is going overboard.

The case of The Toronto Star is perhaps the most recent example. Last October, the Star initiated The Sunday Star. With its array of light columns, games and gossip, it was the last word in editorial cotton candy. But it met with stiff and immediate reader resistance. A year later the paper is still thin in advertising and weak in circulation (with approximately one-third as many readers as its Saturday sister), but the company appears determined to keep the paper on its present course. Early this month the Star imposed The Sunday Star's format and attitudes on its

weekday and Saturday editions.

So what’s causing such radical turnarounds and confusion of outlook? Panic, basically, at realizing a gap exists between papers and their readers. This is a point all newspaper editors seem to make, independently of one another. “We’re getting too far away from the people’s lives,” says Nelson Skuce. Dona Harvey agrees. “During the ’50s and ’60s, people at the papers thought they had become more sophisticated or intellectual than the readers,” she says. “But what really happened was that we lost touch with our readers and they stopped reading us. Now we have to get back to them by becoming useful to them in their daily lives.” Some publishers saw commissioned surveys as the only hope for realignment.

This was especially true in the U.S., where metropolitan dailies (afternoon ones particularly) were further threatened by early evening network news shows. Clearly, dailies had to become more like magazines but only in addition to doing best the kind of reporting only newspapers can do. But many publishers risked their loyal base to com-

pete with the enemy on the enemy’s terms—and failed. Surveys have come to play an important part in newspaper publishing in Canada as in the U.S. One

firm, Goldfarb Consultants of Toronto, is especially sought after, having done work preparatory to The Winnipeg Tribune changeover and The Sunday Star launching. Its president, Martin Goldfarb (another of whose clients is the federal Liberal party) says, “I think the role of the consultant will be more important in the future in that he’ll have an objective, standoffish understanding of consumer needs and wants.”

Which is all very well except that consumer needs, as told by the pollsters, change with every flicker of taste. The American papers appear to be swinging back toward hard news once more. Recently both the St. Petersburg Times and the respected Louisville CourierJournal, to name just two, abandoned their hard line on soft news. As Dick MacDonald says, “I think Canadian papers will be three to five years behind the Americans in coming round again.” Meanwhile the consultants continue to puzzle over what went wrong with newspapers in the ’70s, when they should have been in the forefront but instead are no more in step than usual. An executive at the Ottawa Citizen, conjuring up TGIF story ideas, orders “a sentimental look at love on campus from grade school to university,” and asks in a memo, “Do kids still trade pins? Do they still go to the drive-ins for love-ins, etc.” Dona Harvey looks down her nose at such journalism. “Our surveys show that the people in Winnipeg aren’t really interested in this kind of thing,” she says. Pause. “Mind you, the competition’s surveys show just the opposite.” Doug Fetherling