Saturday, November 19, 2005

Turkey Town

John from Stillwater writes in with some cogent observations about the Pioneer Press and what passes for journalism at our hometown paper:

Thursday November 17, 2005, is the day the St. Paul Pioneer Press officially became a shopper -- The Stillwater Gazette with a Sunday edition.

The dominant graphic on the front page of Section A of my beloved hometown paper was of a flock of turkeys. The above-the-fold headline, the grabber that would get people dropping their quarters into Pioneer Press newspaper stands around the city, was "TIME TO TALK TURKEY." Photo and copy took up just under half the total space of the front page.

Was this a story about the threat of bird flu? No. Was it a business piece about the turkey business in Minnesota or the economic impact of the "holiday" season? No. An animal rights story? No. Was it a news story of any kind? No. It was essentially a house ad for an article in the PiPress "EAT" Section. It's no coincidence that advertising-wise EAT is a very profitable section for the Pioneer Press.

The couple of paragraphs set in up-sized type, next to a picture of the EAT Section to ensure that readers could find it, informed us that people eat a lot of turkey at Thanksgiving time. By turning to EAT we could learn about traditions of "four professional foodies" and a "cornucopia of restaurants" that are alternatives to a homemade Thanksgiving dinner. Heck, the diligent journalists at the Pi Press even dug up some "tasty takeout turkey dinners for easy home entertaining."

Let me say here, I love my hometown paper. I have long been a critic of newspapers for failing to market themselves effectively. I think the Pioneer Press emphasis on local news is a spot on strategy for gaining market share against the Strib and capturing a larger share of local advertising. Local coverage also opens the door to a lot of stories that might not otherwise get covered.

But love makes one blind, not necessarily stupid; there's a difference between marketing and shilling; and "local, local, local" doesn't have to mean "innocuous, innocuous, innocuous."

Is this really what newspapers have to do to survive -- run promos on the front page? If so, sorry, it's not a newspaper; it's a shopper. Does market now determine news "content"? Is the new motto of journalism "All the News You Want to Know?" Is the purpose of the local section to uncover local "news," or is it to make sure that every high school student, athlete and local "personality" gets 15 minutes of fame and the Pioneer Press a place on family refrigerator?

Change, is necessary for the Pioneer Press even if uncomfortable for readers like me but still it ought to be change for the better. Making the Twin Cities a one-newspaper town -- one "news" paper and one shopper -- is not for the better.

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