USA Today, The London Free Press, and the Rationalization of the North American Newspaper Industry

Shawn Berry (Concordia University)

Abstract: USA Today and The London Free Press offer two examples of the increasing rationalization of the North American newspaper industry. From a Weberian perspective, both are more formally rational at the organizational level than conventional newspapers. In addition, they also provide readers with a news product which is more instrumentally rational. Such a news product gives the reader a greater role in creating a sense of meaning out of the day's news. However, the move towards a more reader-centred news product diminishes the reporter's ability to provide subtextual commentary on the issues, people or events being covered. Furthermore, highly rationalized news formats contribute to the perception that newspapers can provide an impartial treatment of the subjects addressed in their pages.

Résumé: USA Today et The London Free Press sont deux exemples de rationalisation dans l'industrie journalistique en Amérique du Nord. En effet, considérés d'un point de vue weberien, ils ont plus de rationalité formelle que les journaux traditionnels. Ils ont en outre plus de rationalité instrumentale que ceux-ci. Des produits journalistiques comme USA Today et The London Free Press permettent au lecteur de jouer un plus grand rôle dans la création du sens. Cependant, le développement de reportages centrés sur le lecteur entrave les journalistes qui voudraient commenter l'actualité plus à fond. De plus, les journaux dont la présentation de l'information est très rationalisée peuvent donner au public la fausse impression que leurs reportages sont impartiaux.

Introduction

Since its 1982 debut, the American newspaper USA Today has had a major impact on the North American newspaper industry. Sold in coin boxes designed to look like television sets, it has been an immensely successful experiment, a trend-setting hybrid of print and television journalism which in less than 10 years was able to boast a daily readership of 6.6 million. With its effective use of bright colours, high-quality photo reproduction, innovative graphic design, and brief stories, USA Today has appealed to a new generation of readers. Weaned on television, this new generation is increasingly attuned to images rather than words and, because of a busier lifestyle, has less time to read than earlier generations of newspaper readers. USA Today has made huge gains by tailoring its product to this market. At the same time, it has influenced the form and content of a host of other North American newspapers. The most notable Canadian example is The London Free Press (of London, Ontario), which underwent an extensive redesign in 1989.

Like USA Today, The London Free Press offers an illustration of modern-day rationalization of the newspaper industry at the news-product level (the content and format of the newspaper) and at the organizational level (the bureaucratic structure) (Shoemaker & Reese, 1991, p. 134). Together, these developments may have far-reaching implications for the way newspapers are produced and read in the 1990s and beyond.

Max Weber and Rationalization

Max Weber's multi-faceted concept of rationalization--in economic life, law, administration, and religious ethics--involves the depersonalization of relationships; an increasing emphasis on specialized knowledge; improvements in the techniques of calculation and measurement; and a widening degree of control over natural and social phenomena (Brubaker, 1984). Weber's value-rational (wertrational ) action derives from the actor's belief that acting in a certain way is inherently of value, regardless of its potential for success. Instrumentally-rational (zweckrational ) action (also referred to as means-ends rational action) stems from the actor's expectation that the end result of a certain action will be the means to achieve another end (Weber, 1968, p. 24). Moreover, the subjective expectations of the actor (or actors) prior to the action are all-important in determining the type of rationality employed. Acting on the basis of the journalistic principle of "objectivity," for instance, may indeed be value-rational. However, adhering to a professed news value such as "impartiality" may simply be a means to achieve another end: the promotion of larger circulation figures by ensuring that readers with diverse political opinions can all feel comfortable in buying a single, (apparently) neutral news product (Knight, 1982, p. 22). This example is only one of many possibilities, and, as Brubaker notes, "purely instrumental action may be devoted just as well to self-enrichment at the expense of others as to the disinterested advancement of a valued cause" (1984, p. 38).

Substantive and Formal Rationality

In his analysis of economic activity, Weber provides another important distinction when he differentiates between substantive and formal rationality. In the case of formal rationality, "action is based on `goal-oriented' rational calculation with the technically most adequate available methods" (Weber, 1968, p. 85). In the case of substantive rationality, however, the assessment of rationality is not restricted to these considerations. Rather, the results of economic action are measured with regard to "certain criteria of ultimate ends, whether they be ethical, political, utilitarian, hedonistic, feudal (ständisch), egalitarian, or whatever" (Weber, 1968, p. 85). In short, the substantive rationality of an outcome is assessed in reference to a particular value-orientation.

Applying this theoretical framework to journalism and newspaper management, we can see that purely formal rationality and substantive rationality exist together in a state of tension. One of the rallying cries of journalists in the past has been "the public's right to know," which represents a journalistic substantive-rationality commitment when the motivating factor is a belief that adopting this cause will promote democracy. However, such substantive-rationality orientations have traditionally been compromised to varying degrees by financial and institutional considerations. Like most private-sector enterprises, news organizations are primarily oriented towards continued growth and prosperity through the kind of formal rationality that promotes the greatest economic efficiency possible. (Of course, formal rationality is ultimately oriented to some kind of substantive rationality consideration[s]. Cf. Weber, 1947, p. 185.) As a result, efforts at increasing the level of formal rationality, such as removing the arbitrariness of decision-making by establishing uniformly applied rules and regulations (Kalberg, 1980), often take precedence over journalistic substantive-rationality concerns.

Newspaper Rationalization at the Organizational Level

Where once there was a concern that journalists were not adequately prepared when they moved into management positions (Lomoe, 1959, p. 52), today the worry is that too many modern newsroom managers are all too familiar with management philosophies but not attuned to journalistic values. One critique of the "MBA mentality" which has emerged in the newspaper industry was made by Doug Underwood after he left The Seattle Times, where he was a reporter:

Welcome to the world of the modern, corporate newspaper editor, a person who, as likely as not, is going to be found in an office away from the newsroom bustle, immersed in marketing surveys, organizational charts, budget plans, and memos on management training.

...[N]ewspaper executives have reshaped their newspapers in the name of better marketing, more efficient management, and improvement of the bottom line. (Underwood, 1988, p. 23)

In explaining the reasons for this trend, Underwood pointed to the growing corporate control of U.S. newspapers and our age's enthralment with "the arcana of scientific business management" (Underwood, 1988, p. 23).

Particularly important has been the trend towards labour specialization. As part of a larger process of change in modern economies, newspapers, like other business enterprises, have increasingly turned to specialists (including market researchers and newspaper-design experts) in the belief that they can help them to become more effective and profitable in the marketplace. Viewed in this broader context, it is not surprising that the characteristic traits of the modern newspaper manager include specialized training and knowledge in areas such as financing and management theory. In 1985 The London Free Press brought in one such manager, former president and associate publisher Jim Armitage, who presided over the paper's redesign. Armitage had received a master's degree in business administration and had worked as a newspaper marketing consultant with Canada Consulting Group, Toronto.

From a Weberian standpoint, the newspaper industry's increased reliance on marketing and management specialists is an expected development. In The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology, Alvin Gouldner notes that both the modern state apparatus and the industrial sector

are increasingly bureaucratic in character--in Max Weber's classically delineated sense. That is, the organizational form values expertise, and roles and authority in bureaucracy are allocated on the basis of certified expertise. The bureaucratic form is thus not that of the popular stereotype of foolish inefficiency, but an historically superior form of efficiency and relative instrumental effectiveness. (Gouldner, 1976, p. 239)

News organizations have likewise placed increasing emphasis on certified expertise, which is one reason it has become so important for would-be reporters to have a journalism degree if they want to enter the profession. By the same token, it has become more difficult for reporters or copy editors without any management training or experience to work their way up through the ranks into management positions, where they can then learn the necessary management skills on the job. In a book on newspaper management, Sohn and others note that

Although talented copy editors and advertising sales people still get promoted to managerial positions, today top managers look for experience and training. Publishers may still prefer the experienced employee to the new holder of an M.B.A. when hiring managers; however, with increasing frequency, publishers want people who have a background in personnel relations, marketing, accounting, finance, and general management. (Sohn et al., 1986, p. 3)

Newspapers, then, have increasingly rationalized their operations at the management level by turning to management and marketing specialists, or by encouraging their own employees to seek specialized training in these areas. This, however, is only one of the ways in which newspaper operations have been rationalized in recent years.

Another characteristic of modern bureaucracies is their emphasis on empirical evaluation. As Gouldner suggests:

Modern bureaucratic organizations in the state sector or in the production sector systematically evaluate the degree to which their policies are effective and make cost-benefit analyses of them; they appraise rationally the relative effectiveness of the various departments within the organization; they conduct public opinion and market researches that keep open contacts with their suppliers and outlets; they select new recruits and continually reevaluate all members with various kinds of psychological and performance tests; they defend policies with the use of research; they struggle and wage war against others with rationally documented argumentation and information--"facts and figures"--they prepare for unforeseeable contingencies by briefing their administrators with scientifically accumulated "background information" and with systems analyses allowing for different "scenarios" involving alternative assumptions about events. (Gouldner, 1976, pp. 239-240)

In recent years, newspapers have also placed increasing emphasis on similar evaluative techniques. In an article decrying the changes at The London Free Press, Don Gibb, a former reporter and city editor at the paper, noted that "A host of consultants were hired to survey readers, survey staff, survey advertisers, hire an editor, redesign the newspaper, prepare a strategic plan, help reporters and editors prepare for the `new journalism' and help staff cope with stress" (Gibb, 1988, p. 33). As part of this process, over 1,000 people in The Free Press circulation area were interviewed by phone after the paper commissioned an in-depth readership study by a Massachusetts-based newspaper-research firm (Sutter, 1988, p. 24). Among other things, the 1986 survey found that readers were seldom able to go through the entire paper, and had trouble finding the stories and features they most wanted. (One of many subsequent changes in the newspaper's format was an elaborate, colour-coded, front-page key with short synopses of selected stories inside to help readers locate different sections and stories of interest.) After the redesign, the same Massachusetts-based research firm conducted a follow-up study which surveyed 800 Free Press readers in southwestern Ontario. Sixty per cent said the paper had improved over the previous year (Sutter, 1989, p. 35). In addition to commissioning such surveys, The Free Press, like many other newspapers, has also experimented with reader panels to determine what its readers want.

Modern newspapers, in sum, have become increasingly sophisticated in the way they make policy decisions and assess the marketplace. In particular, they have enhanced their ability to gather information about their audiences and measure product effectiveness in a systematic and efficient manner. The increased emphasis on empirical evaluation improves the calculability--and hence the formal rationality--of the production process, for it allows newspapers to gauge market demands more precisely and to predict the outcomes of product changes more accurately. Less and less is left to chance.

At the same time, there have been moves towards a more editor-driven production process. After leaving The Free Press, where unhappy editorial workers went on a brief strike in the fall of 1990, Gibb wrote that

there is a feeling of despair in the newsroom. It has been sapped of enthusiasm, initiative and creativity because reporters feel they have little or no control over what they do. This has been reinforced by middle level editors who direct reporters on what THEY say the story is and go so far as to provide a list of questions to ask. Some reporters are resigned to the new regime and simply say: "Tell me what you want me to write." (Gibb, 1988, p. 33)

At The Seattle Times there were equally significant developments. In an article after his departure, Underwood wrote that mid-level editors had proliferated in the newsroom, where reporters worked from computer lists of proposed stories approved by committees of editors. "Strict oversight of the entire newsroom operation is maintained through countless editorial meetings and memos and by using computers to check out each staff member's lists of projects, which must be constantly kept up to date" (Underwood, 1988, p. 25).

Managing by committee and monitoring reporters by computer are two ways of trying to maximize "the values of calculability, efficiency and impersonality" (Brubaker, 1984, p. 42) in the newsroom. That is, they are attempts at increasing the formal rationality of the newsroom. Similarly, when "middle level editors...direct reporters on what THEY say the story is and go so far as to provide a list of questions to ask" (Gibb, 1988, p. 33), it would appear these editors are attempting to greatly streamline the news-gathering process. Such an approach has a high degree of formal rationality: it ensures a great deal of control over workers, a production process in which the final product is attained more expediently, and a higher degree of predictability vis-à-vis the outcome of the work. With this kind of approach, however, there is also a greater danger that reporters will distort the news by applying an already determined but unwarranted paradigm while gathering information and formulating the news account. This concern, and others which will be raised later, bring into question the issue of rationalization and news quality.

Rationalization of the News Product

Using extensive market research prior to its 1982 debut, USA Today was able to design a more rational (i.e., efficacious) product, in terms of reader appeal and profitability, than had typically been the case in the newspaper industry. USA Today made its product more appealing by better identifying and satisfying the desires of its target audience. Readers were given what they told market researchers they wanted:

They wanted short stories. They wanted sports. They would not follow a jump. They liked charts and graphs--information presented in ways that could be absorbed quickly or, as one Gannett executive put it, "in ways that are not words, ways that are not spelled out, and not interpreted." So exhaustive was the research that only one major reader-requested feature was added after the paper made its debut: a crossword puzzle. (Seelye, 1983, p. 26)

Although The London Free Press is in a different category of newspapers than USA Today, it, too, has attempted to make its pages more "reader-friendly." The redesigned Free Press features a greater emphasis on informational graphics; "fact boxes" containing basic factual information in an easy-to-digest, bulleted format; "decks" preceding the articles which provide a précis of the story; and, in general, shorter articles.

Rationalization and Narrative Structure

One of the implications of the changing nature of modern newspapers is that the reader is increasingly responsible for bringing a sense of coherence to the news. In highly rationalized newspapers such as USA Today and The Free Press, readers have a greater say in arriving at their own interpretations of the world from the various pieces of information provided, rather than being limited to the reporter-driven narratives (with their preferred readings) that typify conventional newspaper reporting.

Even when written in inverted-pyramid style, traditional newspaper articles clearly favour a modified narrative structure in that they generally flow logically from one item to the next, sometimes building to a conclusion or series of conclusions, and frequently ending with some kind of device--a quotation or a reference to expected developments in the future, for example--which provides a sense of closure. However, in highly rationalized newspapers, the more traditional, narrative structure of news, as found in the self-enclosed news article, is undermined as the news is fragmented into a variety of alternate forms, including diagrams, graphs, lists, and fact boxes. With this new form of representation, which offers the reader a greater number of entry and exit points, the burden of creating an overall sense of meaning from the details of a particular news item, or series of items, shifts from the reporter's shoulders to the reader's. Indeed, the reporter becomes less and less of a writer and more and more of a "fact-gatherer."

Both Usa Today and The London Free Press have adopted a more instrumental form of communication which enhances their ability to achieve one of the traditional goals of the news media: providing information that can be rapidly understood and absorbed by readers. Informational graphics and fact boxes typically provide a much leaner version of the news, making them very attractive to the modern, busy reader who wants to be able to skim the paper.

One of the problems with undermining the traditional narrative structure of the news, however, is that it can also undermine the reporter's ability to respond critically to the people or events being covered. Consider, for example, the following extract from a 1987 Free Press election story about the then-provincial Tory leader, Larry Grossman. In the article, Grossman says:

"Instead of dealing with the issues--education, environment, free trade--he [the then-Premier David Peterson] wants to count on Ontario voters being fooled.

"I think the whole issue of Liberal complacency in a number of areas is something we will be discussing.

"When I look at the first few days of the campaign, I think they are planning to run a `land is strong campaign,' avoid the issues, run a glossy, `hi, how are you?" campaign.

Grossman's own campaign was restricted Monday to a speaking engagement in Whitby and a handshake tour of a Toronto mall--itself featuring a great many "hi, how are you?" greetings. (Dauphinee, 1987, p. A8)

This is an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Grossman has accused Premier Peterson of complacency and a desire to see voters fooled by a "glossy, `hi, how are you?' " campaign that avoids the issues. However, the reporter implies there is a certain degree of hypocrisy in Grossman's criticisms, for Grossman himself adopts the same "hi, how are you" superficiality in his own campaign. Of course, it may be that the journalist did not intend such a reading, but it seems more likely that he is attempting to communicate a subtler message to the reader than the facts alone would indicate, namely, Be sceptical of what this man is saying.

Reporters often communicate subtly with their readers. There are undoubtedly many examples similar to the one above which could be found in the redesigned Free Press, for the primary mode of communication in the redesigned Free Press is still the narrative. The opportunities for subtextual criticism by, for example, the intentional juxtaposition of certain story elements are perhaps diminished, however, as the emphasis shifts towards a less narrative news format which leaves less room for traditional news structure. Indeed, the subtextual effectiveness of the above example derives in part from the lengthy build-up to the last paragraph; Grossman's long-winded attack on the premier's anticipated hypocrisy makes his own apparent hypocrisy all the more ironic. It is difficult to conceive of similar effects being achieved in a less narrative form, such as a quick-read box which briefly lists candidate activities and selected statements in a bulleted format. When the news is presented in such a fashion, readers are conditioned to see each element as a discrete unit of information--not as part of a larger whole which may need to be considered in terms of its total effect.

Reader-Selected News

By de-emphasizing the narrative structure of the news, modern newspapers do, to an increasing extent, what John Fiske calls on "the news" to do in his book Reading the Popular:

[News] must not preach or teach; rather, it must invite participatory readings and lay itself open to viewer-selected, viewer-produced, viewer-circulated meanings of its content--for only this viewer productivity can make those events part of the micro-level culture of the everyday. (Fiske, 1989, p. 196)

While highly rationalized newspapers appear to allow for a greater degree of reader productivity (and thus more democratic productivity, for the production of meaning is more widely dispersed), they should perhaps be seen in another context. From a Gramscian perspective, news is one of the cultural forms constituting popular culture, a key site on which the social construction of the people and the popular is contested by dominant and subordinate cultural groups. As Robert Hackett notes in "Remembering the Audience: Notes on Control, Ideology and Oppositional Strategies in the News Media,"

Recent cultural studies researchers have stressed that cultural practices and meanings can be implicated in modifying, reproducing, resisting and /or transforming social relations of power, domination and inequality. Notably, the sphere of popular culture has come to be seen as a key site for such struggles--the ground upon which the terms of capitalist hegemony are affirmed, contested and negotiated. In this regard, studies of popular culture have demonstrated how the hegemonic process--the winning of mass consent to an established social order with its attendant definitions and understandings of the world--is never static, seamless, monolithic or non-contradictory. Rather, it is an ongoing struggle to modify and reproduce, through ideological institutions and practices, the meanings associated with dominant social relations. (Hackett, 1988, p. 83)

Hackett's observations are particularly relevant to USA Today, which has secured a firm place for itself in modern American popular culture. The "established social order" (Hackett, 1988, p. 83) is seldom challenged in the pages of USA Today, which for the most part is characterized by an absence of commentary, interpretative pieces and investigative reporting (Ludlow, 1986, pp. 419-442). What readers get instead is more information. After an analysis of a typical edition, Ludlow noted that:

Altogether, with each list or summary counted as one unit, the reader is supplied with 771 separated items of information. This compares to about 200 separate items in a more conventional metropolitan newspaper with twice the "news hole," or the amount of non-advertising space. (Ludlow, 1986, p. 419)

Unfortunately for readers of USA Today, more information does not necessarily result in more meaning. On the contrary, Jean Baudrillard hypothesizes that "information is directly destructive of meaning and signification, or neutralizes it. The loss of meaning is directly linked to the dissolving and dissuasive action of information, the media, and the mass media" (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 95). Baudrillard argues that in the process of attempting to simulate communication and meaning, information actually "devours its own contents":

It is a gigantic process of simulation with which we are all familiar. The non-directed interview, speech, listeners who telephone in, participation at all levels, blackmail through speech--all say: "It's your concern, you are the event, etc." More and more information is invaded by this sort of phantom content, this awakened dream of communication. (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 98)

In the pages of USA Today, this "process of simulation" is frequently evident. To further assure readers that "it's your concern, you are the event," USA Today frequently commissions or jointly commissions polls on various topics to find out what everyday Americans (the people who buy USA Today) are thinking. A particularly interesting example was provided by the following notice for a series of articles in USA Today. The notice appeared on the front page of the March 8, 1985 issue with the headline, "Next Week: Poll about You":

USA Today introduces next week a quarterly one-of-a-kind barometer of the quality of our lives, how we feel, what we say, what the statistics are about us.

The Life Quality index will draw together trends in education, income, safety, health--for example, we're becoming more satisfied with our lives as we grow older--and will help us track the variety of factors that make our lives better or worse.

And an exclusive opinion poll will balance those USA Trends with our own views on how our lives are going.

Compare your own LQ--Life Quality--beginning Monday in USA Today.

The Life Quality index stories (and others like them) offer further evidence of the media simulation that Baudrillard describes. Here especially, USA Today readers are offered the opportunity for "participation at all levels" (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 98); indeed, they are given, to an unusually large degree, the chance to become the news--i.e., "Next Week: Poll about You." As they become part of the public domain, however, readers are to a certain extent desubjectivized, converted into grist for a series of quick-read articles that sell papers by appealing to our collective narcissism, rather than by dealing with more substantive issues, such as government or corporate wrongdoing.

"USA Snapshots"

Also featured prominently in the pages of USA Today is a daily feature called "USA Snapshots...A Look at Statistics that Shape the Nation." In each issue, the various "USA Snapshots" offer colourful graphics with snippets of statistical information, a title, and a sentence or two of introduction (at most). Except for this, however, readers are given no guidance. No explanation of the political, historical, or social significance of the figures, or what they imply for the future, is included.

Just how these snapshots "shape the nation" is often unclear. What is clear, however, is that "USA Snapshots," and other informational tidbits like them, do indeed shape something. They shape the way newspapers are read. Increasingly, readers are encouraged to see the news as a series of discontinuous pieces of information whose most important value is their ability to entertain us with trivia (Postman, 1985). Thus, USA Today readers learn from "USA Snapshots" that potato chips were the number one snack-food sold in the United States in 1990 (December 16, 1991); that 100,000 "unsightly signs" must be removed in the United States (March 31, 1992); or that a higher percentage of females than males think they have "at least some" influence on government ( June 14, 1993). Like other "USA Snapshots," any of these info-bits are potentially important, but we are seldom given sufficient context to be clear as to exactly how they are important. In terms of contributing to reader understanding, they are not very rational.

From another point of view, however, "USA Snapshots" are exceedingly rational. With their benign graphics and value-neutral statistics, they are unlikely to alienate current or potential customers by appearing to favour a particular viewpoint. They are, in short, an extreme example of the kind of news coverage that characterizes much of the paper. USA Today should, however, be headed in the opposite direction (as should its competitors).

For various reasons, mainstream newspapers have long endorsed the outdated goal of "objectivity," an impossible ideal that has the negative side-effect of fostering reader complacency. Newspaper readers have a responsibility to search out left- and right-wing news sources so they can make up their own minds about issues and events, but when they are presented with (ostensibly) value-neutral news there is no impetus to find alternative accounts. Nor is there the kind of strongly opinionated news story that provokes readers to reflect on their own opinions about the subject. Instead, newspaper readers are like somnambulists, only half-aware of the world around them.

With the exception of the editorial and op-ed pages, a few columns, and the occasional "analysis" piece, there is far too little commentary in most mainstream newspapers (which is perhaps one reason that the alternative press is gaining in popularity). Efforts to provide a more reader-centred news product (as opposed to a reporter-centred one) exacerbate the problem in that they reduce the potential for more subtle forms of commentary. The move towards shorter stories, for instance, may be popular with readers, but it leaves fewer opportunities for the inclusion and manipulation of contextual elements that add other dimensions to the news account.

Consider, for example, a hypothetical news story about a government proposal to provide funding for a new battered women's shelter. This news account takes on a much different hue if news of the proposal is followed, in the same story, by a lengthy recounting of cases in which the same government withdrew money from other shelters, forcing them to close their doors. In this context, the government's plan to provide money for a new shelter is more likely to be viewed as a hypocritical move on the part of politicians. The reporter could further contribute to this view by including another piece of information: the fact that an election is expected to be called in the next few weeks. The reporter does not have to make the connection between the proposed shelter and the expected election explicit; simply including the two pieces of information in the same story implies that there is (in the view of the journalist) a relationship between them. (Readers would be less likely to make the connection if news of the expected election were contained in an accompanying fact box or sidebar; because fact boxes and sidebars can stand on their own as self-contained units of information, there is not the same impetus for readers to make all of the pieces fit together.) Reporters are able, in short, to convey their own opinions through the calculated selection and differential weighting of contextual elements. With shorter stories, however, there are not as many opportunities to do this, especially if the reporter is limited to a few paragraphs.

An even greater concern is the potential for highly rationalized newspaper formats to further obscure news bias. (Fact boxes are especially likely to reinforce impressions that the media can dissociate fact from opinion.) The bias itself is not a problem; in fact, when it is expressed in the form of overt and less overt commentary, it can be quite useful to readers. What is problematic is that newspaper partiality is often not apparent, and this contributes to a greater degree of reader passivity.

Reporters and editors would be doing a greater service to their readers by making more efforts to foreground their own ideological assumptions (the kinds of assumptions that determine which "facts" are selected in the first place). The goal, in short, should be a more open relationship with readers which invites them to be more cognizant of the various belief systems which shape the news. This, in turn, would create a greater impetus for readers to search out other news accounts with differing perspectives. The end result would be more informed and more motivated readers who are better equipped to participate in the democratic process.

Conclusion

USA Today and The London Free Press offer two examples of what has happened in recent years as North American newspapers have rationalized their content and design formats. Although the circumstances and degree of change varied from paper to paper, many other newspapers, including The Seattle Times, also made content and design changes in efforts to make their papers more "reader-friendly."

Of course, the changing face of the newspaper industry is partially a function of the changing technical capacities of newspapers. Indeed, technical improvements in printing and production capacities created a certain self-generated logic and momentum for the rational refinement of newspaper design. In addition, there are undeniably potential benefits for readers when this process of refinement is done in a restrained fashion. The moderate use of computer-generated graphics, for example, can help readers assimilate and retain a greater amount of information, especially when it naturally lends itself to graphic representation, as in the case of news accounts which have a geographical element. While there are certain benefits, however, there are also a number of potentially negative elements which have sometimes accompanied newspaper remakes, including a tendency towards greater superficiality (pointless graphics, surveys on trivial topics, light features at the expense of comprehensive local-news coverage, and unduly short articles lacking in much-needed context).

Of equal concern is newspaper rationalization at the organizational level. As part of the process of rationalizing newspaper operations, management and marketing specialists have reorganized newsrooms to be more effective and they have pushed for changes in the news product after having readers surveyed and resurveyed. From a marketing perspective this makes sense, but from a journalistic perspective it is troubling to see newspaper design and content formats that represent, in the words of Ben Bagdikian, "the primacy of packagers and market analysts in a realm where the news judgment of reporters and editors has traditionally prevailed" (Bagdikian, 1983, p. 33). News judgment, a more difficult entity to quantify and evaluate than reader likes and dislikes, is based on experience and intuition, and although it is sometimes limited by its own biases and typifications, it reflects a broad-based understanding of news that is often more forward-looking than that of readers. Indeed, it is interesting to note the comments of William Thorsell, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, who said on a Morningside radio broadcast that:

of the things that we have done in editorial content in the last few years that are quite popular with readers, I don't think one of them was suggested by readers....You can't ask or depend upon readers to tell you what's not in the paper that they would like to see.... (Thorsell, 1992)

On a final note, do we really want a newspaper industry in which the reporter becomes more and more of a "fact-gatherer"? Most traditional newspaper writers would probably say no, for as this transformation occurs, the news business becomes less of a "haven for the independent, irreverent, creative spirits who have traditionally given newspapers their personalities" (Underwood, 1988, p. 24). Of course, reporters have always had to adapt to the ever-changing newspaper business, and they have found ways to work within the system and still produce at least some stories that live up to their journalistic ideals. However, modern reporters face even greater challenges than their predecessors as they adjust to newspaper environments which have become much more formally rational in recent years.

References

Bagdikian, B. (1983, March-April). Fast-food news: A week's diet. Columbia Journalism Review, 21(6), 32-33.

Baudrillard, J. (1983). In the shadow of the silent majorities: Or the end of the social and other essays. New York: Semiotext(e).

Brubaker, R. (1984). The limits of rationality: An essay on the social and moral thought of Max Weber. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Dauphinee, D. (1987, August 4). Campaign boss denies strife in ranks. The London Free Press, p. A8.

Fiske, J. (1989). Reading the popular. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Gibb, D. (1988, November-December). Profit motive driving paper into journalistic bankruptcy. Content, pp. 33-35.

Gouldner, A. (1976). The dialectic of ideology and technology. New York: Seabury Press.

Hackett, R. (1988). Notes on control, ideology and oppositional strategies in the news media. In R. B. Gruneau (Ed.), Popular cultures and political practices. Toronto: Garamond Press.

Kalberg, S. (1980). Max Weber's types of rationality: Cornerstones for the analysis of rationalization processes in history. American Journal of Sociology, 85(5), 1145-1179.

Knight, G. (1982). News and ideology. Canadian Journal of Communication, 8(4), 15-41.

Lomoe, W. (1959). If he wants to be a big shot...I try to discourage him. In H. Gemmill and B. Kilgore (Eds.), Do you belong in journalism? New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Ludlow, L. (1986, Winter). USA Today: A second read. ETC., 43(4), 418-420.

Next week: Poll about you. (1985, March 8). USA Today, p. 1A.

Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Viking Press.

The Record's Baird takes a bow. (1990, September 17). Marketing, 95(38), 35, 41.

Seelye, K. (1983, March-April). Al Neuharth's technicolor baby. Columbia Journalism Review, 21(6), 27-35.

Shoemaker, P. J., & Reese, S. D. (1991). Mediating the message: Theories of influences on mass media content. New York: Longman Publishing Group.

Sohn, A., Ogan, C., & Polich, J. (1986). Newspaper leadership. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Sutter, S. (1988, November 14). New year to bring new look to the Free Press. Marketing, 93(46), 18, 24-25.

Sutter, S. (1989, November 13). London Free Press: One year later. Marketing, 94(46), 35.

Thorsell, W. (1992, November 20). Interview (Morningside). Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Underwood, D. (1988, March-April). When MBAs rule the newsroom. Columbia Journalism Review, 26(6), 23-30.

Weber, M. (1947). The theory of social and economic organisation. (Talcott Parsons, Ed.; A. R. Henderson, Trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, M. (1968). Economy and society. (G. Roth & C. Wittich, Eds.; E. Fischoff et al., Trans.). New York: Bedminster Press.



  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Thesis Abstracts
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

SSHRC LOGO