Newspapers need the fluff with the gruff

Seth Goodin has written a really good post asking when newspapers are gone, what will you miss? In it, he goes through the list of what makes a paper and what we will actually miss. Now, that’s a totally subjective question, as what I’ll miss is different from you (and it’s going to be a while before print completely dies anyway) but where we see eye-to-eye is this:

What’s left is local news, investigative journalism and intelligent coverage of national news. Perhaps 2% of the cost of a typical paper. I worry about the quality of a democracy when the the state government or the local government can do what it wants without intelligent coverage. I worry about the abuse of power when the only thing a corrupt official needs to worry about is the TV news. I worry about the quality of legislation when there isn’t a passionate, unbiased reporter there to explain it to us.
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The reality is that this sort of journalism is relatively cheap (compared to everything else the newspaper had to do in order to bring it to us.) Newspapers took two cents of journalism and wrapped in ninety-eight cents of overhead and distraction.

Now he’s right – there is a lot of fluff in with the ‘proper’ journalism. This is something that drives every professional journalist absolutely nuts. I remember when I worked at various papers and you could have good hard news scoops, but what they wanted was tales about JK Rowling or Prince William.

For years I questioned the wisdom of this, convinced that news editors were completely out of touch with their readerships (a charge that isn’t actually completely unfounded in my opinion) but there’s another way of looking at it: people may be reading the so-called fluff – but while they are reading that, their eyes will be attracted to other stories, more weighty tales thanks to the wonder of page layout (I’ve often believed that the designer of the newspaper page, complete with pics, nibs, downpage and uppage leads was every bit as important to education as Gutenberg).

So it may well be that for the good, quality investigative journalism to continue, we need the balance of the mass-popular items – the celebs on diets, the sex scandals and so on.

For a lot of reporters that may be an uncomfortable truth, but there’s another issue: if the mainstream press is vanishing, to be replaced by niche sites, how do we ensure people are getting quality, informed news and debate. Or is it elitist to try and think that people want news?