Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Letters to a publisher II: Treat your readers with respect

How should a media executive manage the business during a time of disruptive technological change? Alfonso Nieto attempted to answer that question in his book "Letters to a newspaper publisher," written in 1987 when newsrooms in Spain were moving from typewriters to computers. His comments have acute relevance today.

Alfonso Nieto, University of Navarra portrait
In this letter to a fictitious newspaper publisher, which he titled "The dwarf and the giant", Alfonso Nieto criticized media owners, managers, and journalists for failing to take into account the problems and the needs of their readers. Nieto saw the media industry as arrogant, looking down on the public and their viewpoints.

Beyond that, the media viewed their audiences as merely market segments to be lumped into groups based on age, gender, income, occupation, or other attributes that they could monetize. 

The arrogance

The media used a language, he believed, that emphasized their superior education and social position rather than trying to create a more intimate connection with their readers. This could very well describe the traditional media today, which have been losing readers and TV viewers because they focus much of their attention on the conflicts among political parties rather than finding solutions.
Versión en español

The news media were missing an opportunity by not finding ways to connect with their readers. He finished up his letter with this peroration:

"We live in a time in which our fellow citizens spend much of their time listening to the radio or watching television, but very little time reading. No one should doubt that today it's very difficult to get new readers, perhaps because reading requires more intellectual effort and is incompatible with other activities. But couldn't it also be because it isn't interesting? To capture a reader's attention means making them a participant, not just a consumer; it means approaching them with sincere, frank language rather than trying just to pander to them. Sincerity is a form of trustworthiness that requires writing exactly what you think, to treat the audience with respect" (emphasis mine).

He went on:

"Being sincere with readers is equivalent to being truthful, which doesn't have anything to do with digging up dirt, twisting the facts, or criticizing everything. For ethical and business reasons, a newspaper enterprise should not adopt the lazy tactic of pandering to the emotions of the reader. It's painful to see some publishers become arrogant and brag when they present their higher circulation numbers. They infrequently talk about the readers, but when they do, they seem to consider them dwarves without sufficient vision or imagination, mere vassals. To those publishers I offer the idea of Burton: 'a dwarf borne on the shoulders of a giant can see farther than the giant himself' " (p. 33).

Still relevant

Nieto could have been speaking to publishers today. News media are discovering that they need their users and readers more than ever, and one of the keys is gaining their trust as reliable, credible sources of information, which is a trend I have described

Alfonso Nieto was one of the pioneers in the discipline of media economics, and his writings have acute relevance today, when the media world has been disrupted again by digital technology. He was rector of the University of Navarra 1979-1991, where I now teach. 


Letters to a newspaper publisher: It's not just the bottom line
Letters a newspaper publisher III: A shameful scandal

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