Chicago Tribune Story Idea Survey: Good Idea, Poorly Executed

The Chicago Tribune reports that it has halted a “short-lived research project in which the Chicago Tribune solicited responses from current and former subscribers to descriptions of Tribune stories before they had been published.”

The project — a collaboration between the paper’s editorial and marketing departments — was stopped because newsroom staff raised journalistic concerns. Originally only selected “would-be readers” were surveyed about general topics and previous Tribune coverage. But in the last two weeks, participants had begun being surveyed about their preferences on synopses of stories currently in the works.

In all, 55 reporters and editors voiced their complaint in a letter to Tribune editor Gerould Kern and managing editor Jane Hirt. The letter “expressed concern that providing story information to those outside the newsroom prior to publication seemed ‘to break the bond between reporters and editors in a fundamental way.’”

Here’s more detail about how the research was conducted: “Surveys were sent by e-mail to around 9,000 would-be readers on two occasions. About 500 responded to each, indicating which of 10 story ideas they preferred. Kern said the stories ‘tended to be news features,’ and the results never made it to him or had any impact in how stories were handled.”

I can understand the newsroom’s complaint if their story ideas were shared outside the newsroom without their prior knowledge and consent. However, if that consent can be obtained, I personally think this type of research could be surprisingly useful. Especially if the people being surveyed include lots of younger people (that is: the news organization’s future market) as well as demographics that historically have not been well served by the news organization (that is: potential growth markets).

I’d even take it farther — rather than just vote on a packaged list of story ideas, I’d survey these folks about which angles on those stories would most interest them. And I’d give them room to critique the story ideas, and suggest new story ideas. such a combination of qualitative and quantitative data could shed light on how news organizations can make their offerings more relevant and valuable by being willing to step outside their comfort zone of journalistic tradition.

When Jim Romenesko noted this news, Poynter reader Gary McCardle commented: “Marketing people do what marketing people always do. Aside from special themed sections, don’t let marketing people know about stories in advance of publication.”

That comment lays bare the distrust of marketing — and perhaps indirectly of efforts to involve community members up front in journalistic processes — so deeply ingrained in traditional mainstream newsroom culture. And I’d dare say that it’s a big reason why news organizations are struggling for relevance and revenue these days. It’s hard to update your business model when an important part of your organization is inherently wary of market research.

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