Feeling the Joy at the News Tribune

In media, the word “ascertainment” means figuring out what readers or viewers think is important and what they want to see on TV or read in your magazine or newspaper. The News Tribune

It’s a fancy word for research, but it sounds less expensive and less threatening.

It’s a fine idea in the world of entertainment, but when it comes to journalism, we run into the old “is” versus “ought” problem – and ascertainment threatens the journalistic enterprise in ways that might not seem obvious at first.


News Tribune Executive Editor Karen Peterson’s Sunday editorial was about the paper’s new ascertainment effort.

And let me say at the outset, my reporter’s instinct (cue the bean counters and consultants to roll eyes) tells me that this new initiative probably isn’t what you might politely call, her first choice. When the brain trust gets an idea, sometimes it’s the local manager’s job to polish it up for staff and public consumption.

With that said, I can say with greater certainty that the reporting and editorial staff hates it with a passion.

Why? Part of the exciting new initiative involves reporters and editors filling out forms to database stories – a journalist’s true raison d’etre.

On top of that exciting activity, they’ll all soon attend meetings where they’ll be regaled with spreadsheets illustrating exciting new metrics about “clicks” and other forms of “engagement.”

Every journalist lives for the click count – and reporters and editors can take great solace knowing that in that regard, they’ll join the likes of the lowly content farm slaves who toil away on the Internet coming up with the top five reasons milk might exist on the moon. I mean it’s all just writing – right? Content-Farm-Cartoon

And finally, focus groups and surveys will put a qualitative point  on the quantitative data with hopes of letting management and staff thrill to all the deep insights the data will provide into the mind of the reader.

Management will swear up-and-down this won’t actually turn the key and drive the editorial direction of the newsroom.

Reporters and editors will wryly ask, “Then why do it?”

The answers won’t be very satisfying. I’ve been in that meeting.


One of the great conundrums in journalism is whether to feed people what they actually want, or what they ought to want.

Should we tell stories that affirm a viewer or reader’s onboard beliefs and pander to their overwhelming interest in say, cats and reality TV? Or, should we bore them to death with the stuff they need to know to be more informed citizens and voters.

Believe me, they’ll tell you what you want to hear in the focus groups – they know what’s expected. But the NSA (and Procter and Gamble) knows different – the truth about what you Google and watch on TV is a known fact – and it ain’t high-brow “ought” to watch TV or printed matter.

Viewership and readership is plummeting – so the question is whether the media should work to prop it up with great journalism and content, or just add WD40 on the slide to the bottom.

It’s a worldview thing and ownership, management and journalists frequently, let’s just say, disagree, about this.


The answer is: the right thing.

I’m sure they’ll get it right at the News Tribune. I hold the crew there in high regard and know they’ll successfully navigate the exercise to make management happy, AND keep producing the great work they’re known for.

What it really does is make the staff have to fight harder to cover the “ought” while they’re tap-dancing away doing the “is” just to keep the brain trust happy. With any luck, editorial secretly hopes it will just fade away as the brain trust’s attention turns to the next big idea after their next TedX or annual shindig in Las Vegas.

Frankly, the irony of Sunday’s column in the News Tribune is that it came in the same paper as a multi-page, multi-media Sunday blowout about the danger of a local boat launch.

Believe me, “I want to know more about the danger’s of boat launches” will NEVER show up in the research. It was a combination of good ole’ curiosity, a dollop of institutional knowledge at the paper that piqued interest when something happened that was recalled (in a person’s brain) to have happened in the past, and then the spirit and drive to follow through with countless phone calls – and a dive into public records.

Will click and focus group metrics drive that kind of work? Will staff and local management be rewarded for the good stuff and be able to use research that cuts in favor of time-hungry, low-volume journalism to persuade ownership to cut-loose more resources to produce great work?

Uh. No.

And that’s the problem.


Ultimately, it shouldn’t hurt to know what readers or viewers are interested in. If an editor has a chance to do a “discretionary” story – what the hell – pick something off the affinity list.

Back when, I worked at a TV station that did a bunch of research in an attempt to tie psychometrics to zip codes. This was the same station by the way where the GM held a staff-wide meeting to preview what he was convinced was our next hit show: Cop Rock.

But I digress.

The research had us doing discretionary news gathering in the right zip codes on the right topics. The journalists rebelled, and it was the beginning of the end of  a multi-year effort to turn that dog-pound of a TV station into something respectable. Most of us left, but not before I used the “research” to engineer several nice trips to the Napa Valley to do multi-part features on the wine industry – since it was  major interest among the people in one of our target zip codes of course.

Despite my cautionary tale though, I think research can be valuable as an exercise if done correctly – as a way to learn about a newsroom’s blind spots or over time, learn how the community views your efforts and where you’re letting them down.

But it’s hard to keep the editorial integrity of the newsroom in-tact when management wants to, or is more likely forced to, start playing to the metrics puked-out by the ascertainment game. If money is being spent to gather the data, the brain trust damned sure wants to see it put to good use.

And that’s a problem.

It  ”ought” not be that way, but sometimes it “is.”