Ruth Clark Changed The World Of News
We should take a look at the fall-out since "Changing Readers."
By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.
Ruth Clark died a few days ago at 80. She may have changed newspapers more than anybody else in this century. As a researcher, she had the fundamental modesty required to be good, the ability to discover what her clients needed and wanted to know and the confidence to surprise them and convince them of her findings.
Her most influential report on newspapers may have resulted in more harm than good. That was not her fault. When editors heard her message, they took it out the window.
Her "Changing Needs of Changing Readers" was commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and published in 1979. Readers, the report said, wanted a lot more soft news or, as her brand of it came to be called, "news you can use." They wanted news and information that were helpful in their personal and family lives, she found. They wanted more about entertainment, "best buys" in the marketplace and sources they could contact when they read a feature or news story.
They were less interested, at least by implication, in news of government and those other common endeavors that are not so "me-me" individualistic.
Her work marked the first popular conversion of editors into marketers, in the modern sense.
Of course, the editors who had put the "mass" in mass circulation almost a century and a half earlier were masterful marketers in a more instinctive way.
Now and then I take a look at a copy of the first front page of The Sun, A.S. Abell's penny newspaper, published in Baltimore in 1837. It reports on the capture (again) of the Seminoles' chief, Osceola, and President Andrew Jackson's call for a special session of Congress. But it also printed "news you can use."
From New York came a report that hotel rates had been cut ("We are glad of it"). The Sun teased readers with a story about a West Indian child with an abnormally big head. And the front page entertained, with a poem on "the fairest of the rural maids..."
Editors knew how to sell papers before Ruth Clark, and they were probably more quirkily confident of themselves in how to do it. But her study came along in a very unsettling time, after the turbulent '60s, Vietnam and Watergate. Editors made Ruth a guru.
On the surface she was an unlikely one: lovable but dull in her style of presentation. She had no education in research ("Changing Needs" was based on focus groups) and no real expertise in journalism. But with the survey firms of Louis Harris and then Yankelovich, Skelly & White she became sophisticated in surveying social and political trends. And she was clear and forceful.
A few years after "Changing Needs" she cautioned editors about going too far, saying their readers wanted more hard news.
She didn't say she had been wrong. In fact, she hadn't been. Newspapers needed to change.
But I think she suspected they were giving up their franchises as basic sources of news and information about the larger forces affecting their readers' lives.
It's time to revisit Ruth Clark and what hath been wrought. A new study for ###
a newspaper convention would be a good start. l