A couple decades ago, Walter Cronkite wrote a famous piece called “How to Read a Newspaper.” He gave some insightful advice about how to get the most out of reading the press — how to initially scan headlines, which articles to read, and so on. With the advent of a competitive trade press and the subsequent slashing and burning of editorial departments, we’ve come along way since then. It’s time for an update.
Cronkite told us how to scan headlines and lead paragraphs before really digging into a paper. Today that might not be quite as practical, if only because a great number of us get our news from the Web. Headlines are the only words we scan. And editors have developed an approach to headline writing that obscures whether there’s any real news in the body of the story.
Many of the stories our trade magazines sport in their news sections originate from company press releases. Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Find a story on a new event or product release. Compare the quotes in it to the ones you find in a couple other stories on the same event or release. More often than not, you’ll find that the words are identical. This means that the reporters did very little, if any, reporting.
These stories tend to be propaganda pieces not worth your time. The headlines, also often generated by the company PR departments, tend to try to hook you with words like, “Company A One-Ups Company B,” or “Company A Introduces New Thingamajig.” The headlines, in the face of no real news, have to invent a story, such as a competitive race between products or hyperbolic claims of new product paradigms. This type of “news” leads to very one-sided coverage. You hear about all the launches but seldom about the failures.
Only slightly better (sometimes) are the articles that take a press release and formulaically get a perspective comment from what the reporter perceives as the other side of the story. Reporters are often worried about being perceived as having a bias. They like to publish sources on both sides of issues, although many times this isn’t enough to get the details right. Issues are often more complex than a two-sided difference of opinion. The worst cases of this type of reporting-gone-bad happen when reporters are too afraid to draw a conclusion, even about an obvious point. Look out for (and skip) headlines that focus on controversy of opinion: “Civil War Over Long Ago, Say Some; Guy in Richmond Disagrees.”
Behind the scenes, reporters sometimes find resistance to conducting too much reporting. I’ve found that some trade press vehicles aren’t interested in probing questions or other types of controversy that might lead to headaches (advertising or legal, the two worst kinds). Individual reporters sometimes also worry too much about their relationships with powerful industry insiders.
I think these are great criteria on which to choose which “trade rags” you read. Look for the reporters willing to ask the uncomfortable questions and the editors with the intelligence to encourage the practice. Soon, you’ll come to read bylines before you even read headlines, knowing that sometimes the author will have more to do with the usefulness of a story than the topic covered.
This morning, for instance, I read the great reporting done by Jack Neff and Alice Cuneo of AdAge. They did a great job of getting at the underbelly of large, inane marketing organizations. I guarantee you, I’ll read anything I see by these reporters, no matter the headline.
The best reporters will occasionally write the “thumb sucker,” a story that pulls together all of the collective reporting on a topic for a period of time. These are important to keep all the individual events in perspective. You can often recognize these by the headline, as the titles are often opinionated. A headline reading, “Rich Media Industry Finally Consolidating” is likely to be a thumb sucker. These types of articles, when written by an inept reporter, can be torture to read. Beware the thumb-sucker headline that appears too obvious, as it often is a warning of a terrible, derivative opinion piece: “Ad Industry Worried About Downturn.”
After reading a trade rag for a time, you’ll begin to get the hang of the quality of the different reporters. It’s not very encouraging, mind you. There are a lot of very inexperienced people trying to write about complex issues, especially in the case of a topic such as the mixture of advertising and technology. Often, you’ll see reporters writing on topics about which they know very little. You can sort of tell a few paragraphs into the story, because they sound like a person from a completely different culture wrote them. It’s reminiscent of those old accounts from history class, about conquistadors who would return to tell the Queen of Spain what they found in the new world: “Man put weed in mouth, and smoky spirits erupted from his facial orifice.” That doesn’t sound so far from “Gaming is a new and extraordinarily powerful vehicle for delivering branding and advertising messages, with strong advantages over traditional methods, such as banner ads.”
Lord knows I’ve been guilty of this myself. It’s a hazard of journalism, and it’s one of the fun parts. The reporter is always learning.
I make it a policy never to read an article that has a headline in the form of a question. It’s a dead giveaway that the article never answers the very question posed in the title. (If you’ve noticed, this article has such a headline, and I have NO intention of answering the question, so there.)
There are two other types of headlines to avoid. The first one is the big magazine section covering the top 10 agencies or marketers or brands or the like. Aside from the lurid curiosity everyone feels to find out who is listed, there’s really no value in them. I discovered this viscerally when my own agency was made top agency in an Adweek list some years ago. It confirmed my long-time suspicion that the real criteria behind these lists are how many expensive dinners and client contacts you give the magazine editors.
Finally, avoid the “Survey Finds…” headlines. You’ll be much healthier for it. Everyone in the industry knows that the company sponsoring the survey designed the research to come up with some self-serving statistic. Reporters, knowing that this gets a lot of readers, cover these stories with pie-eyed gullibility. Don’t be taken.
Come to think of it, now that I’ve made the list of types of stories not to read, I suppose I just should have told everyone which writers to read (Meskauskas and Hespos are great places to start). The list would have been much shorter.