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Matt Von Pinnon, Published April 07 2012

Von Pinnon: How news is presented changes with the times

I rarely, if ever, respond to letters to the editor that are critical of The Forum.

There are several reasons for this.

First: Being by far the largest news source in our region, we carry much influence – and that comes with big responsibilities. If people think we’re wrong or don’t like what we’re doing, they should have a means to tell us and everyone else using that same reach.

Second: We believe to our core that open discussion is the key to a strong democracy. By giving our critics a large forum, it makes us sharper and ideally builds trust in our product. How many other businesses give their most critical customers a large venue to vent?

Third: We do make mistakes from time to time, and sometimes we deserve everything we’ve got coming.

But there are times when a letter critical of us makes it clear to me that I need to better explain some of our actions. A letter in last Monday’s paper was one of those letters.

Herbert Lansing of Fargo wrote that The Forum had turned into a gossip paper over the past few years. He cited the introduction of SheSays and writer Tammy Swift moving from the features section into the news department as a sign that the newspaper no longer cared about news.

Lansing ended the letter with this: “Joe Dill, deceased former editor, must be rolling in his grave.”

Believe it or not, I can see how Lansing might arrive at this idea. I see similar sentiments in other letters, emails and phone calls from longtime readers.

There is no doubt today’s Forum is not the same as when longtime editor Joe Dill ran it from 1981 to 1998.

I should know. Joe Dill hired me 18 years ago. I have seen the paper evolve since. I have also seen the definition of news evolve over that time.

When I started at The Forum in 1994, most of the stories were provided to us by the Associated Press. We had local stories each day, but only one or two of them were considered good enough to run on the front page. Stories about wars in other countries and politics far from home ruled the day.

The Forum was not alone in this approach. Most newspapers did the same thing back then. AP editors in New York would determine the top stories from around the world then prioritize their importance, and most newspapers followed those directives. If you grabbed any newspaper in the country back in 1994, you could only tell them apart from their name.

A good argument can be made that such an approach to news was good for the country and even for the local community. At least everyone agreed what was important, and everyone was on the same page, so to speak.

But by then cable TV and 24-hour news outlets had started cropping up, as well as the Internet. Now there is satellite radio and TV, social media, mobile devices, e-readers and so on, and those innovations led to the fragmentation of the news audience.

News, and how to get it, is not so clearly defined anymore. In addition to the more-than 100,000 people who read The Forum daily in print, we have another 50,000-plus people reading us electronically using a computer, smartphone or tablet such as the iPad.

Partly because of this fragmented audience, the traditional rules of what makes something newsworthy are being challenged all the time.

One person’s definition of news is another person’s throwaway information, and vice versa. There is no playbook like there was in 1994.

We still strive everyday to provide readers the information they must know. That hasn’t changed, nor will it. How we package and display that information will continue to evolve as readers’ preferences change.

We know that younger readers, those under age 50, for instance, are generally more attracted to news accompanied by strong visuals and enticing headlines.

Unlike the printed newspaper, our website allows us to know exactly what readers are reading. Often, it’s not the most important stories of the day but rather the most interesting.

And contrary to popular belief, the people who frequent most news websites aren’t very different from those who subscribe to the printed newspaper.

A good news operation provides information that people both want and need. Like a good meal, it must have flavor and nourishment.

But every reader’s palate is different, and that’s our challenge.

Did you figure it out?

We tried to have a little fun with readers last Sunday, April Fool’s Day.

The A section of the paper opened on the left instead of the right and we introduced a HeSays section to accompany our oft-cited SheSays section.

Some of you got the jokes and had a chuckle. Others contacted us to point out the A Section “error” or were disappointed to learn Monday that HeSays was not sticking around.

A few readers were angry that we tried to pull a fast one on them.

It was all in fun. We meant no harm.

A lot of well-respected news organizations pull a prank on April Fool’s Day. Of the Top 100 April Fool’s Day gags of all time put together by the Museum of Hoaxes, about half of them – and eight of the top 10 – were perpetrated by news media.

The Forum had not done something like this since anyone could remember.

Who knows if we’ll do it again next April 1.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.

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