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Selling papers a form of bias?

My recent posts about journalistic bias provoked a fair amount of response, including several who commented that media is biased in favor of selling papers — or more likely these days, moving the needle that tracks online readers.

I think that notion is overstated, but also at least partially defensible. I have to admit I’m biased in favor of keeping my job, which depends on getting people to read media content. But beyond such pecuniary concerns, an unread publication informs no one, so if we don’t make our stories compelling, if we don’t show readers why they need to invest time in our prose and pictures, then we aren’t really doing our job.

But there are, of course, limits to such dramatic tactics. People catch on to bait-and-switch pretty quickly, so if your story doesn’t deliver what the headline promises, you can be sure readers will stop believing your promises. And the dramatic elements of the story have to stay true to the facts. The old saying is that too much fact-checking has ruined plenty of good stories, but bad facts in bad stories will ruin your reputation as well as your stories.

When people used to accuse me of “trying to sell papers” — not that there’s anything wrong with that — I used to point out that they probably already bought the paper before reading the story they had issues with. We aren’t trying to sell papers, I would say, though we are out to sell stories — sell our readers on why they should care.

These days,  instead of captive audiences reading self-contained newspapers, we must attract online browsers who can click away from our reporting any second. Each story these days must stand on its own, or probably never get read.

That’s a challenge to be a better reporter, and to use all these new tools to give audiences compelling coverage. But it also should be a reminder that some stories need to be told, whether or not they’ll ever make the day’s most-popular list.