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Is your newsroom making decisions based on a vocal minority?

Harry Truman once famously asked, “Why is it only sons of bitches who know how to lick a stamp?”

Nowadays that sentiment can be expressed about licking stamps, picking up a phone, sending an email, or firing off a comment at the end of a news story.

No one really contacts a news organization (or a politician) to tell them “Hey, you’re doing a great job, keep up the good work!” Instead, when we hear feedback, it will be from someone who is unhappy. Unfortunately, in many newsrooms, the reality of this phenomenon isn’t understood and well-meaning publishers, editors, and news directors make their decisions based on what they think is “community feedback,” when in reality, it may just be one or two people who managed to get the ear of the boss.

It never ceases to amaze me how much out of thousands of readers or viewers, one person who makes a phone call at the right time to the right person can dictate newsroom policy when there is no other evidence that the majority of the audience even had a problem with the final product.

The truth is, newsrooms need to be more data driven when it comes to policy. For example, if a member of your audience complains that you shouldn’t cover a certain story or type of story, check your analytics, ratings, or other audience metrics to see if that is the sentiment of the majority or if Karen just doesn’t like hearing bad things about her child’s school.

One phone call, one email, one letter to the editor, one comment, one statement to a publisher while he’s leaving church, is not a representative sample of the overall community.

A subset of this that all journalists have experienced is when the complainer is a powerful or influential person. Nothing changes newsroom policy faster than a judge telling a publisher at a chamber of commerce meeting that he didn’t like the newspaper’s coverage.

It is an uncomfortable reality we don’t like to speak of, but it needs to be brought into the open. The fastest way to lose your audience is to cave to a vocal minority or special interests. Stop covering what the majority of your audience is interested in because one angry person figured out how to lick a stamp and you will find your audience embracing social media rumors, blogs, and other sources of information.

If you look around your newsroom, you’ll probably notice that this has already happened to varying degrees.

Metrics matter. Today’s technology can give us a far better gauge of what our audiences are interested in and what they are actually feeling about certain issues. Newsrooms, editors, news directors and publishers need to mind the metrics before they make changes in coverage or policy based on a vocal — though angry — minority.

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