A reader recently brought up his objection to what he saw as a lack of supporting information in Star editorials. As newspaper writers tend to do, my first reaction was that he had not been following along, but, as Joanne Pilgrim, who worked here as a reporter for many years and now is in Town Hall, used to say, “You can’t make them read it.”
This has increasingly been the case as audiences fracture into an infinite set of independent silos, as I think of them. There are people who interact with the outside world only via Facebook, others for whom Instagram or Twitter is everything. There are those who read The Star or another newspaper cover to cover, and those who scan the headlines online. Quite a few readers seem to see our weekly news email as the paper itself. Others drop by the website once in a while and then sometimes complain about the modest charge we ask after they have read 10 articles in a month’s time.
One of the biggest wake-ups that there were huge gaps in the information landscape even among people who cared about local issues came when a contractor for the United States Army Corps of Engineers showed up one day in 2015 and began tearing up a natural Montauk dune. The project to build a sea wall to protect the otherwise doomed first row of properties along the ocean came after years of discussion and easily a long novel’s worth of words in The Star and other newspapers. Still, there were a lot of people who had no idea until they saw it on Instagram and became instantly outraged. What we assumed was just part of common knowledge came from nowhere for a significant portion of the community.
Time was that traditional news had a monopoly on public attention. That is no longer the case, and even in matters of the greatest controversy these outlets have to compete for attention. Would-be readers continue to interact with the outside world, but not always where we would expect them to. We in the news business have to remember that and be sure to walk the information over to where they are, not expect all of them to come to us.
You can’t make them read it, for sure, but we could always do a better job of giving them at least the opportunity. And regarding editorials in which we might assume everyone knows at least the rough outline of a set of facts but doesn’t, a friend suggested links to the relevant coverage. Sometimes the answers are just a click away.