Editorial: Giving Our Readers What They Want By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday June 14, 2005

Monday’s voice mail carried a request that the Daily Planet print the full text of the rejected European constitution, as a follow-up to the Pacific News Service analysis we printed last week. E-mail transmitted a suggestion that we reprint the full text of the agreement between UC Berkeley and the City of Berkeley. Unfortunately, our page count, which is determined by the amount of advertising we have for each issue, doesn’t allow us such luxuries, though we can and will make such documents available to our readers on the Internet via either links or full texts.  

It’s interesting that there’s been a major change in the expectations of readers. They now seem to distrust the role of the media in telling them what’s happened. The word “media” itself is from a Latin word meaning “middle,” and the approved role of contemporary media, now including not only print but also electronic means of transmission, is to bridge the gap between events and observers. Cognate English words like “intermediary” and “mediate” suggest the proper role of today’s media: not to shape the news, but simply to transmit it. 

The term is a relatively new one, absent from my fine-print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and “severely condemned” when used as a singular noun in my 1981 American Heritage dictionary. The older usage was “the press,” derived from the word for the equipment on which the news was printed, with no representation regarding content or transparency of transmission.  

Reading about the no votes on the European constitution in the British press, mostly in the Guardian, a bit in the French papers, I got a better understanding that it’s still the role of the European press to interpret the news, not just to transmit it. The Guardian carried three or four short bylined pieces the day after the votes, each with a somewhat different take on what happened, none pretending to be comprehensive. When Tony Blair’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw announced that the U.K. referendum on the European constitution was being postponed, interpretations in the British press multiplied even more.  

In the European press I saw no New York Times-style long article which purported to be “the news” or “the truth” about what was going on, but by taking the average of the multiple voices I got a pretty good idea of the various public opinion currents which contributed to the votes and the postponement. The bottom line, as I sorted out what I read, is that people in the various European countries still like their own style of doing things better than they like the economic fiats imposed by the transnational Brussels bureaucrats, thank you very much. Does this mean that the concept of a united Europe is doomed? Probably not, but it will have to be re-imagined, perhaps outside of Brussels. 

I don’t think reading the full text of the defeated draft, which I haven’t done, would add to my understanding of what happened. I don’t have the background in the subject matter which most of the commentators I read have. Similarly, I don’t think that our local readers will understand the substance of the UC-CoB deal better if the Planet reprints all 19 pages of the agreement (which can be found on the mayor’s press website). Instead, if they read all the many comments we’ve received from people who have made it their business to be on top of the situation, they can get some sort of balanced understanding of what’s happened, even though we don’t seem to have gotten many comments from citizens who were happy with the outcome. 

It’s sometimes confusing to decide who “our readers” are, anyway. Based on the letters we get, a lot of them ride busses. They care about nature, judging by the letters we receive from the fans of the Tuesday back pages. They have strong opinions about what the various levels of government are doing, and about the arts, especially about the role of public art.  

Thinking along these lines about who our readers might be, I find it hard to understand a comment which one of our advertising sales reps recently passed along. She’d gotten it from the advertising coordinator of the highest profile, best-funded local independent theater. His management doesn’t want to advertise in the Planet, he says, because “your readers are not our target audience.” That’s a hard one to interpret. Does he mean that we shouldn’t review or preview their productions? Surely not.  

Does his quote tell us more about his audience or about our readers? Perhaps his management is aiming at what used to be known as “the carriage trade”—people who arrive at the theater in expensive cars from the hills and the suburbs. Maybe our readers, bus-riders and armchair arts critics that they are, are thought not to be affluent enough to be able to spring for a night at a play. I think that’s a mistake. 

Based on the letters and phone calls we get, our readers are a pretty good cross-section of the Greater Berkeley population. They’re by no means a homogeneous crowd. You can gauge that, among other ways, by how often they’re at each other’s throats. How they could be perceived as uniform in their theater tastes and unlikely to patronize the theater in question escapes me.  


They can read the whole UCB-CoB agreement at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/Mayor/PR/UCAgreement.pdf. 

They can read the full text of the draft European constitution at http://europa.eu.int/eur-lex/lex/JOHtml.do?uri=OJ:C:2004:310:SOM:EN:HTML. 

They can find out what’s playing at local theaters by reading the Berkeley Daily Planet’s Friday Arts Calendar.