In the 1920s, the news industry was going through a technological and cultural shift that felt just as unsettling as today's. Urbanization was encouraging smaller papers to consolidate. The invention of the telegraph and the syndication of news brought national and even international news to local readers. This didn't just change how newspapers worked. It changed what newspapers meant.
In the late-1800s, there were papers for every "class, sect, and political group," Gallup said. Local journalism in that time was easy to do. When each writer was a member of his own audience, he could trust that anything interesting to him would be of equal interest to his readers. But as newspapers got bigger, journalists were suddenly writing for massive crowds that included every class, sect, and political group. Suddenly, journalists were writing for people they didn't know at all.
As newspapers got bigger, they were also getting less news-y, Gallup observed. The role of the press as "the chief agency for instructing and informing the mass of people" had diminished with the growth of public schools. The 1920s marked the beginning of the movement for mandatory public schooling, and Gallup predicted that schools were naturally taking over for newspapers as America's predominant source of serious information.
The other trend pushing newspapers out of the news business, he said, was industrialization and the routinization of work. When somebody is doing the same thing over and over again throughout the day, he doesn't want vegetables when he takes a break to read the newspaper, Gallup said. He wants candies. "If fails to find it in his newspaper, he will look elsewhere," he wrote.
How did Gallup know that audiences wanted candy? Because he went to their homes and watched them read the paper.
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It's ironic that Gallup, the name we associate with polling, became famous for pointing out that readers lie in polls.
In 1920s newspaper surveys, readers reported that they enjoyed hard news on the front page. (That's what we still say in polls...) Gallup thought these readers were lying. (... and we're still lying!) But how to prove it?
Today, it's easy work. Software like Chartbeat, Omniture, and Google Analytics can tell publishers how many people are on a site, where they click, and how long they stay. But in 1928, newspapers were saddled with flawed feedback metrics. Circulation records described the journey of each paper, but not what readers read when they opened the bundle. Complaints and responses—i.e.: letters to the editor, or their modern-day equivalent, the comment under the article—are an honest source of feedback, but they represent an "articulate minority" of readers that's a caricature of the true audience.
Gallup's solution was to treat newspaper readers like an anthropologist. He would observe them in their own environments—in their own living rooms. He sent interviewers into Iowans' homes to sit across a table from subscribers and go through the day’s paper, marking each column and cartoon as read or unread. He called it "the Iowa Method.”