I exchanged e-mails a couple of months ago with Sam Zell, the iconoclastic owner of the Chicago Tribune. I had written him to quite cheekily suggest that I might write some really interesting pieces, the likes of which his quaking and conservative editors would never commission me to write.
Sam and I would shove these articles down the editors' throats, to show them the kind of journalistic spirit he was looking for to save the paper.
Zell replied to say he trusted the editors to "give readers what they want," and I thanked him for writing and dismissed him as just a rich version of the familiar fool who hides behind a notion he knows is not true: that readers wake up in the morning knowing just what they want to read in their newspaper (if only they would tell us, and we could give it to them!).
It's nonsense, most recently and hilariously revealed when a client of mine polled readers on their educational needs. The survey yielded a few good ideas for seminars–ideas immediately called into question by the answers we got to another question, on what kinds of speakers they'd like to hear:
Jack Welch. Bob Costas. Condi Rice. Bill Walsh.
Walsh is dead, and we have just as good a chance of getting him to speak as any of the others.
Other suggestions included the likes of William Horton, Barbara Wallraff, Bryan Garner, Jared Spool, JoAnn Hackos, and of course the inimitable Taz Tally.
As soon as I figure out who any of these people are, I'll get back to you.
Communicators, repeat after me (as I repeat, once again, after the late Larry Ragan): Knowing what readers want is your job, not your readers'.