How to fix newspapers I: What is news?

(Also see Prelude and Parts II, III, and IV.)

“Must the news be boring?”

That’s the question that opens Michael Hirschorn’s terrific “The Pleasure Principle,” an Atlantic article in which he dares to consider a “radical notion” that might help save newspapers: “Stop being important and start being interesting.”

The question shouldn’t be radical, but answering honestly means reconsidering decades of traditions and habits — and if there’s any group that relies on tradition for guidance more than baseball coaches do, it’s journalists. But like Tevye said, “Traditiooooon, schmradition!” What journalism really needs is a bunch of Moneyballs.

It’s telling that Hirschorn didn’t start his piece by asking, “Are newspapers boring.” Everyone knows they are. Modern newspapers can’t help it — it’s a direct reflection of their guiding principles: to be historiographical (i.e. the first draft of history: the paper of record), informative, and traditional (cautious about change, a safeguard of culture and discourse, etc.). But what if, as Hirschorn asks, newspapers instead made it their primary goal to be interesting, relevant, and surprising? How would that change what newspapers cover and how they cover it?

To think about that sort of newspaper, it’s helpful to consider the different kinds of stories “boring” papers run. (And of course not every paper is boring most or all the time. But let’s not kid ourselves — how often do you read your paper in depth and cover to cover?) Call it a News Taxonomy:

Know-the World News: News that gives readers a better understanding of or appreciation for the area, nation and world at large. These are not directly relevant to a reader’s life, but inform their understanding of the world. Examples: The return of tourniquets, the Area 51 convention in Nevada, dragonflies that might be spy cameras, local human interest stories.

Global-Citizen News: News that specifically aims to educate readers about geopolitics or geo-economics. Examples: coverage of foreign or non-home-state political campaigns, protests, legislation, economic policies. (This can overlap with several other categories.)

Conflict and Disaster News: Wars, bombings, natural disasters, boat/plane crashes.

Politics as Process News: Stories about the wheeling-and-dealing of politics, the votes, the planning, the ramifications for parties, the characters.

Politics as Policy/Politics and You News: Stories about the substance of local or national legislation, particularly how it affects readers.

Education News: School board meetings, higher ed, district changes.

Crime Filler News: Daily accidents, robberies, arrests that have no larger relevance.

Neighborhood Watch News: Crime stories that potentially affect readers or the community at large.

Crazy Crime News: Crime stories relevant only for their hideousness or outlandishness.

Watchdog/Outrage News: Investigations of or challenges to political, commercial, or social interests; news about unfairness in the above realms.

One-Sentence News: Stock market updates, gas prices, shuttle takeoff, earnings reports, box office returns, incremental updates of previous days’ stories.

News of the Weird: Stories that are irrelevant but strange and therefore interesting.

Press Release News: Coverage that’s driven by or effectively rewriting a press release.

Report Reporting: Coverage of studies, journal articles, surveys.

Explainers: Analyzing or otherwise explaining the news.

Annuals: Events or stories that occur every year and are the same each time. Examples: Fourth of July, graduations, county and state fairs.

Consumer News: Products, services, and trends for entertainment, personal technology, cars, household goods, clothes, etc.

Business as Process News: Company profiles, earnings, acquisitions, personnel moves.

For several reasons, traditional newspapers tend to focus on Global-Citizen, Politics as Process, Crime Filler, Conflict and Disaster, One-Sentence, and Press Release news, as well as Annuals and Report Reporting. Newspapers’ self-proclaimed role as papers of record and citizen-educators leads to a lot of stories about politics and conflicts. Police reports and journal articles are endless, easy sources for material. Annual events and one-sentence stories carry the weight of tradition or at least routine.

A different approach would be to think less about the paper — what’s easy and routine and “our responsibility” — and more about the reader. On a given day, there are usually a small number of stories that could affect a reader’s day-to-day life: a recall involving locally sold products; a criminal on the loose; an important school meeting that night. Beyond those, few stories actually directly matter in the life of a reader. So choosing what else to run becomes a matter of preference. Instead of trying to always “be the broccoli” and giving the reader what we think they need to know, why not choose stories that they might actually want to know or find interesting? This requires rethinking and reshuffling the hierarchy of the News Taxonomy.

That means more Know the World News: stories that are interesting simply for the sake of being interesting, not because they’re historically “important” or overwritten or anything else. It means less Global-Citizen and Politics as Policy stories — or at least a new approach to those stories. Even if readers follow every story on Kenya’s fighting, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the machinations behind Vladimir Putin’s successor, etc. — which they probably don’t — why do we pretend that these stories make any kind of sense to the average reader? I’m an absolute information addict. But when I want to learn about Kenya or Bhutto, I don’t read the daily paper — I wait for the in-depth Atlantic or New Yorker piece, and follow the shorter but informed Slate or New Republic piece in the meantime. We’re kidding ourselves to think that a one-sentence AP update-turned-15-inch-story on the Kenya conflagration tells readers anything at all.

We’re also kidding ourselves to pretend that average readers care about the game of politics. It’s obviously an important role of newspapers to closely cover legislatures, but that duty can be wasted if the coverage is not interesting and relevant to readers. Readers generally care about what an insurance or tax bill means for them, not about the wheeling and dealing that spawned the bill. Typical national political stories are even less relevant.

I personally followed, for example, every twist and turn of the Valerie Plame case and the U.S. attorney firings (mostly on Talking Points Memo). But as a wire editor I assumed most readers weren’t following the stories that closely and wouldn’t care about the day-to-day updates. I waited until something noteworthy happened, and then ran a roundup of, say, particularly outrageous things Alberto Gonzales and other White House officials said while testifying — often using TPM or another blog as a guide rather than the AP or New York Times. As Hirschorn writes, “Upping the ‘interesting’ quotient of news is not an argument for abdicating vital traditional fourth-estate functions, just reimagining them.”

A new approach would focus less on Business as Process stories and more on Consumer News, personal technology and giving context to how economic news of the day might actually affect readers (if the answer is “It doesn’t,” then skip the story). That means cutting down on reporting aggregate macroeconomic information without context — stories about consumer spending, unemployment, etc. Readers know how much they’re spending and whether they’re worried about the economy. And because macroeconomic data changes so slightly from month to month, context is hard to come by. (See for example this James Surowiecki column about the fuzziness of job reports.)

It probably also means cutting down on stories about local companies’ earnings reports, marketing surveys, and other material that mostly appeals to the local business community (unless you’re the New York Times or Wall Street Journal). In that case papers would be better off, say, offering a subscription-only daily e-mail newsletter to an audience that actually wants that news, and using precious print space for stories regular people might want to read.

Most of the above are examples of different approaches to non-local news. But I would argue that the current coverage of non-local news is largely what signals to readers that newspapers are boring. Who wants to open their front section every single day and see nothing but political minutiae, war, and elections in obscure foreign countries? And the mindset behind a different approach to those stories can be applied to local stories as well.

Rethinking the purpose of news and the kinds of stories that serve that purpose will go a long way toward making newspapers newly relevant to readers. But newspapers will remain boring until we also re-examine the way we think about those very readers.

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14 responses to “How to fix newspapers I: What is news?

  1. Pingback: Maybe it's journalism itself that is the problem | Howard Owens

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  8. Good post. I was the only geek I know who follow the Libby trial. FireDogLake had amazing courtroom coverage.

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  11. Excellent series of posts, really top notch stuff.

    I completely agree that we have to rethink all of our preconceptions, all of our traditions, and rebuild & redesign what we call journalism to truly serve the needs of a public that is generally far more sophisticated than we give them credit for. But in all of the future-of journalism talk, I see very little discussion of just how to do that. One model is the emerging “field” (if you can call it that) of design thinking, as practiced by firms like IDEO and at Stanford’s design school. Central to design thinking is the act of “needfinding,” which should be an urgent priority for all who care to play a role in bringing needed change to journalism.

    It’s maybe paradoxical that the digital age has not led to a broadening of news sources or perspectives in journalism. In fact, it may be the opposite. Out of fear and the sheer busy-ness of attending to blogs, tweets, videos, photos, audio, etc. journalists have neglected the important and interesting work of journalism — sensemaking, storytelling, writing, composition, design, empathy, investigation – in favor of feed-the-beast, multiplatform freneticism.

    We need to deploy people into our communities (geographical and otherwise) to discover what information it is that people need (not say they want, as we would in focus groups, but need) and then build our new models and strategies from the insights we generate in the process.

  12. Pingback: Why not writing a story is innovation | Global News Tonight

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