I came across two blog posts yesterday that offer reminders of how the prevailing view of what’s news needs to change.
First, Alan Mutter calls out The Oklahoman for wildly overplaying a story about a U.S. Geological Survey project mapping out where burmese pythons could survive in an ever-warmer U.S. The study found that the pythons “could colonize one-third of the USA, from San Francisco across the Southwest, Texas and the South and up north along the Virginia coast,” according to USA Today. The Oklahoman’s story examined the finding that most of Oklahoma is now a possible python habitat, and concluded in the fourth paragraph that
Even though the pythons might find Oklahoma’s weather suitable, local wildlife experts don’t expect to run into any of the massive constrictors any time soon.
Nonetheless, the piece ran as the front-page lead story with a large, two-deck headline reading: “Big snakes could slither into state.”
The story, of course, says no such thing. Mutter asks, “why did the Oklahoman play this non-story in the sensational fashion it did?” I think the answer — besides simple bad editorial judgment — is that papers fear running interesting stories just for the sake of running an interesting story. There has to be some ostensible “news peg” or other timely reason for running the story.
I actually disagree with Mutter that the python study is a non-story. I think there are three interesting stories wrapped up in this: that pythons and other invasive snakes have already taken root in the Florida wilds (remember this amazing/horrifying photo?); that enough people own these kinds of snakes and set enough free that the species are able to establish footholds (or bellyholds) in the wild; and that the U.S. climate is changing enough that it could one day support pythons in the wild in areas outside of the Everglades
Now, you’d need a bit more information to really flesh this out. How many people have burmese pythons, have they been found in the wild anywhere outside of Florida, which of the areas in the U.S.G.S. maps could sustain pythons now vs. which are theoretical habitats but more likely to produce “snake-sickles” (in the words of one skeptical Oklahoma City snake breeder), etc. But I think it’s definitely an interesting story — especially given that the Oklahoman article notes that “[a]t least four Burmese pythons have been surrendered to the Oklahoma City animal shelter in the past four years.” The story could have run farther down the page with a headline like “Don’t set your python free” and a subhed like “The state’s climate could support the large snakes in the wild, study finds” or “State’s climate could support wild pythons, study finds, but breeders are skeptical.” Something along those lines.
Why didn’t they do that? My guess is, because then the story “isn’t news” as news is currently understood. The story, run with an accurate headline, would have provided no timely reason to put it on the front page; there’s nothing “important” about it. But if a new view of news and newspapers took hold — one in which interesting stories get as much play as so-called important or timely ones — readers could have gotten both an interesting article and an accurate headline.
The other blog post that caught my eye was a quick one at The American Scene. Peter Suderman writes:
Here’s what I really want to know (besides, obviously, the whole deal with that giant-foot statue in Lost): Why is More Americans Are Giving Up Golf currently the top story at the New York Times’ website? Aren’t there more exciting things going on in the world?
I’m not familiar enough with Suderman’s writing style to know how tongue-in-cheek this is; he didn’t ask “aren’t there more important things going on,” at least. Either way, the question assumes there’s something wrong-headed about newspaper readers gravitating toward a story they actually find interesting.
I’m not a golfer, and I don’t watch golf except the ends of big tournaments when the TV’s on at work. But the post-Tiger Woods golf boom interested me, and I pay attention here and there. So I was very surprised to read in the Times story that there actually hasn’t been a post-Tiger golf boom:
The total number of people who play has declined or remained flat each year since 2000, dropping to about 26 million from 30 million, according to the National Golf Foundation and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
This may not have the world-historical importance of Kosovo’s independence, Musharraf’s party’s losses in Pakistan, or the presidential election. But it’s not as though the New York Times devoted resources to this golf story to the exclusion of everything else (unlike The Wire’s fictional newsroom, they can cover more than one subject at once). I think it’s great that it was the most popular story on the site — that means non-news junkies are still reading stuff in the New York Times.
Of course there can be too much celebrity gossip coverage, or too much awards-show coverage, or too much of any non-geo-political news. But we need to start thinking more in terms of a healthy balance between what we’ve traditionally thought of as news and stories that are interesting simply for the sake of being interesting.