Category Archives: Journalism

How to fix newspapers II: Readers aren’t Ralph Wiggum

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

Taking a different approach to news requires looking at the audience in a different way. A traditional newspaper might view its readers as fairly unsophisticated people who have no exposure to news or pop culture elsewhere; as innocents who will faint at bad language; as sponges who will accept whatever the paper gives them, whether or not it’s well-written, well-edited, or interesting. This view ignores major changes in the culture at large.

As Steven Johnson notes in his book Everything Bad Is Good for You, today’s pop culture is far more complex than that of even 15 years ago. Shows like Lost, The Sopranos, and The Simpsons have dozens of characters and plotlines, layers of jokes, and a lack of clich├ęd handholding that made older shows so literal. Video games require players to juggle dozens of objectives while figuring out how a game’s world and rules work. “All around us the world of mass entertainment grows more demanding and sophisticated, and our brains happily gravitate to that newfound complexity,” Johnson writes.

It’s not just shows and games. Consider “the cultural and technological mastery of a ten-year-old today: following dozens of professional sports teams; shifting effortlessly from phone to IM to e-mail in communicating with friends; probing and telescoping through immense virtual worlds; adopting and troubleshooting new media technologies without flinching,” Johnson writes. “… Their brains are being challenged at every turn by new forms of media and technology that cultivate sophisticated problem-solving skills.” Advertising and public relations, too, are far more sophisticated. The media menu has been greatly expanded for anyone with access to the Internet. Meanwhile, people are exposed to cursing, sex, and violence at ever younger ages.

But as the rest of the culture has become vastly more sophisticated, newspapers generally remain stuck in a bygone era — often willfully so. Instead of ignoring the changes in the audience and culture, an aspirationally non-boring newspaper would embrace them in service of a more interesting, lively news report.

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