Gathering and delivering the news is the easy part, the part that the journalism industry already knows how to do. Getting the audience to care about the news is the hard part. This seems obvious if you define the mission of journalism as “an informed public,” but I fear that many journalism organizations aren’t thinking about what happens to the news after publication.
It’s long been understood that sports and celebrity gossip are far more popular among readers than actual news. In the paper era, everyone got serious factual reporting delivered to them anyway: the act of reading a physical newspaper forces you to see the headlines, no matter what your interests are. The web isn’t like this, and paper news consumption is low and falling among young readers, which means that the classic package of whether-you-knew-you-cared-or-not news is on the way out as a delivery format.
The following passage from Alex Jones’ Losing The News nails the problem:
News on the web is almost entirely chosen by the viewer. You have to seek it out, which means that you can easily miss important stories or avoid troubling ones. Print newspapers had offered a smorgasbord, but you had to cast your eye over a range of information that included some hard news. And both television and radio news game no choices other than to change the channel or station. On the Web, you get the news you want, and what Americans seem to want, when it comes to news, is a lot of Britney Spears and much less of the Iraq war. (p. 180)
Does this matter? The theory is that democracy will not function if people aren’t informed about the basic political, economic, and scientific happenings of the world. The dissolution of paper delivery, this line of reasoning goes, means the end of an informed citizenry.
I just think it means that journalism and journalists now have a new responsibility: they have to figure out how to get people to care. Inspiring curiosity is part of the job description.
So how do we make people more interested in knowing about the news? This is more than a question of format, or graphic design or packaging. This is not about snappier video editing and edgier prose. That sort of thing might be helpful in the short run, but these kinds of changes come from a fundamentally broadcast mentality. This is not the mindset of the creators of Google, Twitter, and Facebook. If news publishers seriously believe that they’re important players the public information game, then why is it the technology companies who have delivered all of the communication revolutions of the last decade?
Here are some innovative examples of public engagement that might offer clues:
- Wikipedia proved that smart people will do good work for free, if they perceive it to be in the public interest.
- The Guardian UK recently crowdsourced its review of 450,000 pages of suspect government expense reports.
- The creator of the wildly successful programming advice site StackOverflow.com has a really good talk about how different web site designs create different types of social behavior.
- Maps of the news might reward curiosity.
Mere publishing is no longer enough.