The News Gap: Rethinking the Role of Local News

Bakerloo_line_-_Waterloo_-_Mind_the_gap On May 2, 2007, CNN.com editors felt readers should know about the latest Bush veto, as well as about contaminated feed that could affect farms nationwide. Readers disagreed, preferring to learn about Britney Spears’ sexy stage comeback and why Joan Baez was banned from a concert at Walter Reed Hospital.

This kind of disconnect fuels a cynical view that there is an unbridgeable gap between the high-minded civic aspirations of news professionals and the crass ignorance of a public which must be tricked and cajoled into reading the stuff that’s good for it. A recent study reported in The News Gap¹ by Pablo Boczkowski and Eugenia Mitchelstein attempts to test this view by analyzing over 50,000 articles on 20 news sites in 7 countries to compare what news editors highlight with what readers actually consume.

The study confirms that there is indeed a sizable disparity between the amount of public affairs content that news organizations highlight and the amount that readers are willing to consume. This gap never disappears, but does decrease noticeably during times of heightened political activity, due entirely to an increase in the public’s willingness to engage with public affair news. These results are robust. They seem to hold across geographies and political leanings, and are little impacted by the use of “softer” news formats, like feature stories, blogs and user-contributed content.

The results are interesting, but even more interesting to me is how strongly the interpretation of the results depends on where you start from. The authors draw a gloomy conclusion, but I find that a different framing not only brightens the picture, it also highlights opportunities for news media to better engage with their readers.

The make-them-eat-their-vegetables version

In the authors’ version, the story is a depressing one. They conclude the book by expressing “doubt … over the prospects of an informed citizenry for the digital age” and bemoan the rigidity of journalists and a public “inattentive to public-affairs reportage and apparently unwilling to take the provision of online news into its own hands.”

In their view, the data confirm that the public just isn’t as interested in public affairs as the news media thinks it ought to be. Sure, people pay more attention around elections and major political crises, but they are just responding to peer pressure to be able to converse on the major topics of the day. Even when news media try “smuggling public-affairs content through ‘soft’ news formats” like blogs and features, readers continue to focus most of their energy on crime and entertainment and such.

In the end, there is not much to be done. The authors’ main recommendation is that news media become more flexible and adaptable in order to better align with the public’s changing propensity to engage with public affairs news.

An alternative story

I prefer to think about this from within a paradigm that is grounded in respect for the user of the product, the news consumer. This gives us a very different story.

It’s costly for people to engage with public affairs news. It requires significant cognitive effort and often takes a high emotional toll – people are dissatisfied with the way things are and frustrated by their impotence in the face of it. At the same time, they do believe it important to understand the issues when they are acutely impacted or must prepare to participate in the political process.

To balance these, news consumers actively optimize their engagement with public affairs news, increasing it when they believe it matters to be better informed and decreasing it at other times. In contrast, the news industry shows little or no ability to pay attention to this signaling and to adapt to it. The real gap here is between a flexible, adaptable public that seeks to do the best it can at a challenging task and a rigid industry that appears not to have much respect for its customers.

Why the story matters

I believe that the narrative we act from strongly influences the results we get, in large part because it influences how we approach the challenge. Both these stories fit the facts, but they couldn’t be more different in terms of the response they call for and the opportunities they present for news organizations.

The first story leads to just the kind of thinking that the authors recommend: there’s a limit to how much readers will engage with the news, so the media must learn to be more flexible in order to avoid wasting effort on a lost cause.

What about the second story? I believe that the second story invites a much more creative set of responses and offers opportunities for journalists to partner with their customers in potentially exciting ways. Below are a few thoughts that occur to me, not so much answers as questions that might lead to new ways of engaging readers. Others undoubtedly could come up with many more.

Reduce the cost

First is finding ways to reduce the cost of engaging with important news. Most of us come into major news issues “in the middle of the movie,” as Jay Rosen has put it, and it is tremendously difficult to get up to speed. This means that the traditional news presentation that updates us on how today is different from yesterday makes us feel like idiots since we have no idea how we got to yesterday.

Happily the news industry seems to be realizing this. In fact, explanatory journalism has become all the rage, with new ventures both inside and out of traditional media outlets seeming to start up every other week on the national and international scene. I think the more interesting question, though, is how to unlock this at the local level. The need there is just as great, but resources are typically scarcer.

Nevertheless, I can imagine a number of interesting ways to come at the problem. One simple way to limit the work is to identify a small number of key issues that will receive deeper treatment using resources drawn from across the newsroom, something like Quartz.com’s obsessions. Other possibilities include carefully organized collaboration with interested community experts and local organizations as well as shared ventures involving multiple media outlets.

Make it matter

Readers adapt their level of engagement with public affairs news based on how much they believe their understanding of the issues matters – suspiciously rational behavior! This suggests a strategy: help me understand why an item matters to me, specifically, and now, in particular. Don’t wait to do it until the fourth or tenth paragraph – make it integral to how I choose to read the content or not.

What if I were able to approach the day’s news through the lens of the larger stories I care about, or opportunities to exercise my voice politically, or changes that are likely to require me to change my own decisions or behaviors in the near future? What if I could quickly and confidently tell which sections of the paper don’t matter to me today? What would that look like? I don’t have a concrete answer, but I expect that taking the questions seriously might lead to something interesting, especially in local media.

Help us have the conversation

Journalism has always been about more than simply informing the public – it is a vital part of how we conduct public conversation about the things that matter to us as a community and as a society. It seems to me, though, that news organizations have assumed a mostly hands-off role, limited to opinion pages and sponsoring the odd debate.

Could there be a much bigger role for news organizations as supporting and coordinating actors in the larger process of public conversation?  I imagine conversations as events that might take place in churches and neighborhood organizations, through professional associations or on social media, but informed, coordinated and summarized by the media. Once again, I think the potential is most interesting in local news organizations since that is the level at which real conversation is most possible.

I believe that this is a time of tremendous potential for journalism and for the public that it serves. The ideas presented here are intended as conversation-starters rather than prescriptions – I haven’t any idea what actually will work and what won’t, or where the limits of the possible are.  What I do know is that those limits are imposed as much by the questions we are willing to ask and the futures we are able to imagine as by any reality.

¹All quotes and references are to The News Gap: When the Information Preferences of the Media and the Public Diverge, Pablo J. Boczkowski and Eugenia Mitchelstein, MIT Press, 2013, Kindle edition. The examples in the first paragraph come from Table 2.1 in Chapter 2, while the concluding quotes are from the Coda at end of the book. The How We Conducted Our Research section in Chapter 1 provides a good overview of the methodology and results of the study. I’ve focused on a couple specific results from the study – this is not intended to be a full review.
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What’s Real in IT?

It’s a curious time in the land of corporate IT. On the one hand, information technology has never been more strategic, never more at the heart of the value a business creates. Yet not only has IT failed to pick up any of the glow, it seems ever more often to be cast as the bad guy or as the hapless idiot that business innovators simply have to work around.

Reality_Checkpoint_full

Reality Checkpoint

Why is this? Didn’t they get the memo that they’re supposed to be aligning with the business? Are they just dragging their feet, protecting their turf? Are they trying, but failing, unable to adjust to the speed and complexity of the modern world?

I’ve no doubt there are plenty of examples of IT doing all that, but I also have to attend to my own experience. Most of the CIOs and IT managers I’ve talked to are hard-working, smart, and very focused on supporting the business the best way they know how. Most of the IT staff I’ve met love technology and are excited about what they could bring to the organization. It’s very hard for me to believe that such a pervasive issue is simply due to stupidity or bad faith.

In fact, I believe there is a structural problem that is already evident in the formulation: align IT with the business. It’s hard to be against alignment, but what does it actually mean? I think what it really means is this: I’m going to do my thing over here and you’re going to do your thing over there, but we’ll make sure that my thing is pointed in the same direction as your thing so we’re supporting rather than fighting each other.

I find that a little hard to get enthusiastic about.

A few months ago I fell in love with something Clay Shirky said about innovation in education: “If you think about our stock keeping inside the university, there are seven big constructs: class, course, grade, credit, degree, department, major. Not one of them is real. They’re all just how we do it. Here’s what’s real: Students are real. Knowing things is real. Being able to do things is real. People will find alternate ways to teach those things. That’s where the really disruptive stuff comes from.”

Think about it. How much of corporate IT today is just how we do it? Are IT departments and storage teams and network admins real? How about the things they work with? Are servers and SANs and networks real? Are apps real? Are the change management processes and security protocols that we use real? Think deeply about any piece of it and you may begin to suspect as I do that none of it is real. It’s all just how we do it.

So what’s real in corporate IT? I think the answer is quite clear:

  • Selling stuff is real.
  • Building and maintaining relationships with customers and partners is real.
  • Conceiving and building innovative products is real.
  • Managing risk and squeezing out operational waste is real.

In other words, the only things that are real in IT are the things that are real for the business. IT doesn’t need to “align” with the business, it needs to be the business, to take as its primary concerns exactly and only those things that concern the business as a whole.

How much difference can this kind of change in thinking make? I think that’s evident in the conversation at VMworld last year between Marc Andreessen and Pat Gelsinger. When Gelsinger bragged that virtualization has helped IT move the ratio of current operations and maintenance to innovation and new service creation from 70:30 to “closer to 60:40, on its way to his stated goal of 50:50”, Andreessen responded that for companies he works with the ratio is more like 1:99. Utterly naive? Perhaps. Certainly Kurt Marko is right that large organizations can’t be benchmarked against a 10-person start-up. But I also agree with a colleague who considers that 50:50 target to be nothing less than an indictment of a bankrupt way of thinking about IT.

I would love to conclude this post with a convenient list of the 7 ways IT organizations can be the business, but of course it’s not so easy as that. I do believe that there is an important place for IT specialists and I also believe that that place will look very different from the way it looks today. I will be reflecting further on this in future posts, more in the spirit of inquiry and fostering conversation than as a dump of any supposed expertise of my own. But it is my experience that the frame we use matters deeply, that it determines which questions we are able to ask and so either limits or opens up the range of interesting answers available to us.

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The “Secret” to Successful Content

In an Atlantic article on the most popular New York Times stories of 2013, the author makes much of the fact that the top story was an app (and rightly points out a missed app opportunity in one of the other stories).

I would hardly argue against the importance of interactive apps for businesses that make their living off of content. There is a danger, however, in focusing so much on this one delivery mechanism that is currently at the top of its hype cycle and missing what I suspect may be the more important point: the diversity of story types on the list. In addition to the app, there are “four breaking news articles, one of which was a map; three health stories; a long narrative about poverty in New York; and two celebrity op-eds.”

There are a couple fairly obvious types here: dramatic breaking stories, news-you-can-use. Others are less clear to me. The Putin op-ed was interesting, but I’m surprised it’s in the top 10. And why do we suddenly care about poor children? Perhaps serendipity plays a part, or perhaps a closer look at these and all the other stories that didn’t make it will reveal some common themes.

What I’m sure of, though, is that it doesn’t reduce down to whether the content is delivered via an app or a map or anything else that’s divorced from the content itself. What the delivery mechanisms have to do is allow users to engage with the story naturally and that natural engagement and interaction may be very different for different stories.

That would be my tentative formulation of a principle for news content, but I think there’s a lesson here that goes beyond any particular business.  It’s great to look at what other companies and people do and to try to learn from their success. But the question is almost never what they did, what their “secret” is. The question is why was what they did the right thing, why did it lead to success? What is the principle that we can use to figure out our own right thing to do?

New York Times 2013 most visited stories

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Nailed

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All photos: http://ejaxon.smugmug.com/

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We do not publish criticisms of papers published in our journal. Because science.

By Nuvola_apps_edu_science.svg: w:David Vignoni Baustelle.svg: User:Duesentrieb derivative work: w:de:Benutzer:Chris828 [LGPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/lgpl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons The December issue of Nature published a letter regarding scientific journals’ willingness to publish corrections when articles are found to be in error (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v504/n7478/full/504033d.html Note: paywall). They looked at 107 papers that used existing small public datasets and found that 10 papers had mistakes significant enough to affect the findings, and there were less significant errors in almost one-third of the papers.

It’s sad and problematic that only 4 journals actually published corrections. The part I find mind-boggling is that “some even had a policy not to publish criticisms of their papers.”

Wow.

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Four principles for building peace, justice and fraternity – Pope Francis

Just finished reading the Pope’s full Exhortation – quite a document & much food for thought. I’m not a Catholic, but I have to say that I’m very grateful for his leadership.

One bit that I found particularly interesting was his articulation of four principles required to build peace, justice and fraternity, in the section on the common good and peace in society:

  1. Time is greater than space
  2. Unity prevails over conflict
  3. Realities are more important than ideas
  4. The whole is greater than the part

I can’t do justice here to the ideas behind each of these – I need to chew on them a bit, but it’s worth reading them in Francis’ words at the link above.

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Focusing innovation on what’s real

Worth calling this out. At a panel on innovation in education, Clay Shirky cut through the blah-blah with this:

“If you think about our stock keeping inside the university, there are seven big constructs: class, course, grade, credit, degree, department, major. Not one of them is real. They’re all just how we do it,” he says. “Here’s what’s real: Students are real. Knowing things is real. Being able to do things is real. People will find alternate ways to teach those things. That’s where the really disruptive stuff comes from.”

There are lessons in this for innovation in any area.

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