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.