Monday, September 25, 2006

OK, I'm back with this because the topic comes up again and again, and it's important to respond.

We've got a story about a potentially useful new lab at Arizona State University devoted to researching how people use media. Gannett is the first company to tap the lab's resources, which are going to go find out what college-aged people are up to.

Research is good. Knowing things is helpful. The Readership Institute in particular seems pretty good at coming up with actionable information about how audiences interact with the news media.

But news organizations are too quick to chase any old research down any old rabbit hole that takes them away from reporting the news, without studying what the research means or thinking about the consequences of their decisions.

The money quote in this story about the New Media Innovation Lab comes from Mike Coleman, The Arizona Republic's vice president for digital media.

"There is a lot of research saying that many people are not interested in getting local news, like you see in the (newspaper's) 'A' and 'B' sections, online. ... And the younger you are, the less interested you are.

"It seems we need to constantly look at redefining the definition of what news and information is."

Well, if "news and information" turn out to be primarily about garage bands and video games, as this story hints, then can we stop calling ourselves newspapers and just call ourselves fun and games?

It might be that companies need to pursue superficially evident audience interests to the ends of the earth to make more money than they do now, but it's silly to suggest that, after redefining news to exclude news, we're still in the journalism business. Redefine yourself if you want, but don't pretend you're fulfilling your First Amendment role as a news provider.

By the way, just because some research shows that people are boobs with no civic interest doesn't necessarily mean that they are. As I describe in my book, the Project for Excellence in Journalism did a study a few years ago testing the questions asked of TV news audiences. When asked a general question like, "How interested are you in news reports on issues and activities in local government and politics?", 34 percent said they were "very interested." That's not too encouraging, right? But look how little it takes to virtually double that number:

Instead of the generic question, ask: "How interested are you in reports on what government can do to improve the performance of local schools?" The "very interested" number jumped to 59 percent. For stories on government reducing health care costs, it was 64 percent; for the government preventing terrorism, 67 percent.

People do want to know about how government affects their lives and what they can do about it. The fact that they don't see government news as relevant NOW doesn't mean we stop should covering it. It means we need to start covering it RIGHT.

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