Monday, February 26, 2007

Here's how to do it

Right off the subject of the last post is a Readership Institute column describing research into people's openness toward serious news, if it's reported and presented in the right way. The column cites the reporting of Doug McGill, who's linked on the rail of this blog and has pioneered the concept of doing global reporting from local communities. And it makes this excellent point about how to approach world news in a meaningful way:

There is no research I know of that says that people want to read about genocide. What research I see - especially as it relates to young people college and much younger - suggests they want to know about the lives of their neighbors. They ask such questions as, Why did they leave their country? How did they get here? What is it like for them to start over? In a way this explains their current world to them.

In the United States today, there are more than 10 million young people between the ages of 5 and 17 who were born in another country. That is 1 out of every 5 children K through 12 was not born in the United States. They are the friends and neighbors of our children. North American children are living in the most global society. It is natural for them to be interested in other places.

This is the essence of my chapter on reporting world news. People need to know what's going on in other countries; but they need to see it in a context that makes sense to them. The answer is not to cover the world less, but to cover it well.

But where's the news?

One major phenomenon in traditional media's desperate struggle to maintain audiences is the free or cheap tabloid aimed at the 18-34 age group, often published by a daily newspaper that seems unable to reach those people on its own merits.

The latest of these efforts is apparently underway at the San Antonio Express-News, and its characteristics are similar to other publications targeting this age group: Most notably, it intends to cover everything but news. A memo published in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies describes a content "focus on music, the Web, film, gaming, pop culture and trends in general, the arts, local nightlife and outdoor recreation."

Leaving aside whether the Express-News ought to be covering those topics satisfactorily in its daily paper (it should), we should wonder why so many publications for people under 40 reflexively recoil from the idea that this audience could handle serious subjects. Yes, there are studies showing that this generation of young people is less interested in news than any preceding generation, but news bean counters always seem to place the blame for this with the people, instead of the news.

What if, instead of assuming that young people avoid the news because they're dumb and apathetic, we assume they're uninterested in news coverage because it seems to ignore them, talk above them, dwell on political style over issue-oriented substance, and foster a sense of helplessness by refusing to demonstrate the vital role regular citizens play in the democratic process? What if, instead of targeting young people with pandering escapism, we tried harder to engage them in important matters that affect their lives every day?

Those what-ifs are hard to answer, because nobody's trying it. My guess is that if we showed younger people their stake in the news through compelling, meaningful coverage that addressed them as citizens instead of commodities, we could start building some credibility and maybe an audience. It's not just a guess, either: The Readership Institute has done research showing that young people appreciate news coverage that makes them feel smarter and looks out for their civic interests.

What news decisionmakers have to get their heads around is that, just because research shows people don't like the news they get, it doesn't mean they don't like the news they COULD get. Let's, for a minute, stop assuming that apathy is about them and consider that it might be about us.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Highlighting good journalism

Here's something I should have known about before but didn't: It's a blog by a Northwestern journalism professor who trolls daily for really good journalism -- stories that are groundbreaking, innovative, watchdog oriented or particularly well told. It's called Jon Marshall's News Gems, and it's worth a regular look.

Marshall provides reliable evidence that good, important journalism persists to this day, in spite of every hurdle news organizations face and the remarkable hostility journalists face from nearly all segments of society.

And, while we're talking about good news, Reuters reports today on some empirical evidence that spending money on your newsroom is a way to make money in the news business. This ought to be a no-brainer, but of course media bean counters have been betting on the opposite premise for well over a decade -- cost cutting themselves right out of business.

The new evidence comes from a study by the University of Missouri-Columbia, a top-flight J-School. I suppose you could argue that the study's authors have a vested interest in these results, since bigger newsrooms means more jobs means better placement for journalism school graduates. But the spokesperson for this study, Esther Thorson, associate dean for graduate studies at Missouri's J-school, is an advertising professor, touting results indicating that newsroom spending is more lucrative than spending on any other department in the news business.

If we're lucky, the bigwigs with the fancy suits will pay heed to this study and stop gutting newsrooms so we can get more of the good work highlighted by Jon Marshall. Unfortunately, the momentum to bleed news organizations to death might be too powerful to overcome at this point. Time will tell.

UPDATE: Here's an interview with Thorson from the public radio business program "Marketplace," which gets a big shout-out in my book for its smart and creative journalism.