Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The pitfalls of short-term thinking

Knowing what audiences say they want and what they are chasing is a useful tool for news judgment, but it should not be the sole driver of content. As Tom Rosenstiel mentions in my book, news is what hasn't happened yet, and there's no backward-looking research that can tell you what content will be useful or desired going forward. More to the point, audiences/readers/citizens can't ask for something they don't know is there.

That's why this column on Web hits at the Project for Excellence in Journalism site is so important.

To quote Jim Brady:

I was pretty confident that a story about the celebrity meltdown du jour would get more traffic than our story on President Obama’s current thinking on the Department of Agriculture. But The Washington Post’s bread and butter is coverage of the federal government, politics, diplomacy, national security, local news and local sports, not national entertainment news. To put it another way: If The Washington Post decided to promote stories on its home page based purely on traffic potential, what makes it unique would quickly evaporate.

And, his example originally quoted by Romenesko:

There was nothing in our traffic history to suggest that stories about military veterans were of particular interest to our readers. But when Dana Priest and Anne Hull uncovered the poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital, the story went global in hours. That kind of journalism will be increasingly at risk if we get too caught up in the race for page views.

The search for the silver bullet is one of the reasons, to mix a metaphor, that journalists have been chasing their tails for the last several years. The most successful content isn't the kind that follows an audience; it's the kind that creates an audience.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

No more national consciousness

OK, I realize that going seven months without posting eliminates me from consideration for the blogger of the year award.

Politico has an interesting story today asserting that Barack Obama is getting away with many affronts to human decency (reducing travel restrictions to Cuba, hosting the Grateful Dead in the White House, going on the Jay Leno show, etc.) that are infuriating conservatives but hardly blemishing his overall popularity. The story quotes pundit Mark Halperin saying that President Clinton, by contrast, "would have gotten hammered" for such pokes in the eye of tradition and dignity.

It may be true that Obama is getting away, relatively speaking, with activities that would have been much more damaging to Clinton in the 1990s. But these examples of an official escaping mass outrage, it seems to me, miss the forest for the trees. Instead of, say, reducing prosecutions of users of medical marijuana, as Obama has done, imagine if Clinton had clandestinely approved the torture of U.S.-held prisoners in a bid to elicit false confessions that would provide evidence to start a war resulting in more than 4,000 American deaths. Such a revelation, a decade ago, likely would have led to bipartisan impeachment charges that would have stuck.

Of course, these are the kinds of details emerging about the Bush administration's treatment of terror detainees (for the best aggregating on this topic over many years, see Dan Froomkin's reporting and editing at washingtonpost.com). But, just like the video of Obama bowing respectfully to the Saudi Arabian king, the torture revelations are landing on the American conscious with all the impact of a fluffy feather.

It seems to me that the reason for this universal lack of popular outrage is simple, and it's not the conclusion that Politico reaches in its story. Politico suggests Obama is getting an easier ride on cultural affronts than Clinton did because the country is getting more liberal, and upcoming generations don't have all the hangups that the Baby Boomers did about late-night television and respecting foreign leaders. That might also be true, but the "more liberal" theory doesn't explain the general shrugs with which ongoing revelations about our program of torture are being received.

Here's my argument for why both the Bush and Obama administrations suffered, and are suffering, less widespread scrutiny and criticism for their crimes and misdemeanors than Clinton or any previous administration of the past several decades: It's because Americans no longer have a coherent, broadly recognized and heeded structure for receiving and understanding the news.

Two phenomena -- the fragmentation of news sources brought on by cable and the digital era, and the "hyperlocal" movement among newspapers that has essentially banished national and world news from the front pages of all but the biggest dailies -- have resulted in a widespread mainstream disengagement from the news of the day. When big chunks of us get our news from the Fox network, and big chunks of us get our news from MSNBC, and those of us who still subscribe to local newspapers find largely parochial coverage from within a day's drive of the reporting staff, there is no medium or institution that foments and moderates a national conversation.

Clinton's scandals were on the front pages of most newspapers in the 1990s. Bush's scandals were relegated to inside wire pages or briefs. Coverage of first three months of Obama's administration has been similarly kaleidoscopic: Throughout their days, most Americans receive and personally assemble tiny shards of news from talk radio, cable news, word of mouth, RSS feeds, etc. Each of us builds from these fragments a different impression of the world, an individual view of events that skews to our personal interests (kite flying, NASCAR, whale watching) and leaves all but the most politically engaged of us with the sparest impressions of public issues and events.

We no longer have national conversations about the most important questions -- like how should we deal with our recent legacy of torture -- because no majority of us is seeking or receiving the same reliable information from the same set of trustworthy sources.

People have celebrated the digital age for the liberating effect it's had on all of us as consumers of information. We are all free to seek and receive the kind of information we want, when we want it. The traditional gatekeepers, the "mainstream media," which used to inform and guide our civic conversations, are decreasingly influential. One result of this is that more information is available than ever before, and that a select few can't determine what we see and know as a national community. But another result is that, while we can see and know whatever we want, there is no national community to deliberate over what we know.

As newspapers continue to shrink and die, concerned journalists and citizens are wondering who will ask the tough questions, hold officials accountable, and provide the kind of information we need to make good decisions that sustain our democracy. But I don't think our major problem is that there will be less journalism. All these stories are out there. There's plenty of information available about torture, plenty of information about Obama's friendly handshake with Hugo Chavez. More people than ever are asking questions, digging up facts and publishing information that make powerful people uncomfortable.

The big challenge for journalism going forward is not whether it will get done, but how we can get a critical mass of people to pay attention to it. Because right now the future of journalism appears to be thousands of trees falling in the forest, and no one hearing a sound.