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Collateral damage in the decline of newspapers

June 15, 2012

The death of newspapers is, strangely, a favourite topic for newspapers. They seem to have a morbid fascination with predicting their own demise.

Last week, I read a story about how Fairfax is reshaping its editorial team in light of massive budget cuts, which mentioned in passing that a new KPI is being considered for its journalists: web traffic.

Makes sense right? As we increasingly go online for our news sources, journalists need to create compelling content. So why shouldn’t they be judged on how many readers click on their articles?

But the problem is, people are stupid and lazy. All of us, I mean. How many times have you sat down to do something useful (write a blog post, for example) and found yourself checking Facebook? This week, I sat down to read the business section of the newspaper, and someone had left a copy of OK! magazine on the table at work. Somehow I got sucked into a vortex of J Lo and her toy boy, instead of Labor and its economic forum. Oops!

Basically, we love shit that’s not really good for us. So when we go online, we’re attracted to silly stories the way we’re attracted to fries on a menu. No, I don’t want that lame salad with my steak! I want greasy, carby goodness.

And I don’t want to read about the complexities of offshore asylum seeker processing, I want to read about who will win The Voice; a giant snail found by hikers; and a new MasterChef restaurant. Because those are three of the most-read stories on the Sydney Morning Herald website right now.

I read a lot of nerdy stuff – I can’t go past a good economic analysis for instance – but I’m at the nerdy end of the statistical spectrum. I also read a fair chunk of crap (discussing the J Lo piece, I was able to cite three older female celebs with much younger boyfriends, it turns out). So it’s important that the news presents both types of information.

I really worry about an editorial policy shaped by what people want to know, not what they need to know. We want to know about giant snails (who wouldn’t?), but we really need to know which tax reforms are being discussed by various politicians, in case we have to vote for one of them.

We need to know about a bunch of serious stuff, like marginalised groups in the community, miscarriages of justice, sneaky government reforms or any number of topics that affect our lives and the lives of those around us. But it’s so easy to get distracted.

Nor should we underestimate how a ‘link-baited’ news world affects the PR industry. I was on the receiving end of it last week: what I thought was a total non-story morphed into a front page beat-up, replete with myths and misinformation (some of it about a client, unfortunately). But this is the effect of a news agenda driven by sensationalism, not substance. And from a broadsheet newspaper too – not even some tabloid crap.

To some extent we can make this work in our favour – giving our media releases the most strident, dramatic headlines possible; or taking the most negative and alarmist angle we can. But it’s not something I am going to do happily.

News is not always shiny and fun, but it gives meaning and context to our lives. The more we lower the bar on what ‘news’ is, the poorer our understanding of the world we inhabit and our place in it.

So it’s up to us to click on the dull, economic stories! And just like we only order the fries every now and then, let’s try to keep our Kardashian news consumption to an absolute minimum level.


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  1. I have a pet theory. People don’t really follow the news primarily to get information that is important to their lives, and never have; if they did, they would mostly want to read about the ordinances of their local councils. People follow the news in order to increase their sense of participation in a broader community. A newspaper has been described as “a city talking to itself”. Some of the challenges facing newspapers are beyond the scope of journalists to address; the disappearance of advertising revenue, and the fact that everyone is now potentially a photographer, a reporter and a commentator. But a third challenge; and one that is within the provence of journalists and PR people to come to terms with; is the increased choice people have about what constitutes their “community”. We’re no longer geographically bound to a local community; we belong to communities of interest from all over the world. If we can pick and choose our communities of interest, it follows that we will be less locked into a particular community that a newspaper may be aligned with (such as a city). So a new challenges for journalists; and for PR people; is to identify new, relevant communities of interest. When they have done this, they obviously need to provide these communities with engaging content. But the really successful journalists and PR people will, I think, be the ones that can make themselves part of the essential glue that holds a community of interest together, in the way that newspapers used to hold cities together.

  2. I am all for not reading crap, and there is a large chunk of “news” that I couldn’t give two hoots about. But there is a catch – you can find yourself locked out of conversations, or struggling to make connections, or baffled about questions at the Katoomba RSL trivia night, if you don’t have at least a passing familiarity with that crap. There are a couple of rationalisations upon which I have to fall back, and they even have plausible sounding names: “popular culture” and the “zeitgeist”. Self-fulfilling concepts, unfortunately.

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