Thursday, October 22, 2009

Averting our eyes

Put yourself in the place of an American media manager for just a moment.

Pollsters Rasmussen Reports say that 80 percent of Americans believe that the media over-covers sensational but inconsequential stories like the balloon boy fiasco. Only 11 percent disagree with that premise.

So far, so good. But Rasmussen also asked Americans if they had personally followed the balloon boy story. Sixty-eight percent answered “yes.”

So Americans don’t like it when the cable channels and tabloids provide 24/7 coverage of whatever the latest sensation is, but they sure as heck watch the same coverage. So, if you’re running a cable network or, say, a local newspaper, what should you do?

Welcome to the Age of Entertainment. You can understand why someone might observe America’s information consumption habits and conclude that we profess to be appalled that news coverage constantly focuses on the latest train wreck but we can’t, or won’t, avert our eyes.

This dilemma plays itself out every afternoon in the Post Register newsroom when we gather to decide what will go on the next day’s front page. Our local news editors provide a list of the best stories coming from our reporting staff while our wire editors review a list of the best material coming from the Associated Press and other national and world sources. Usually, two or three selections are obvious. Then the fun begins.

Would people prefer to read about the latest debates on health care or a quirky story about something stupid someone did somewhere? Do we put Afghanistan out front? How about the latest on H1N1? Or do we throw out what we call a “reader” story – something that’s a good read but has absolutely no real news value. Here’s what often happens when we do that – we get a handful of complaints from people who wonder why we’re trivializing our front page, but that story is one of the most popular of the day on our web site.

In fact, the celebrity news we put on page two every day very often is among the top-five most frequently read stories on our web site day in and day out.

Serious news consumers think we shouldn’t “pander” to people who want to read unimportant stories. It’s not that simple – we have to walk the line between putting out a product that people will actually pay to read without producing nothing but fluff. This is neither science nor art – we use a combination of the best reader data, our own instincts and experience and, yes, what we have to choose from on any particular day.

Most days I think we get it about right, but there’s always another day coming right at us.

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