Get you a news organization that can do both

by azaleon

 

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I have a confession…I watched a 90-second video of baby pandas stumbling down a slide today and it was glorious. It was so great I watched it again…ok, maybe three times.

News organizations are watching. They know I love baby panda videos. They know you and millions of other people also love baby panda videos. So I am both delighted and horrified that news organizations will devote time and resources to making more baby panda videos.

The push for user-driven content has never been greater; user-driven content meaning news coverage dictated by what will attract the most readers.

 

Some examples: 30-second recipe videos, pretty much any list or ranking based on opinion, most sports news, (#) signs that you (relatable human experience), most entertainment news and so on.

This type of content isn’t evil, it’s just a guilty pleasure.

I know I shouldn’t want to watch 1.5 minutes of baby pandas sliding down a slide, but dammit, I had a bad day and want to watch 90 seconds of baby pandas.

or

This random blogger has no credentials to be judging the 10 best college basketball uniforms of all time, but yea, I’m sorta curious how that list turned out.

On the surface, this seems to make a lot of sense:

Let’s create stuff that a lot of  people want to read/watch/etc.

Yea, I’m on board with that idea. More readers means more money from advertisers, means more influence and means more resources for the company.

And so more and more newsrooms are repurposing their efforts to fit what their readers want.

But here’s the problem: the majority of the population doesn’t exactly know what’s best for itself. The coverage we crave isn’t necessarily the coverage we need.

Harkening back to my days of economics, there’s something called opportunity cost. So let’s say an editor/coach/manager/whatever they’re being called these days, approaches his/her staff and instructs them to write more stories that people want to read, there’s a cost to that.

The business section is devoting more time to consumer-friendly content (what should I buy?) and perhaps less to investigating the practices of businesses and corporations (something that takes a lot of time and yields fewer stories).

The metro section is devoting more time to feel-good stories that moms like sharing on Facebook and less time at City Hall or combing through police reports.

You want another example of feeding the beast?

(via The New York Times)

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As a reader, I love it. Business, tell me how to best spend $50 at the grocery store because corporate jargon and big numbers scare me. Metro, city council meetings sound boring as hell and yes, I would much rather watch Chewbacca Mom. And damned if I wouldn’t rather watch Trump than John Kasich, because the same part of my brain that tells me to eat Taco Bell even though I know it’s garbage, is still intact.

But here’s the thing; this approach also scares the hell out of me because although City Hall and police briefs and school board meetings are boring, they’re also really important. Maybe covering them won’t pay off in one week or a month, but at some point, covering the little boring stuff could add up to the big stuff. The kind of story that doesn’t fall in your lap one day, but comes from a long development of sources and the system you cover.

If user-driven content is candy, let’s call this vegetable coverage -coverage the public doesn’t necessarily like, but really needs.

Let’s take a look at how some of America’s biggest news outlets balance their candy and vegetables on their homepage (keep in mind I’m screenshoting this very late at night, so no breaking news). I also want to point out that these new outlets have the resources and are covering stories outside of what is pictured, but there is something to be said that you put your best stories out front:

NYT: A healthy balance. Some news I should know and some I want to know.

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WAPO: Oh man, a lot of greens on this plate. ISIS, politics, LGBT legislation, North Korea, hard crime on the right.

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USA Today: Enough candy to give you a stomach ache. Don’t ask me about the main story, then there’s Hulk Hogan, Johnny Depp, college students drinking, Trump.

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*Next tried HuffPost and Buzzfeed, but their homepages display about one story before having to scroll

LA Times: Another good balance. Start with your veggies and then some candy chaser.  

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Chicago Tribune: Dad must be a dentist. Crime, crime, crime with almost no relief.

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Houston Chronicle: I think I’m going to be sick. Enough candy to give you cavities in every tooth. You now have no teeth. I mean, what in the holy hell is going on? This is one of the biggest newspapers in the country. Maybe it’s because it’s late at night, right? That’s got to be it, right? Well, apparently that wasn’t the case for other news organizations. And it’s not just that this is a load of candy, but it’s not even the good kind. It’s off-brand and stale. If you’re going to shove this kind of content onto your readers, at least make it content they want to read.

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The truth is, the battle for a news organizations’ time and resources has been waged since there were news organizations. You can’t give everybody the same amount of attention or pub. Something has to lead the local news broadcast, something gets to be on the front page. City council meetings have always been boring and baby pandas have always been cute.

The difference now is that the power is in the hands of readers more than ever before. We used to only choose which news station to watch or paper to pick up or magazine to subscribe to. And there were some choices, but not many. Channel 2 just had to beat out Channel 6 and 8. The Times just had to beat the Tribune.

Now, every news organization is competing in the same space for your attention and you have the power to choose where to get the online news. And when news organization know readers are going to grab the candy before vegetables, well it makes it a tough sell to spend much time growing your own carrots.

So what’s the solution?

  1. Yes, there is enough time in a work day for reporters to do both. A daily news story should not take 8 hours to complete. Set aside 1 or 1.5 hours for user-driven content and then the rest of the day to “important” stuff. Sure, those 90 minutes could have been spent on more impactful journalism, but when you look at economy of time, spending 90 minutes on something that will get a ton of web traffic is worth it.
  2.  Put some cinnamon on the veggies. Or, frame the “boring stuff” in a way that’s easy for the reader to digest and understand. Instead of writing 500 words on something you just covered, frame it as “3 things to know about __” and heck, maybe embed some photo, video and tweets. If you think that’s “cheapening” your work, then think of it this way: would you rather write 500 words and have half the people read it?
  3. Set goals. Fulfillment is an interesting thing in this industry; I can write a single-source story about a new multi-million dollar stadium in an afternoon and get over 10K people to read it, but then  feel like a dunce when a beautifully-written feature comes across my screen that same afternoon. In reality, I did my job well because it’s possible if you calculate readers/time-spent working, my ratio will probably be higher than the person who wrote that big feature. But in the journalism world, we still compete against our colleagues and feel the need to produce things that will make them proud even though that may not be the best approach to take.

So still write that feature that’s weighing on your brain. Make a note on your desk or computer and budget time to work on it more and more. You’re not going to be able to power through that 2,000-word monster in a week or two like in the past, but it can be done.


All is not lost for this reason: Yes, we naturally find pandas and shocking opinions and sports and food pictures attractive, but we’re also interested in government corruption, how local news affects us, injustices and pretty soon, yea, we realize there’s some vegetables we like.

Those big stories that take time and win awards will not come every day. They’re not going to quench the online audience’s daily thirst. So yes, create the cheap stuff that doesn’t take much time to produce and yields a big audience, but news organizations can’t go all in on that user-driven content or the traditional “boring” coverage.

Strike a balance between the two so you can entertain as well as inform.

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