An unformed theory

I still haven’t really worked out what I think about this… so I’m posting some thoughts to see if you lot out there can assist me in formulating them.

There’s a lot of talk about new business models, about the market not caring if we make money, about there being no right to a job in a newsroom. There’s a lot of talk about regional newspapers having less than five years.

When I first read Joanna Geary’s post on news not needing journalists I disagreed with her. (This may partly have been because of an earlier post about subs being unecessary – everyone’s allowed a bit of bias, surely?).

But now I think maybe the problem is actually a stage further than Jo’s original post and is probably closer to an argument she makes in a later post about the market for journalism.

What if there’s less of a market for news than we think there is?

I’m talking long long term here, mind, but its a problem that would need working on now if it’s to be fixed.

Here’s what I mean.

People under 25 don’t buy newspapers. No surprise there.

But how many people under 25 actively seek out the news?

This is how I hear about things: I listen to the radio headlines when I’m in the shower or in my car. I click on links that my friends send me.

If there’s a big story, I’ll check the TV news bulletins or channels. I read papers when I’ve got time and not for information. I check their websites when they have specific content I already know about that I want to see.

Someone from the BBC said this week it’s a ‘known known’ that there is a need for journalism. (If I could find the link I’d give it to you!) But is it? Does our audience of the future actually want what we want to give them?

Now I don’t know the demographics for PM or the 10, or Channel 4 news, for example. I’m not saying that no-one under the age of 30 cares about what’s going on in the world.

What I am saying is that the appetite for news is limited. They get their headlines almost accidentally, while they’re doing something else. They do what I do and follow what interests them. They absorb the things they need to know while they are doing other things. They didn’t grow up buying or reading their local newspaper. They probably don’t know or care about their neighbours.

We can get out among them, make sure that our links are where they are, that our content is under their nose. We can Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and blog and read blogs, and chat to our audience.

But how much of the content we provide is going to appeal to more than a niche audience? Especially in small towns where by its very nature the content is less exciting, where there’s less hard news?

Even the Beeb struggles to get UGC. Number of Radio One Newsbeat comments on Obama being elected? Eight, last time I looked.

I believe passionately that good journalism is necessary in society. But I’m a journalist – so I would think that. What if our readers (or rather, non-readers) don’t? What if they’re happy with 30 second bulletins and learning about earthquakes on Twitter? What if they don’t care whether we’re covering council meetings or finding out about that block of flats that collapsed? People get information through their own network. We might come into that network somewhere but we’re not at the heart of it.

That’s not going to be enough to keep us all in business. So what do we do? Try and inveigle ourselves into their lives and hope that one day they’ll wake up and say ‘I’m going to spend 20 minutes on my local newspaper’s website every day from now on’?

Resign ourselves to the fact that sooner or later all regional journalism will be crowdfunded like the brilliant Spot.us, or a not-for-profit public service?

Completely rethink the content we provide? Slim down, cut back, pare – leave the parish pump stuff to whatever parish pump bloggers care enough to write about it and have fewer journalists doing more interesting stories, push personalities not patches – and then figure out how to fund it?

I don’t know the answer. I don’t even know if I’m right. In fact if anyone can tell me that the news-consuming habits of the under-30s are the opposite to those I’ve suggested I’d love to hear about it!

UPDATED: This, from Helen Boaden on the BBC News Editors blog, sort of underlines my point about the appetite for news:

“Last week, 5.5 million people tuned into our US election programme with David Dimbleby. Interestingly, we don’t know the precise figure for 1979’s programme but we can be pretty certain it was many, many more.

What we are seeing in television is audience fragmentation – the natural impact of greater audience choice in a multi channel age. When people have a lot to choose from, they go off in all sorts of directions. It means that really huge audiences for television news on all channels are a thing of the past.

You can see this quite clearly in the figures. In 2006 – in homes with digital television, news viewing fell by a third. And the numbers watching current affairs fell by half. ”

I think Paul and Joanna are both right. Supporting journalism and saving the ‘news industry’ have become two different propositions….

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7 thoughts on “An unformed theory

  1. I think journalists have long had an inflated sense of their own importance, and the importance of news. We also have naive ideas on why people read the news. We forget about the importance of the crossword; columnists; TV listings; cartoons. And how many people bought a newspaper just because it was there, something to do? Now there are a hundred other things they can do with a spare moment.

    When you drill down to it, people read news they can use – either socially, or because they want to effect (or prevent) change. Those are the instincts I’m trying to drill down to with Help Me Investigate.com, which I’ve been bidding for money from the Knight Foundation and 4iP. If we get the funding (and even if we don’t), I hope we can test some ideas about how to support journalism, rather than focusing on how to keep the news industry alive, which is something else entirely.

  2. Joanna Geary says:

    Hi Sam,

    Great post – sorry if I got your back up with the post about sub-editors!

    I too am looking around for people to help me answer these questions. Like you I have a few ideas that need formulating into something coherent.

    Things I think I know:

    – Generally people trust individuals rather than faceless organisations
    – Recommendations of news stories from friends *is* a distribution method.
    – The definition of “friend” online is different to in the physical world (think Facebook friend). It is perhaps closer to say that friends online are peers or your network.

    Somewhere in this is a part of the answer to what you’re saying. If the parish pump journalist is tied into a network of people interested in that parish then there is a value and interest in their work.

    It may not be enough to sustain a full-time job though and this leads me onto the vague notion that as journalists we are – as you say – approaching this problem the wrong way around.

    We have to force ourselves, as you’re doing, to ask what exactly is it that people want from us?

  3. Alison Gow says:

    Top post, Sam – and it’s a bit daunting to follow such incisive responses…
    However, imho, the news industry as it stands can’t survive; it must evolve and adapt, and that’s a painful and often a slow process.

    I guess there’s a ‘news saturation’ point for a lot of people (certainly there is for me!) and after you’ve accessed news via the radio, tv, Twitter etc during the morning, would one log onto a news website for more – let alone buy a paper?

    Some stories attract exceptional interest, but look at the Daily Mail; they’ve given up all pretence at a serious website and have made themselves, essentially, a second Heat online. SEO is everything, the reader is nowhere. It’s just tawdry window dressing and it can’t last.

    However, I am optimistic about our prospects as journalists. Newspapers need to throw out ideas about targeting ‘demographs’ or ‘audience sectors’, and instead start participating in conversations.
    Liveblogs of events get more comments in a few hours than the average letters page gets in a week, I bet, and it’s because everyone is involved.

    Journalists need to talk to people, and listen – online and in the real world. You make an excellent point when you say: “We might come into that network somewhere but we’re not at the heart of it”.
    Because I think we assume we should be at the heart of it; that our brand deserves to be there because it’s local, and established, and (of course!) trusted.
    This assumption is a fairly major obstacle to overcome but it’s vital that we do. Otherwise we just get further and further away from people’s conversations, and we will never get to join in.

  4. Dilyan says:

    “Supporting journalism and saving the ‘news industry’ have become two different propositions.”

    Indeed. I, personally, am optimistic for both.

    Journalism will have a much easier time reinventing itself than the industry because people tend to be more willing to risk the future of democracy than risk money.

    The industry will be saved by the fact that it is about money because people tend to be willing to do much more for money than for democracy.

    It’s just they are two different kinds of people. And, undoubtedly, the restructuring of the industry will be more painful on account of the financial aspect.

  5. Interesting to see this discussion from a Journo side, I was talking about this with one of my business colleagues last week after watching this speech from Murdoch

    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/boyerlectures/stories/2008/2397940.htm

    He’s very right when he says one of the problems is that in any other industry, they just adapt to the internet and don’t see it as an “us or them” kind of issue – If you look at any industry which took that approach (for example the music business failing to grasp how it was easier to get illegal downloads than legal ones for too long) its now struggling.

    The value in a newspaper is the relationship it has with its readers – the daily echo online (if you ignore most of the amusing comments) is a centre of authority because of its journalists.

    With the trend towards information overload, that c.o.a. value will increase and ad rates to those places rise. Take off the cost saving from not printing a paper, can it be viable… who knows.

  6. […] It’s always interesting to see the kind of links people follow to get to us – and, I think, important in terms of working out which networks we should be part of and how our audience consumes its news. […]

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