More and more people are listening to the news – but probably not for the reason you think
Nobody likes journalists.
This all rings true. But journalism and journalists are not the main villains. The real problem is not the news itself, but the way our society consumes it – and the danger it poses is not just for the news industry itself, but for all our society as it becomes less informed about the critical issues of the day.
A report by Axios published last week shows that time spent on all forms of news content has “dropped” in the first half of this year. Many readers and viewers simply give up. According to a Reuters studythey find the news overwhelming and hard to follow.
But — and it’s no secret — the news has always been bad.
The New York Times recently revisited crises and disasters of the past decades to argue that, in many ways, today is actually better than yesterday.
The course of human events – and the news stories about them – have generally been something less than an optimist’s paradise. What has really changed is how people learn about these events.
News has always been neatly presented to consumers in one way or another. A physical newspaper is a bundle, a set number of pages with a set number of articles. The most important news is on the front page and becomes less urgent as readers scroll through the day’s edition. The network’s evening newscasts — where the stories are actually called “packages” — wrap up everything a viewer needs to know in 22 minutes.
This packaging is a kind of artifice, the way journalism tries to create for its consumers a sense of order in a random world. Network newscasts always end with an uplifting personal feature; newspapers have entire sections devoted to sports and the arts. This produces a neat and orderly portrait of the variety of life. “And so it is,” said Walter Cronkite in his Approve every night on CBS. His viewers agreed.
In their place is a growing hodgepodge of headlines, updates, notifications and tweets on smartphones and tablets, with no further updates or notifications to come moments later. It is a “no wrapper” news environment, which makes it difficult for consumers to develop a complete political, national or global picture.
Cable channels are one of the culprits. The 24/7 stream of programming hits viewers like a factoid-laden stream of consciousness. The need to keep an audience engaged throughout the day means that every breaking news story is treated with equal importance and urgency. Constant live footage and analysis fills time cheaply and instantly, but doesn’t allow journalists the breathing room needed to develop authentic context or perspective on a particular story or development.
As a result, TV news is now second in America the least reliable institution, just after the Congress.
But the real villain is an entity that has admittedly become everyone’s favorite punching bag: social media. Most people don’t subscribe to a newspaper, even digitally. According to a studyreaders say the cost isn’t worth it when so much news is available for free.
In many cases, “free” means social media: Facebook friend shares, short videos on Tik Tok, time spent on Twitter. These apps spread alleged information like rice at a wedding – they hit both the people looking for it and not. It comes from legitimate sources of information and from illegitimate or unknown sources. It can look like real news or a home video. A consumer may try to figure it out or just give up.
Readers and viewers would benefit from a return to easily accessible packaging from reliable, free sources of information. NBC Nightly News is available nightly on You Tube, where it achieved nearly 600,000 viewers, many of whom are in YouTube’s younger, more male demographic. Other newscasts should try this. The networks all have free streaming news services, but they can be hard to find. Promoting these outlets more – and making them more visible – would help.
And, in a drastic move, perhaps national newspapers could rethink their approach to high-priced subscriptions. Internet superpowers like Netflix are turning to lower cost ad-based format to appeal to people put off by rising subscription prices. But meanwhile, some online media seem to downplay digital advertising and focus primarily on subscribers. Digital ads can be a tough, slow-growing business. Yet, it is possible to change the dynamic if more resources and creativity were devoted to this model instead of subscriptions.
Something has to change. Right now, audiences – dazed and confused by contemporary news delivery systems – walk away.
The past few years have shown how dangerous it is to be misinformed in a democracy.
Living without being informed is no better.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former Executive Vice President of Programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was news director for NBC, writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.