Leaving The Bad News Trail
You can understand sometimes why people think old, mainstream media don’t get it. As journalists we’re trained to really cover bad news. It’s a cliche, but it’s true, though up until recently only born-again types or folk with dandelions in their ears would say it: The way traditional media covers society is deeply skewed towards the bad. Take this RSS feed from the BBC UK news website:
Admittedly, this was taken from a feed designed for Northampton, UK, readers (don’t ask why I subscribed to that particular feed. I guess I got nostalgic for a second.) And yes, this might actually tell us more about the Midlands than we’d like to know. But it strikes me as very distorted to have the last 12 new stories about death, robberies, fires and drugs. How reflective is that of society?
Until recently this question would be one of those which would elicit a response of shoulder-shrugging, and then some old hack like me would pipe up about how, yes, it would be lovely to write about nice stuff, but try getting that into the paper. The way newsrooms work is that bad stuff sells.
But things have changed. The newsroom has gone. Well, not gone, but it’s under threat, not so much from citizen journalism, which always struck me as a bit of an oxymoron, but from bloggers. We write about stuff that interests us, and people read us. Or not. But we aren’t governed by any particular agenda, and we have no heavy-breathing editor looking over our shoulder and telling us to sexy the lede up a bit. Or that our story will be spiked because no one died/cares/took their clothes off/was arrested/is famous enough/is American.
Why is this? Well there’s no doubt that scandal and strife sell. But the filtering process starts very early on; any journalist worth their salt will quickly develop a sense of what a story is, and will be composing the lede in their head even before the event has happened. If they’re really good, and have a good editor and broad enough brief, they might be able to write a positive story — a good guy does a good thing, a company turns itself around, a community grows — but the chances of that getting in the paper are slim alongside the opposite kind of story — a good guy goes bad, a company hits the skids, a community dies. Those latter stories need telling, of course, but as the BBC feed above shows, they tend to be the only stories that get told. Especially, ironically, when budgets get cut.
I don’t think that blogging is going to be as big next year as it is this year, in the sense that the number of people blogging will probably tail off. But there will be no shortage of readers, and commenters, for the simple reason that bloggers write about stuff the old media has long ignored. Old media thinks it’s learning this lesson by bringing the community into the news gathering process, by taking their photos, their writing, their videos, their comments. I’m not sure that’s right.
At least I don’t think it’s the only part of this. Old media should look for a way of using its reporting strengths and resources and tell those stories themselves: devote time and effort to finding stories that reflect the community, the good parts and not just the bad parts. They’re harder stories to tell and they run against the grain of every newsroom lesson we’ve learned, but if we’re serious about connecting to the communities around us, we need to understand them better. And that means taking the good with the bad.