I attend a lot of conferences where newsmen (yes I know it’s an outmoded, sexist term, but that’s the kind of industry we’re in) wring their hands about the future of their profession.
Or rather the lack of it.
And loyal readers of this column will know I tend to throw my hands up in the air at such discussions rather than wring them. Because these discussions never tackle the central issues of their industry.
One of them is this: What exactly is news? Or more precisely, what is the product that people are buying—even if they’re not paying for it—when they read your paper, your website, listen to your broadcast or listen to your news bulletin?
There are lots of angles to the answer to this. I’ve only got space to address one of them here.
That is: Are people looking for information, or the absence of it?
Let’s face it: Most of us don’t watch the evening news to catch up on the situation in Haiti. We don’t watch on the off-chance they’ll do something on President Obama, or a cute piece about a donkey making friends with a goldfish.
We watch because we need to know what the big brains at the BBC, or CNN, or our local news channel think are the top stories. That enough is obvious.
But why? Why is it important to us what someone else thinks are the main stories of the day?
Well, first off, it’s because if something really big has happened then we want to know about it. 9/11, tsunami, a culture-changing event, or even a big local event that we haven’t already heard about.
That’s good. Important. Significant. Editors will be happy: They spend a lot of time deciding what the main stories are and how to tell them.
But buried in that data—the data of news—is more important information: the absence of news.
We watch, read, scan and listen to news sources not only to discover information, but to discover, or confirm, the absence of information: the absence of news. Non-news.
We need to know, in other words, what isn’t happening because that way we can be sure that we’re safe. That we’re not about to be swallowed up by a tsunami, or a rate cut, or a virus.
Call it the power of non-news.
Comics like Seinfeld and George Carlin understand this. The joke usually involves the question: When would a newspaper/TV or radio station admit there’s nothing exciting happening and say: “We’re not putting out a paper/bulletin today. Nothing going on folks. Relax.”?
Not going to happen, because a) there’s space to fill next to the ads and b) journalists never think there’s nothing to say. We’ve always got plenty to say. Slow news days are great because then we get to write the pieces we want to write. Our stories. Which are usually so obscure only our mothers will remember them.
And this is the point. For those people outside the profession of news, the absence of news is actually, to them, news. Having the lead item on the news the airlifting of a donkey out of fire strewn mountains in Crete is the equivalent of saying to listeners/viewers/readers: “Nothing going on here folks. Take the rest of the day off.”
Except if you’re the donkey, of course.
In other words, non-news is good news. But it’s still news to most people.
This may sound obvious, but it’s not to most people in the profession. They are news junkies. And they think everyone else is. They think everyone wants to read news, however petty and parochial it is. Something big comes along, everyone wants to read it. Naturally. But if nothing happens, they still think everyone wants to read a second or third rate story, or some feature that’s been sitting in a drawer. That these are going to be just as compelling.
Well, they’re not. The power of news, for most people, is that it tells us what isn’t happening. No big crisis, no need to ship the kids down to the nuclear shelter, no need to line up to get shots. The power of news is, in short, the power of non news.
Understand that and we’re half way to figuring out what news people might be willing to pay for.
Remember you read it here first.