What’s wrong with the @MayorEmanuel story? It’s probably not what you think.

Blindleadingblind

Something has been bothering me since the @MayorEmanuel unmasking happened and I think I’ve finally figured out what it is. 

A clue can be found in the last tweet of that Storify I put together yesterday and just linked to:

Chicago Tweeple: Watch hyperbole. Don’t fall into insider baseball. Did “public” care, even aware of @MayorEmanuel? Still kudos @dansinker

What this hints at is a type of complaint, if one can even call it that, that’s definitely not a new concept. How often have we hear an outcry of “WHY IS THIS NEWS??!!” whether from the aforementioned public or journalists themselves? Let’s just say, often. Right now for instance we’re hearing it a lot about the Charlie Sheen story-slash-trainwreck. And we’ve heard it many times before. Just this morning, Jim DeRogatis took this genre to a new level (or a new low?) 

DeRo was not alone. A local Chicagoan’s informal (and very small sample) poll seemed to confirm the warning in the above quoted tweet.

Another local tweeted that the fact that this is news makes her sad for the people of Libya. Dan Sinker agreed with her.

But wait! The misplaced media attention, if it is indeed misplaced, it technically not what I have a problem with. I fact, that tweet I referenced didn’t say anything about the media, did it? No, it spoke about the “public,” that large swath of readers, viewers and listeners that make up the audience, the consumers of media. I spend a lot of time thinking about these folks so I started thinking about them again, in the context of this story and in a greater sense as well.

Here’s what I came up with. 

News, the stuff that eventually appears in your paper, on your TV, in your magazine, online, on the radio, etc., often gets there via a complex path. But let’s start at the beginning and think about how the idea for a story is first formed.

A story’s genesis can happen in many ways, but basically there will be an external or an internal force at work. An example of an external force is a press release or an event that needs to be covered like a fire or a political debate. Internal forces on the other hand are basically the editorial staff’s own judgment of what they feel is important enough to spend time researching, investigating, devoting resources to, etc. 

This internal impetus to create news is very interesting, because it means reporters have to determine on their own what they think is important to their audience. External forces don’t pose such a dilemma. If a press release comes in about a company’s new product, chances are someone out there cares about this news. Not only does the company itself and their employees likely care, but their stockholders, competitors and customers probably care as well. This news will have an audience. If an event like a fire or a shooting occurs, people who live in the neighborhood will probably be interested in it, people who are concerned with crime in general and people who just like to know what’s happening in their town. This news will also find an audience. When an internal force for creating news is at work though, how can reporters be sure that news will find an audience?

At this point, I believe it’s helpful to drill down internal forces into two further categories: audience-driven news and editorially-driven news. An example of audience-driven news for example is celebrity news. Lindsay Lohan doesn’t send out a press release every time she gets arrested, but for various reasons, it is known that many people find this type of news interesting and it will find an audience. Another example could be something like a gardening or a dating advice column. No one asked for or annouced a need for this information but again, due to various reasons (such as, perhaps, success of similar content elsewhere), news creators know that there will be interest from someone.

On the other side of the coin is editorially-driven news. This is news where reporters and editors technically have no idea whether someone will find it interesting or important. In fact, the suspicion might be that, alas, many people will not find value in it. Yes, I’m talking here about the most exalted (at least among many journalists) category of news: enterprise journalism

Now, everyone knows that newspapers and magazines have a finite amount of space, TV newscasts have a finite amount of time, etc. Let us then consider a breakdown of how much space or time they might devote to each news category.

An imaginary newspaper might do it thusly:

  • 60% from external forces
  • 30% from internal audience-driven forces
  • 10% from internal editorially-driven forces

I can’t profess to be sure whether these percentages mirror reality extremely well or not. I’d say, from my observations it’s pretty sound, but go ahead and tell me if you disagree. If it helps, you can think of it as an even split down the middle. 50% external, 50% internal and of that latter 50%, only about 10-15% is editorially-driven. 

Why is there so little news that’s editorially-driven? Some obvious reasons are that this type of news is the hardest to produce. It can take many months or even years of work. It demands the energies of quite talented journalists, which are somewhat in short supply. It might not be a story that produces easily digestable snippets on a daily basis. So here you might have a reporter or two dedicated to something long-term whose results won’t be seen for quite a while. You expect the impact to be big once the results are published but in the meantime those reporters aren’t free to churn out daily stories on those fires, political events or Lindsay Lohan arrests.

My own feeling is that this type of news is also sometimes seen as difficult to explain and thus not as easily digestable for the reader or viewer. A fire, that’s easy to understand. A more complex topic like TIFs or CDOs? Not so much. That being the case, many news organizations seem to not even be willing to try.

With all of that said, which category does the @MayorEmanuel story fit into? If you guessed internal and audience-driven, you are correct. Now, is there something inherently wrong with these types of stories? No. Do I wish news organizations would devote a larger chunk of that 50% of internally originating news to editorially-driven stories and less of a chunk to audience-driven ones? YES and YES. Why don’t news organizations do it? I’ll address that in the next post.

For now, tell me what you think in the comments. Am I totally wackadoo or does this make some sense to you? I’ll try to incorporate your thoughts into the next post.

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