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Feb. 18, 2009, 4:59 p.m.

Lab Book Club: The system’s to blame for the loss of hard news

[For Chapters 5 and 6 of this month’s Nieman Journalism Lab Book Club selection, we turn to Lisa Williams of Placeblogger fame. For more info on the Book Club, check here. —Ed.]

Who’s to blame for the scourge of soft news: men, women, or the system?

The list of people, trends, and things responsible for the death of hard news is so long that it would take the entire cast of CSI a week to process them — women who want celebrity fluff; tuned-out young folk who are stuck on Facebook and text messaging; the moneyed few who manage the industry; Congress; Craig Newmark; the Internet; TiVo. But the leading suspect? Women.

James Hamilton’s discussion of local news in All The News That’s Fit To Sell opens with a commonplace — if a local station is trying to appeal to women, they’ll feature soft news.

That’s right, it’s all our fault.

Hamilton uses magazine subscriptions as a proxy for audience interests — Modern Maturity for those over fifty, People to represent the general appetite for Brangelina. “Soft news coverage is lower in areas with higher circulation of Playboy, which may be because soft news is generally targeted at female viewers, and higher Playboy circulations may represent more young males in a market.”

But wait a minute. Can we really tell from Hamilton’s analysis whether or not the desire to attract women or men to a local news broadcast really tilts the news in favor of the soft and fluffy? Nope.

Why? Because although the percentage of a newscast that features celebrity news might vary, one thing is fixed: every local news broadcast will have a segment devoted to sports. A program director’s interest in getting the distaff side of the house to sit down and watch the news may vary — but sports? The sports segment is forever.

Is this included in Hamilton’s analysis of what represents “soft” news, or do the tables of figures represent the newscast’s content without sports? There’s no indication of this, so we can’t tell.

In either case, you’ll be glad to hear that it seems that neither men or women are ruining the newscast with fluff — the consolidation of the media into large chains is doing it for us: “Stations owned by a company with more than one broadcast station are less likely to provide hard news. Programs on group-owned stations provided 4.19 fewer hard news stories [per broadcast].”

What shapes the news, Hamilton points out in nearly every chapter of the book, is the shape of the market. And consumer preference is only one factor shaping a market, and it’s not even the biggest one. Technology, regulation, and the level of consolidation are bigger factors in laying down the template for the news.

Take, for example, technology’s impact on whether the newshole is fixed or not. Hamilton takes a look at local news as delivered by newspapers, too, and comes to the not-too-surprising conclusion that yes, they’ve got more hard news in them.

Hamilton refrains from coming to many resounding conclusions in either his discussions of local or national broadcast news.

My read of what he’s presented is this: You can’t blame people — men, women, old, young — for the collapse of hard news. And you can’t even blame the people who are obsessively watching ratings and putting together the programming to attract (pander to?) those same people.

All those are just symptoms. The bigger factors at work rule the day — consolidation, competition, regulation/deregulation, and format.

So let’s take a look at each.

Does competition make for better news? It does — but only when you respond to competition by narrowing your topical focus and your target audience. Even after cable, TV stations still wanted to reach mass audiences, and so the result was very often a dumbed-down product.

Does deregulation make for better news? This one’s a wash. Regulation did make for more hard news — but only when there was little competition to start with, as in the days before cable when broadcasters had to justify their monopoly on the spectrum with public-service programming. Deregulation that allowed media companies to create chains had no such effect.

Does the flexibility of the format create better news? There seems to be little downside to a more flexible format; newspapers are more likely to go deep on a subject as they’re not worried about losing readers because readers can skip over to another page where they’ve featured something of abiding popular interest. The more flexible the format, the easier it is to go deeper on a subject. As the Internet shows, though, we have choices on what we want to do a deep dive on. The net can bring us Talking Points Memo — and it will also bring us TMZ and, my favorite, Television Without Pity. In a sense, the flexibility and obsessive depth that the net affords us may even give us a way to be smart about the stupid fluff of our choice, be it Battlestar Galactica or Gossip Girl.

Most of the research in Hamilton’s book comes from snapshots of broadcast and print coverage that’s nearly ten years old. But the lessons of the book leave us with an interesting starting point on how news organizations can succeed or fail in response to the challenge posed by the internet.

News outlets could respond to the “infinite channels” offered by the web by trying, as newscasts did in response to cable news, to be all things to all people — a strategy which cannot and will not make them any smarter or more incisive. Or they could respond by re-evaluating what’s important and choosing to be the best at something focused, and letting those feed and shape general purpose news. The web rewards “narrow comprehensiveness” — that is, everything about something. Excellence on the web is about picking the right something — and then committing to really being “everything” about it.

Lisa Williams runs Placeblogger, a searchable index of the world’s local weblogs. You can follow her on Twitter, where she’s @lisawilliams.

POSTED     Feb. 18, 2009, 4:59 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Lab Book Club: Jay Hamilton
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