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Paying more attention to the public

“The year ahead might bring news organizations that will pay more attention to the public. While that might be good for their bottom lines, it might also be bad for the quality of our democratic life.”

What might 2014 bring for the world of news? Lacking a crystal ball, we can look forward by making sense of the year that is coming to a close. This analysis — and not wide-eyed wishes — helps us think critically about the future.

pablo-boczkowskiIn my opinion, two major events marked 2013 for news and journalism. The first was the sale of The Boston Globe by The New York Times Company to sports mogul John Henry for $70 million in cash. The Times had acquired the Globe for $1.1 billion in 1993, “the highest ever [price paid] for an American newspaper” until then, according to a story in The New York Times.

That’s a loss of 93 percent value in absolute terms in just 20 years. A more accurate calculation taking into account consumer price index increases reveals that the Times lost 96 cents on the dollar with this investment. (To put things in financial perspective, the Dow Jones Industrial Average more than quadrupled during this period. And this calculation doesn’t even take into account the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, which was purchased separately for $295 million but included in the $70 million sales price.)

This staggering loss of value is a parable of the failure of established news organizations to take advantage of the opportunities that arose during the first couple of decades of the digital age. If the Globe were located in an economically depressed part of the country, one might be able to argue that the loss could be due to local economic factors. But Boston is a hub of innovation in biotechnology and information technology, two of the main engines of economic growth in recent history.

Purchased at top price and with great fanfare at the time Mosaic was paving the way for more sophisticated graphical user interfaces and the commercialization of the then-nascent World Wide Web was about to explode, the sale of the Globe is resounding evidence that these news organizations are not among the winners of the first decades of the digital age.

Among those winners, however, there is eBay, the online auction giant. Its founder, Pierre Omidyar, became a lead character in the second event that marked 2013 for the world of news when he announced this fall his decision to invest $250 million in the creation of a new media venture with Glenn Greenwald as the front person.

For me, what makes this development so noteworthy in the context of what 2014 might bring is the way in which it was received by the news industry. Article after article, media analysts greeted the news with hyped expectations and an uncritical tone. For an occupation that is proud of its skeptical attitude, this reception is quite paradoxical. For instance, in case the reader would not go beyond the first scroll and the headline did not make the author’s take clear, the lede in a Columbia Journalism Review article headlined “The Extraordinary Promise of the new Greenwald + Omidyar Venture,” states “Adversarial muckrakers + civic-minded billionaire = a whole new world.”

When I started researching online news back in the mid-1990s, there was talk of the “new economy.” We know how that went. It now seems the economy is not enough and we got ourselves a “whole new world.”

Resorting to a saving development or a killer app has been a common pattern for news organizations since the dawn of the digital age. (Remember when Rupert Murdoch declared the iPad the vehicle to reinvent newspapers — only to close The Daily less than two years after its launch, tired of bleeding millions?)

What is so telling about the reception of the Omidyar/Greenwald venture is the sad yet implicit recognition that market dynamics will not support public service journalism to the extent that we got used to during the twentieth century. Surely $250 million will go a long way, and I personally look forward to reading the coverage that will come of out this new venture. But nonmarket solutions will not scale up to generate a new “golden era” of journalism that is comprehensive and local enough for a country as vast and complex as the United States.

An attempt to scale it up might not be socially desirable anyway: With so many systemic problems in this country and the world that remain chronic under current market dynamics (infant mortality, disease prevention, global warming, and so on), what is the ethical justification for investing a growing portion of philanthropic resources in the news?

So if 2013 has brought us two powerful reminders of the market failures of high quality and public-service journalism in the digital age, then what might we expect for 2014? Economically strapped and disheartened after years of losing ground, leading news organizations might finally begin paying more attention to what the public does and deliver services and products to meet it where it is at. But what is it that the public wants and what will be the consequences of catering to their preferences?

An analysis of more than 50,000 stories from 20 leading news sites in seven different countries shows two clear and consistent patterns of information preferences among the public: a lower level of interest in public affairs news in comparison to what the media consider newsworthy, and the prevalence of tried-and-true storytelling formats.

A contrast between the most newsworthy stories (those that make it to the top of a site’s homepage) and the most viewed stories on each of these sites reveals a gap of almost 20 percentage points across sites, with journalists highlighting substantially more public affairs news than the stories that the audience clicks most often.

For the final assignment of this fall’s undergraduate seminar in the sociology of online news at Northwestern University, I asked my students to undertake an analysis of the media’s and the public’s preferences on two sites of their choosing over a three-day period. When we debriefed their findings, there was a recurrent two-word answer: Paul Walker.

This divergence in the information preferences of the media and the public is not new. Over the past several decades, journalists, consultants, and academics have championed a number of storytelling solutions to overcome this divergence, from softening the news to turning the public into co-producers of content.

But what does the public want? The answer is again two words: straight news. A concise and straightforward rendition of the main facts is the format of the majority of the most popular stories in the sample, with feature-style storytelling coming in a distant second place.

What about the appeal of the harbingers of the brave new world of the Web 2.0? Virtually nonexistent. One in 100 of the stories placed at the top of the homepage were contributed by users. That’s not a lot in absolute terms, but it is ten times greater than the interest of the public in the stories contributed by their fellow readers: only one in 1,000 of the most popular stories were user-generated content.

Endeavors like CNN’s iReport might seem an attractive way for news organizations to appear cutting edge, but the public does not gravitate towards them.

Would giving the public more of what they want and less of what they need in order to function as informed members of the citizenry be good for society at large? Increasing the proportion of brief straight news stories and decreasing the resources devoted to soft news, longform reportage, blogs, and user-generated content will not likely have negative societal consequences.

But a substantive decrease in the provision of public affairs reportage might. Public deliberation and political participation benefit from the supply of a steady and generous dose of public affairs news. Sometimes what we want is not what is necessarily good for us.

Junk food might satiate our appetite, but is bad for our health. Stuffing our news diet with sports, weather, crime, and entertainment stories might give us engaging topics of conversation, while also having negative effects on the health of our body politic. But when the market talks loud and clear while profits decline, it might be really hard not to hear.

In sum, the year ahead might bring news organizations that will pay more attention to the public. While that might be good for their bottom lines, it might also be bad for the quality of our democratic life.

Pablo Boczkowski is professor and director of the Program in Media, Technology and Society at Northwestern University, and author of three books on online journalism, most recently The News Gap: When the Information Preferences of the Media and the Public Diverge (with Eugenia Mitchelstein).

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20