The currency of news

4 June 2008

It wasn't until I read about the research commissioned by the Associated Press into news consumption (via Martin Stabe's blog) that I realised that hardly anybody has done ethnographic studies of how people deal with news. Other than this study, I can't find anything through Google Scholar that deals with the audience – most of the ethnographic research concentrated on the journalists not on who they are producing the work for.

Media companies make a fair amount of use of focus groups and surveys but those sessions can be very misleading, not least because internal marketing departments structure them to probe behaviour that affect commercial decisions rather than the editorial concerns. The other big problem is that people don't tell the truth about how they read newspapers or magazines. You spend a lot of time watching the sessions or reading the reports trying to infer what the subjects are really thinking. Ethnographic research goes further by trying to compare what people say versus what they do.

It is still flawed. People behave differently with a stranger watching what they are doing - it's a kind of social Heisenberg uncertainty principle. And it's always entertaining to see researchers at conference ripping apart each other over the quality of their ethnography - no-one else's is as good as yours, it seems.

Yet, it seems bizarre that countless academics doing media studies don't seem to study people dealing with media. They prefer, it seems, to concentrate on those producing the stuff. Which is bizarre when you consider that most of the people on the production may not seem to care what the consumers think but have a vested interest in understanding it.

'Newsosaur' Alan Mutter considers the research to be contradictory, partly because Jon Stewart comes off well in some of the individual studies. The report said:

"American respondents in the study noted that the news comedian Jon Stewart could take even the most serious news, spin it and make it palatable."

Neil Postman is not so much spinning in his grave as bouncing around saying: "I told you so."

Mutter worked out from the report:

"...forward-looking news executives would be advised to ensure that future stories report all the latest developments, contain all the facts, provide context, include in-depth explanation, forecast future events and, above all else, are upbeat and funny."

Mutter is a bit unfair on the report. But you have to separate the 71-page document into useful bits and those that are surplus to requirements. The spin at the end on how AP has responded to the findings also tend to cast suspicion on which bits of the research made it into the report.

One glaring example of the dual-purpose nature of the report is the way that one theme pursued in the segments on the research itself suddenly disappear. If you read through the capsules on the study participants and the discussion, one phrase keeps popping up: "social currency". Given that much blogging revolves around the news, this is hardly a surprise. However, the report authors concentrate on the issue of news fatigue and the claimed need for in-depth background among participants.

This is where, I think, the findings are contradictory. I'd love to believe that what readers want is in-depth background on stories. Some of them do. But to concentrate on that as a strategy for a media company is probably going to be commercial suicide unless you have a great new way of getting money for it. People tend to say they believe they want the in-depth stuff but it's tough to get the money for it.

People looking for background on a subject are far less likely to be distracted by ads and other links than when they are grazing for news. Given that many online news sites make their money from ads, it should hardly be a surprise that they will favour producing pages that generate high click-through rates, particularly if the ones that produce poor results are also expensive to produce.

Somewhat unconsciously, news organisations have already embraced the philosophy of news as social currency. I don't mean this in the sense they have spawned blogs but that they are focusing more attention on the stories that get linked to or emailed. Unfortunately for news production it means they are going to spend a lot more time on blokes marrying goats and mice setting fire to houses than substantive stories about the state of the world, except in the developing world where readers seem to prefer news to be important rather than a source of entertainment. At least for the moment.