no news is not good news

One of the most controversial, as well as compelling, stories of the past year or two has been accelerating again of late: the death of the newspaper/the evolution or revolution of the news industry. A colleague recently sent me a link to the Economist’s take on the topic, which is predictably well thought out. But it’s focussed in the same general place that all the articles are, and it’s a place that’s really only half the problem. The question at the forefront of everybody’s mind seems to be, ‘How can the news industry evolve to keep pace with technology and and an increasingly demanding audience?’ It’s a fair question, no doubt, but I think there’s another one that’s equally important: how can the news industry demonstrate its relevance to a young audience before they grow up and render the industry obsolete? In that Economist article, there’s a quote that illustrates the problem I’m seeing:

Technology has enabled well-informed people to become even better informed but has not broadened the audience for news. The Pew Centre’s most alarming finding, for anybody who works in the trade, is that the share of 18- to 24-year-olds who got no news at all the previous day has risen from 25% to 34% in the past ten years.

…So, by extension, a significant (and growing) segment of young people see no reason to keep up with the news. Socially, this could lead to all other kinds of even scarier stuff – a generation that doesn’t participate in government; an uninformed majority who have little or no ability to contextualise world events. What’s worse: a beleaguered news media struggling to remain commercially viable, or a marginalised news media struggling to attract an audience of any kind?

The quality of news has long been of interest to me, and it’s a regular topic of conversation amongst my circle of friends. We mostly agree that over the past few years, there’s been a real decline in the quality of reporting in London newspapers. A few of us (well, 2 that I know of, including myself) think the only papers that are still consistently worth reading are the New York Times and the Financial Times. This isn’t because we are aligning ourselves with any particular culture or ideology, but because the quality of these papers’ editing and writing is dependable, and they regularly bring us interesting stories that we would not have known to seek out. Online, we also consult a broad array of other sources, including broadcasters, major newspapers and individual blogs from all over the world – the beauty of the internet is that it can provide a broader context for a story, and a more complete picture, through the sheer volume and diversity of people writing about it. But bloggers are no substitute for traditional news sources, nor should they be seen that way. Bloggers are under no ethical obligation to report the truth as objectively as possible; that’s the opposite of the point. Bloggers are great commentators, and commentary is important, but commentary isn’t the news.

But I digress. Back to my point. Because I’m a big-picture kind of a girl, I’m also interested in the relationships between the quality/quantity/accessibility of news and larger social/sociological trends. This is the level on which it’s really scary that the appetite for news is dwindling. I bring up the London papers because I think they show what an increasing number of people do have an appetite for, in lieu of news: salacious celebrity gossip, endless photos of who’s wearing what, and doing what, and drinking what, with whom, and where and when; inflammatory headlines that often misrepresent the body of the story; lazy and wildly inaccurate reporting; the salaries and home values of private citizens who appear in stories, when that information is in no way relevant; political kneejerking and panicmongering without the substance of the law, cabals and motivations behind it. This is what makes the papers, because this is what sells the papers. Which means that this is what most people want to read. One recent exception is the (mostly) excellent coverage of the British Parliament’s expenses debacle, which The Man and I cynically joked is because it’s exactly the kind of story tabloids love. It’s got it all: money, deception, criminal activity, cruel injustice, and public figures behaving scandalously badly. How could it not be great?

But seriously, I don’t want to paint a picture that all is lost here. There is good reporting, there really is – and there are news outlets that care a great deal about their public responsibility as well as their bottom line. I just can’t help but think that it’s getting rarer.

So what about these young people who don’t read any kind of news at all. Why don’t they? I think this is an interesting area for the industry to focus a bit – particularly publicly funded players like the BBC. Thinking back to when I was in my teens, not many of my friends read the paper. Those who did, did so because their parents (usually Dad) made it part of their daily routine. At first, this was seen as a chore; in time it became ingrained. By the time they left to go to University and out into the world, these were the people who didn’t feel right if they didn’t get their daily news fix. I was not one of them.

I was interested in things long past (I considered studying Archaeology or Anthropology, and Indiana Jones was my idol when I was 8), or arcane questions (like the roots of the similarities of folkloric and mythological tales across totally disparate cultures), or things I saw as non-news-related (languages, how they work, who speaks them, how and why), and I was interested in the Arts. None of these things led me naturally to a newspaper. It wasn’t until I started digging in to History and Anthropology at University, seeing the connectedness of events and trends across great temporal and geographical distances, that I started seeking out the news for more information. Once I started, I found it addictive – and I particularly appreciated journalists who referenced the background history of the events on which they were reporting, so that I could further investigate and seek out relationships if I wanted to.

What I’m trying to say, in a pretty long-winded way (but hey, it’s my blog and I can ramble if I want to), is that the news doesn’t necessarily appear automatically relevant to young people – it requires context and discussion, a connection to their personal lives and interests. That connection used to come from families and from education – if our educational system isn’t up to that level anymore, and if families are passing on a lack of interest instead, then something has to fill the gap, and I think there are news institutions who are well equipped to do so. For example, the BBC has a remit to address everyone in Britain with their products and services, and a few years ago they appointed a head of Teen stuff (I can’t remember the job title offhand) – surely this is one of the challenges they should be tackling. There’s no shortage of stories in the UK at the moment that are relevant to young people, even to people under 18. Just one example: the government is launching a database that holds detailed information about every child in the UK, to be kept until the child turns 18. Ostensibly, this is to keep children safe, but 390,000 people will have access to this database and the UK government’s track record for data security is questionable at best. There has been the kind of sh*tstorm one would expect around the whole endeavour, too – it’s been in and out of the news for ages. So how do kids feel about this? I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone does. I’m not sure most kids even know about this. Don’t you think they should? I do.

And once these kids turn 18, what happens to the data? None of the articles I’ve read are clear about that. Do the records simply get deleted? Doubtful. Surely, young people have an interest in knowing the answers to these questions. There are many other examples of stories that have direct relevance to teenagers and young professionals – suggestions for new taxes and legislation on various foods and beverages; taxes and surcharges on travel of all kinds; a crumbling healthcare system (surely relevant to young women thinking about having children) and a welfare system that’s way too easy to abuse (surely also of interest to young people who don’t earn much and pay a lot in taxes)… even a DNA database containing genetic information on UK citizens, including those who have never been charged with any crime (!). These stories have direct relevance to everyone in the country, regardless of age. The news reports on these things so that the people can respond to them – but if people don’t read the news, they won’t respond. The habit of personal newsgathering needs to be supported and nurtured in order for a new generation of audiences to grow, and thus it’s something the news industry should take a real interest in.

News has got its work cut out for it in the next few years, and I agree with the Economist that it is likely to emerge as a very different kind of beast. But I think the question isn’t just about technology and commercial success – or rather, both of these things contribute to a third thing that’s far more vital: perceived value. Interest. Demand. If the news industry doesn’t start addressing this underlying factor, their success or failure in selecting and applying technologies won’t matter much at all.