How to manage Audience Appetite and Quality Journalism?

May 8, 2011
How to balance audience engagement and quality journalism in the age of sensationalism and lowbrow content?
It's common to hear criticism that the media indulges in excesses, such as displaying too much violence or nudity, or airing zero IQ programs. However, few realize their own participation in the process when they choose programming that includes these elements. How can we produce quality investigative journalism while meeting the real-world need for audience engagement?
The editor of a small but influential newspaper with a strong background in American investigative journalism, Voice of San Diego, gave an interview to the Poynter Institute. He mentioned that the evaluation process for investigative stories has been revised, taking into account the audience needs imposed by those who finance newspapers, the commercial department.
The fact is, the old discourse of journalists as society's watchdogs has been sidelined. There are few (if any) media outlets willing to risk audience losses by focusing on relevant coverage of politics, finance, or corruption, while the public avidly follows deadbrain content programs and subgenres. If even prominent journalists working in large networks publicly admit to enjoying lowbrow television to avoid displeasing their bosses, how can we expect a population increasingly less inclined to think to raise their awareness?
American sites like ProPublica are dedicated solely to this "utilitarian" journalism. Non-philanthropic English outlets like The Guardian and the BBC, or mixed outlets like PBS, struggle to finance the function for which they were initially created. As journalist Clay Shirky pointed out in an article I've previously discussed on this blog, society needs to start thinking about how to finance this type of activity. This is a moment when the State needs to intervene to stimulate society in this sense - but not by spending money to create a self-sufficient entity pretending to provide a public service. Remember: every time you watch Big Brother or click on a frivolous story on the Internet, ignoring things you need to know, you are jeopardizing your future. And it's no use denying it - at some point, you will pay the price.
In the last decade or a little bit more, everything the world knew about communication proved to be wrong. Newspapers were brought down to Earth when they found out that the relevance they had was due to their monopolies of the distribution channels much more than from the quality of the “journalism” they produced.
The content (a hated world among journalists because of the reality shock it provides) their channels carried was a much less decisive choice factor than the easiness that the home delivery represented. Now that the delivery networks migrated elsewhere, publishers, writers and other content-related professionals are lost in a mixture of denial and impotence, trying to get back the relevance they had. This delusional state seems to have no date to end, and therefore, possible solutions to the current stalemate should take more time to show up. Content is not king, and probably it has never been, but there is still a job for it to do.
Other than the objective question of overvaluing the journalism production, there is also an observation regarding how the whole system works today. Because of the way how the money flows, the most common benchmarks are ineffective for us to check if the engine is running smoothly.
Social media has worsened the situation a lot. With well-done pitches done by the marketing and PR departments of the companies themselves, we have spent the most of the last decade waiting for the Holy Graal to land in our message box, for a moment where dead revenues would come back to make the pie grow again. In a word, we - journalists - have been cheated and the painful conclusion is that we immensely facilitated the Ponzi scheme where we drown ourselves.
Content (the offensive word again) lived a long time being the star of the system because we were looking at it the wrong way. The focus is not on what is good or not. If this were true, the newspaper graveyard would be much emptier. The process where people consume text, audio or video has always been behavioural from the early years of journalism not long after Gutenberg created the movable type and onwards.
The process always had a sociological footprint, much more than individual ingestion of knowledge, where sophisticated audiences enjoyed the artistic craft of journalism. Newspapers were part of the social matter where communities grew, but the VIP place and exposition they had were not proof of importance, but a consequence of a specific behaviour, just like anything human.
The sudden wipeout of the former delivery traditional channels and the development of an infinite supply of content gave to our generation the opportunity to see how much people care about what they consume - nothing. The current audiences are not more or less stupid than the previous. They have merely been stripped of their masks and now are naked preferring to eat tasty garbage instead of healthy organic food.
If we accept it as a fact, it is easier to see that the bet in “quality content” (one of the most egotistical expressions ever) is lost from the start. People will read, watch or listen to anything if it is appropriately placed inside the habits of a specific group of people that share a common demographic profile. Netflix noticed it and is showing awful and cheap movies and series because it knows that its users will eat the whole lot alongside the great stuff they have. It seems that it’s more or less like TV from 1950 and onwards. Anything aired on a particular time would hit the masses as a bomb. There is so much money involved that any investment is feasible. CBS could afford to have Walter Cronkite, but the truth is that anyone not very stupid at the same place would be watched almost as much.
What does this brings us now? Well, first that we should drop the search for “quality” and start to imagine how we can inform adequately, independent of anything else. Out there, waiting, there is a new model of information diet that works for both the sender and receiver ends and that society is willing to pay. The adaptations of the digital realm to the previous reality have been severe, but the fact we don’t see it doesn’t mean they’re not there. Instead, everyone is still making the same question, hoping to hear a different answer (which is quite close to the definition of insanity).
The problem, though, comes back to the acknowledgement of the death of the journalism-as-we-one-knew-it. The most relevant news brands will not disappear either because they can generate enough revenue in the legacy pre-digital model or because they will belong to players with enough money to keep them within another business context (Google, Amazon et al). They can mobilise and attract capital and talent because they offer a decent safety for investments (both material and human) However, they’re the 1% of the 1%. The society needs to pave the way for new information entities to materialise. It won’t be like NYT or The Economist. It has to be different.
The insistence on highlighting “different” here is not my bad writing. It’s the real deal. We should no longer plan how newsrooms can work better costing less because we need to drop newsrooms as we know it. We need to drop news and photo agencies, Facebook Live videos, Twitter Moments and any other well-marketed initiative that has no foot down on the reality mud. We must get rid of everything we know to start anew. We know that we don’t know what is out there waiting for us, but anyone minimally sane would understand which is not the way, and there lies the problem. We’re milking a cow expecting a cup of coffee to come out.
We know very little, but there are a couple of useful  things. We have extensive data, more than we had in all of humanity’s history put together, about how people live. The fancy tech products that the tech giants want us to use please their business models, not ours, but they have gold as well. Google, Apple and Facebook combined can paint a creepy-precise-high-resolution picture of people in most of the Western countries react. This is far more important than any trendy product that the tech-influencer-journalists may have pitched into your timelines at any given day. The new journalism won’t come out from any VC money into a random posh start-up but from the guts of the big data wells located in data centres around the world. Content is far less important than behaviour. If we want to talk about keeping people informed, we should reach them in a language they understand, on their own terms, time and places.
At this point, it’s pretty possible that you are waiting for me to tell that we should focus on social media. You’re just partially right. Social media is not the answer to anything other than their (legal) owners. People are finding out that there is a high price to pay for the “free” service provided by the silicon empires. They are part of this “new journalism” equation, sure, because people still spend ages on it, but the fables said to publishers that the Holy Graal used in the Last Supper is hidden behind a “Like” button are gone. No serious, comprehensive business model can be based on social breadcrumbs, but they still can’t be written off.
A great deal of the size of their journalism pie slice depends on how much they are available to share information on data consumption openly, but it is very likely that they won’t do it unless they’re forced to. Then, look at the 10-letter-word that corporations fear most is badly needed: regulation (read the previous post for more).
In practical terms, what does it’s all about, then? It means that the message transmission process needs to be split to go smoothly. Information need not be transmitted in one go, but in many, with most of it embedded in different actions. The time when media was a room of the house is gone. It needs to be the whole place and no place at all at the same time. If publications and journalists want to leave their mark, they will have to be part of the daily lives of the audience. Moreover, yes, there is a catch because this ubiquity, for technical reasons is still a privilege of few (that will change soon if professor Clayton Christensen
is right about modularity). There is still a technology divide blocking journalists (or information handlers in any way) and companies because not many can have apps, sites or the paraphernalia that the PR people convinced everyone should have.
The word “multimedia” is old, almost outdated, but it is an invitation to build the future. Journalists now need to embrace the “multi” part, more than the “media” one. Programmers, lawyers, designers, hackers, whistleblowers, writers, photographers, data visualisation and IT professionals are just some of the complex mosaic of the new information service yet to be developed. Also, most of all, revenue people, the guys who will make the wheel turn. Experiences with blockchain, NLP, AI and other systems that are hitting the floor now need to be inside the research room.
All this is the easy part of the job. By far, the easiest of all. That’s because we are talking here of democracies with middle class heavy enough to be able to have time to consume curated information. But this is not the case in most of Africa, a good share of Asia and countless countries more (actually, no more than a dozen of them). This is also why almost all the debate waging around Trump, Brexit and Marine Le Pen seems almost a luxury. This is why the solutions proposed by almost all the media “influencers” of the Western world are nothing but a deep-dive in the belly button of an opulent, alienated and egotistical intellectual élite member that does not have an idea of what is really going on for most people in the world. Journalists need to be among people again, commute in packed trains and buses, be in the square when police arrive and understand that people that do not agree aren’t enemies - they are the audience that needs to be won. There will nor be miracles. There will not be magic. Only work, vast, gigantic loads of it, and most of it is dirty. Such a challenge, huh?

© Cassiano Gobbet 2023 - 2024