Tag Archives: news values

Who Should Decide What News Matters?

Back in the old days editors decided what was news. Not advertisers and not readers. There was this concept called “news values.” Full-time professionals laid out the front page. They tried to highlight important political, economic, and social trends, coverage deemed important, rather than celebrities, fashions, nudity, and violence.

This was a long time ago. Back in the 1970s.

Which is not to say that media don’t play to audiences. The original Yellow Journalism was Pulitzer vs. Hearst in the 1890s. And when I was a mainstream journalist, in the 1970s, playing to readers’ baser instincts was already commonplace. Some words in headlinesnaked, violent, brutal, for example–produced better results than others.

Still, the idea was that editors protected news values. They were gatekeepers. So the front page had important news, that people should be reading, rather than sensational news. The idea was embattled, but treasured. Image by B.K. Dewey on Flickr

Today, however: not so much. Nicholas Carlson posting on Silicon Valley Insider proclaims NYT.com Front Page Editors Ignore Reader Clicks, and he’s not writing about how the editors are intrepidly holding out for news values. I’d like to imagine the crusty old editor saying no, resisting the temptation to appeal to audiences’ taste for gossip and sensationalism, insisting on highlighting important news and analysis. But no, this is criticism. He quotes a New York Observer story:

“In terms of minute-to-minute news decisions, I think that would pretty much drive me crazy,” NYTimes.com’s digital news editor Jim Roberts told the Observer.

“I don’t want people to call up NYTimes.com and feel like that they’ve just landed in an environment that is alien to them,” he said. “It isn’t necessarily The New York Times in print, but it needs to reflect the same attitudes and standards.”

He thinks they’re sadly out of date, and, in the background, doomed. He cites the Huffington Post as the example of the right way to do it, by following the clicks. He says editors have to watch the clicks for two reasons:

  1. It’s the main way readers can show what kinds of stories they care about.
  2. The New York Times is a deeply-in-debt, for-profit enterprise that needs to grow its traffic online in order to survive. Web editors should not pretend that it doesn’t matter how many ad impressions the Times serves each day.

I can argue with that first point. Call me old fashioned, elitist maybe, but I’m okay with Jim Roberts’ comment above. I don’t want the National Enquirer to replace the New York Times. I’m happy to think that humans are still guarding news values. Somebody has to. Right?

But how do you argue about that second point there, in the quote above: the money? What if doing news right is an obsolete business model? It could happen. Could? No, it is happening.

Irony: I’m glad to see that the New York Times made a profit in the second quarter of the year,   but I read that news on the Huffington Post. And I don’t subscribe to the New York Times, either; I get it free online.

(Image by B.K. Dewey on Flickr)

Does the News Business Die Along with Newspapers?

In the olden days, when I was a grad student in Journalism, for instance, or a night editor for UPI, the business model of the news business was fairly clear:

  1. News organizations sold advertisements.
  2. They needed news to get readers to be able to sell the ads.
  3. News needed credibility to get the readers.

So we had a news business.

We tend to forget the factor of volume, as related to credibility. Newspapers, and later, television news, had to appeal to a mass audience in order to make a living. That helped us generate a news ethic, such as objectivity — covering the news, trying to keep opinion out of it.

News was never really objective, of course. But there was the goal of objectivity. As journalists, most of us tried to be objective. And when we weren’t being objective and we knew it, we tried to make our bias clear, and label the content something different from news.

“Yellow journalism” was about sensationalizing the news. And it was always a problem, back in those olden days. Some media did it more than others.

News values changed with the growth of television news. The business of selling ads got better with more audience, and the audience liked celebrities, violence, puppies, and things that could fit into 30-second spots.

What we didn’t imagine, back then, was the splintering of the audience into different interest groups; the impact of having 600 channels on the television, and millions of websites. That changed the business entirely, and we — not just the journalists, but the world at large — haven’t figured that out yet.

Specifically, what does that mean? Well, to start with, now you can make a good business being the blatantly conservative television cable news channel, for example. You don’t have to appeal to a cross section; you appeal to a segment. And you can do the same as the blatantly liberal blog/news source.

So what does this mean for news?